U by Uniworld learns the challenges of marketing to millennials

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The B, one of two U by Uniworld ships, on a preview cruise out of Paris in 2017.
The B, one of two U by Uniworld ships, on a preview cruise out of Paris in 2017.

As U by Uniworld prepares to sail its first revenue cruises, the line is no longer restricted to 21- to 45-year-olds. Last month's decision to open sales to all adults highlights how hard it can be for travel companies to crack the millennial market.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy, a travel agency owner who runs the sites Cruisemaven.com and Guidetorivercruising.com, suggested that there were several reasons the generation is hard to target.

"Keep in mind the average spending habits of millennials and the amount of debt that many of them carry," said Kennedy, who also produces a river cruise podcast. "Even though it may sound like a bargain -- $2,100 per person for a U by Uniworld Seine river cruise sounds pretty good to me when compared to a boomer-preferred river cruise experience -- it's not a bargain to millennials."

Kennedy estimated the per-person cost for a U by Uniworld cruise, plus air and additional expenses, would come to about $3,500. She said she asked her two millennial daughters what they would do if someone offered them that amount of money to take a vacation: Would they choose a river cruise in Europe? Both responded that they would go to Europe without hesitation but would rather visit Paris, London and Rome in a week on their own or with a few friends than do a river cruise with a set daily schedule.

"I think river cruise lines need to market to the real next generation of river cruisers, the 35- to 50-plus-year-olds, not jump over that demographic and go after the millennials," she said.

U by Uniworld was unveiled in late 2016 by the higher-priced luxury line Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. It was initially pitched as a brand for guests ages 18 to 40. But by April 2017, when U cruises went on sale, Uniworld had changed the age range to 21 to 45.

Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge said last month that while the age restriction has now been lifted, she still expects to see a younger demographic onboard.

"Removing the hard age restriction was made based on feedback and consumer demand," Bettridge said. "We learned that the experience is less about a number and more about attracting a new generation of adult travelers who share a similar mindset and travel preferences to river cruising. Since we are not changing the product or the way we market it, we expect the onboard demographic to remain mostly unchanged."

A lower-priced option to Uniworld's main product line, U will feature cocktail mixologists and silent disco parties onboard plus excursions such as sea kayaking, blokarting (like windsurfing but on wheels), pub crawls and quirky walking tours. To allow for lower pricing and greater freedom, there are also fewer included meals and shore excursions, and the ships will stay longer in ports, including some overnights, so passengers can experience the nightlife in various cities.

Uniworld repurposed two of its older vessels for the new line. The River Ambassador and the River Baroness are now the A and the B, all-black ships outfitted with more boutique hotel-style finishings, such as communal dining tables. They will begin sailing Europe's Rhine, Danube and Seine rivers this month. U by Uniworld also said last month that its next vessel will sail the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, indicating that the line is intent on expanding.

To get the word out about U, Uniworld has been taking some new approaches, including hosting a wide range of social media influencers on a preview cruise last fall. The influencers posted photos about their experience to their social media feeds, predominantly Instagram and blogs. U by Uniworld was also featured in the Feb. 5 episode of ABC's "The Bachelor," during which the B served as the female contestants' home while they were in France.

Jennifer Brammer, a Charlotte-based AAA travel agent and a millennial, was optimistic about the new product when she first heard about it from Bettridge during a Rhine River holiday markets cruise on Uniworld's Antoinette in December 2016.

"It's possible that they didn't give it enough time to catch on," Brammer said. "But at the same time, I think word got out about it being a more cost-effective way to river cruise, and people were disappointed that they couldn't have the same opportunity if they were too old. Maybe it's actually a good strategy that they are changing the policy now before it really sets in people's mind that this is only for young people."

Brammer said millennials seem to want to travel independently and to have one-of-a-kind experiences. She said the trick with this age group is making them understand that an organized itinerary is not a bad thing.

U by Uniworld's attempt to attract a considerably younger demographic to river cruising is unique. The sector has for years battled the perception that it appeals predominantly to baby boomers and retirees. More recently, several companies, including Uniworld, had been working to attract younger travelers by offering multigenerational family itineraries and more active excursions and fitness options. But no major river cruise lines had created a product specifically for millennials and Gen Xers, younger travelers in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

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Since the launch of U by Uniworld, one other river cruise company has decided to go after millennials. Earlier this year, Amadeus River Cruises said it would launch a series of sailings for millennial travelers for 2019. It has so far not changed that plan.

"We are going forward with our millennial product and are excited by the feedback we are receiving," said Amadeus executive vice president Marcus Leskovar. He said Amadeus' approach differs from Uniworld's in several ways, including that Amadeus is not refurbishing any vessels to devote specifically to the millennial market, nor is it dedicating any ships entirely to this market for an entire season. Instead, the product is offered on some select departures, and Amadeus is predominantly marketing the cruises online and through social media.

"We create our millennial cruises around the social media personae who promote the specific departures, and these individuals will be onboard hosting their custom departures and connecting with their audience," Leskovar said.

Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Chicago, said that U by Uniworld's former age limit "did feel a little cut-and-dried to some potential clients. At the end of the day, it isn't so much about a specific age but about how young a client feels and behaves. Some 48-year-olds might much prefer the design concept, touring style and other unique U by Uniworld features over those of more traditional river cruise lines."

Clabbers was en route to Amsterdam last month where he would be seeing the A firsthand as part of the 2018 Virtuoso Symposium, which was being hosted on seven river cruise vessels (the AmaKristina, Avalon Impression, Crystal Bach, Tauck Savor, U by Uniworld's A, Uniworld's Antoinette and the Viking Mimir).

Clabbers predicted that greater awareness of the brand, once it officially starts sailing and word starts getting out, will help U by Uniworld take off. With not much awareness in the market yet, he said, it's up to travel agents to spread the word.

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