River cruise line Emerald Waterways and sister company Emerald Yacht Cruises recently announced they were merging under one new brand, Emerald Cruises. The move comes as the company, which is owned by Australia-based Scenic Group, prepares to launch its first yacht, the Emerald Azzurra, next year. River cruise editor Jeri Clausing talked to the company's global brand director, David Winterton, about the company's strategy and how Emerald differentiates itself from other lines.
TW: Emerald is one of the newer companies marketing international river cruises to the North American market. Tell me a little about the company and your vision.
Winterton: The brand Emerald has been around seven years now. We've been quietly in the background, building our river ships. We started with two, and we're now up to nine. And of course we're just about to have Emerald Azzurra set sail for us next year.
So the time's right to come and out and say: Look, travel professionals, travel advisors, we've seen a surge in small-ship experiences. We've seen ocean-cruise guests coming after the pandemic. They want to downsize and have smaller experiences, smaller shore excursions, less people in the restaurant and the bar. And we've got the perfect product. We have our river ships, which have 84 to 180 guests on board.
And when the Azzurra launches next year she's going to have just 100 guests on board. And we can bring that river-ship experience, of sailing into the heart of small ports where guests can just get off and start walking.
TW: You're part of the Australian-based company, Scenic Group. What percentage of your guests come from the U.S.?
Winterton: Emerald Cruises is very different from Scenic. We are a European-based company. And we're seeing great growth in the U.K. and the North American markets. So, guests on board [Emerald] will be more U.K. and North American. And probably only about 10% to 15% will be Australian.
TW: You say Emerald is very different from Scenic. How exactly do you differentiate the brands?
Winterton: Scenic has got two fantastic river cruise lines. We've got Scenic luxury cruises: all-inclusive, top end, fantastic. Emerald is a premium product for a younger, more active traveler with a sensibility. So you're not paying for everything if you're not using it. You just pay for the things you use. It's worked out great for travel advisors because it's a one-stop shop.
TW: What's the average age for guests on Emerald?
Winterton: I think all river cruise lines like to think that their guests are younger than they really are. I think it's fair to say on an Emerald cruise it's probably 50-plus. And what we are trying to do is offer something for everybody. I know river cruising tends to like theme cruises, active cruises. What we've done, and we've had for about three years now, is our activity managers. We noticed that the pianist in the bar in the evening wasn't getting great reviews. So we removed the pianist and introduced an activity manager instead. And he does hiking, biking, yoga on the sundeck. And then in the evenings he entertains. That's worked really well for us.
TW: You said that these are not all-inclusive. What is included, and what's not?
Winterton: We include everything you need for a great vacation. What does that actually mean? It means that we include, obviously, accommodations. We include all meals. And wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary with lunch and dinner. We include a daily shore excursion every morning. Then in the afternoon you can choose [to buy] a "discover more" excursion. They are usually around 30 to 50 euros. We also offer drinks packages.
TW: Over the past year there has been a lot of talk about what the post-pandemic traveler is going to want. What kind of changes do you envision?
Winterton: We took the opportunity to regroup. Have a look at our product. We did surveys. And we've come out with what I think is our best product to date. We've changed some of the inclusions, including excursions. We've changed some of the optional extras. What is it going to look like? We've seen people wanting to downsize. They are wanting these smaller excursion groups. They are wanting a restaurant that's slightly less crowded. And that's great for our river ships.
TW: I know right now everyone is focused on recovering from the pandemic, but what are your longer-term growth and expansion plans?
Winterton: We just want to become a leading small-ship cruise company. We have river ships, and we have one yacht coming, which is selling twice as fast we expected. So, we are going to sell out that yacht very, very quickly. We are going to have to look at more yachts and see where that takes us. It's very exciting.
TW: What about other rivers? Are you looking to expand beyond Asia and Europe?
Winterton: We have tested the Nile. The way that Emerald Cruises has grown has been organically and through demand. We grow as our guests ask for it. We tested the Nile with a charter ship, which went well for us. The pandemic has halted that for the moment. We've got a charter in Russia, as well. So, we will look to other rivers.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this report provided an incorrect title for Winterton. He is the global brand director for Emerald Cruises.