Thought LeadershipSponsored by Avalon Waterways

New Ways to Sell River Cruises

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River cruising’s broadening appeal spells a big opportunity for travel advisors.

With nearly two decades of startling growth, river cruising continues to be a dramatic success story.  As a Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) cruise industry report at the end of 2018 stated, “After group and multigenerational travel, river cruises are the hottest trend in the marketplace.” So it was only a matter of time before river cruising overflowed from the traditional target group of affluent older couples and expanded its reach, thanks in part to new products and features being launched that have savvy advisors pitching river cruising to a whole new set of clients.

Like ocean cruising 20 years ago, the river cruise market is adding elements that suit the preferences of today’s travelers and attract not only a younger demographic, but non-cruisers and those who would ordinarily opt for land packages. Even for cruise lines who have traditionally marketed mainly to Baby Boomers, the average age is dropping. And the focus is expanding to attract active travelers, time-starved professionals, families, solo travelers, first-time cruisers, travelers on a budget and those with a younger mindset. 

The Changing Market
The very role of river cruising is changing. Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, notes that the traditional view was that river cruising was a graduating step in cruising evolution, not a starting point. But in 2018, CLIA’s State of the Industry reported that almost 80 percent of travel advisors find that river cruising now serves as a gateway to attract non-cruisers. 

Leslie Fambrini, owner of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, California, sees a number of ingredients that make the rivers a good choice to introduce clients to cruising: “River cruises provide a sense of comfort, confidence and ease that appeals to many first-time cruise travelers,” she says. “You can see the shore, unlike in open water at sea—an important factor to some nervous travelers—and there is little or no motion for those who are worried about seasickness. In port, people can commit to or change their shore tour plans easily, and the relaxed dress code creates a convivial environment where people can feel comfortable going from shore to ship.”

In recent years, river cruise lines have added a strong active and healthy travel component, looking to psychographics rather than demographics for expansion, and tried out lifestyle changes to appeal to younger travelers. Now they are taking aim at other factors that may have prevented some travelers from booking in the past, responding to new market growth patterns in cruising.

CLIA’s State of the Industry reported that while Baby Boomers had the largest increase in overall cruise bookings, at 67 percent, Gen X represented the second-largest increase at 42 percent, with Gen Y/millennials increasing 36 percent. 

Building on the changing market, cruise lines have unveiled a whole new arsenal of features for pitching a river cruise to this much bigger pool of prospective guests. Read on for a look at these new offerings, and how they can help you sell river cruises to more clients than ever before.

LOOK FOR: Shorter Itineraries
Micro-cations are trending: According to the May 2019 Allianz Global Assistance report, “The Rise of the micro-cation,” 57 percent of Americans did not take a leisure trip longer than four nights in the previous year. What’s more, micro-cations are coming to river cruising, requiring less investment of time and money from the consumer and expanding river cruise’s appeal to a larger share of travelers who might not previously have been able to consider booking one. 

The U.S. Travel Association’s 2019 Barriers to Travel report identifies cost as the number-one barrier to travel—and shorter itineraries can address the concerns of budget-conscious travelers, especially those who will be trying out river cruising for the first time, according to Steve Born, chief marketing officer for Globus family of brands. And Daniela Harrison, a travel advisor at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Arizona, recently sold river cruising to a honeymoon couple who would have had difficulties with the traditional price tag: “This would have been out of their budget, but the shorter cruises bring down the ticket,” she says. 

Now that travelers are entering the cruise experience through the river lines, Hoffee notes that having a shorter product with a lower lead-in price is important. “For people who haven’t river cruised yet and are not sold on the idea for an entire week, these shorter cruises are a great way for them to try the style, and see how they like it,” she explains.

The Barriers to Travel report also indicates that younger professionals find it hard to be away from work for long periods. Travelers with demanding jobs may be open to a shorter itinerary, one that doesn’t result in a daunting backlog of work on return. Shorter cruises even make it possible for professionals to take a Europe vacation that includes both a cruise and a land stay, or add a leisure component to a business trip.

Harrison agrees that shorter itineraries are much more appealing to clients under 40 with less vacation time. “Their limit is usually a week to 10 days, including travel,” Harrison says, noting that she is going through her database to let these prospects know about the shorter river itineraries. 

“There’s no question that shorter itineraries appeal to younger clients with financial considerations and work-related time constraints,” Fambrini says. “And combining a river cruise with pre and post land stays also gives new cruisers the perception of not traveling completely by cruise, which allows them to hold on to familiar land travel.”

River cruises also give travelers on shorter itineraries another advantage: the ability to fit more destinations and experiences into a briefer timeframe. “Travelers of all ages can use river cruises to get around to several countries and cultures without losing a lot of time arranging the travel in between,” says Damien Martin, a travel advisor for Largay Travel in San Diego, California.

LOOK FOR: Extensive, Flexible Options 
The ability to create varied and flexible customized trips is an important ingredient in selling river cruising to a larger market. The September 2019 AirSage Blog, which tracks current trends in the travel and tourism industry, summed it up: ”Everything is becoming more personalized these days…people want a travel experience that matches their ideas, priorities and needs, and they expect travel companies to deliver that. Far fewer people want a generic, off-the-shelf travel experience these days.”

Skift’s Megatrends 2019 hails creation as the new consumption, “as travelers weary of commodity travel seek to have a more active role in curating their experiences, and digital platforms more seamlessly mediate in-trip discovery, increasing the opportunity for serendipity.” Combinations of land and water travel give advisors multiple ways to cater to travelers’ tastes and provide rich cultural immersion, mixing short cruise itineraries with land stays or tours, and building on the cruise/tour concept in destinations like Egypt, the Amazon and Africa. 

Harrison is particularly enthusiastic about combined land and river trips created by sister companies. “If people already like your brand, why not cash in on it?” she said. “I foresee more buyouts in the next few years so more river cruise lines can offer their own land components.” 

Even travelers not adding a pre- or post-cruise land element have more options and flexibility than ever before, thanks to the explosive growth of shore excursion options. Advisors can help travelers choose a line with multiple opportunities in each port, looking specifically for options that speak to the client’s personal interests and travel style: active or adventurous activities, historical or culturally focused tours, culinary experiences, self-guided exploration and more. Such flexibility is particularly attractive to travelers with a younger mindset, seeking that all-important element of customization.

LOOK FOR: New Technology 
Enhanced flexibility is also being boosted by new technology in the river cruise sphere. Guests may be given tools for independent exploration on shore, with information and directions to tourist attractions, local boutiques, restaurants, bookstores, specialty shops, breweries and vineyards, all accessed from their own smartphone devices. GPS-equipped touring devices are another technologically driven enhancement to the shore excursion experience, helping travelers explore ports on their own without worry of getting lost.  

On board, river cruise lines, which typically provide free Internet to guests, have made a serious investment in technology to maintain connectivity, a key point for those who need to keep in touch with the workplace or who feel more comfortable in contact with the home front. As CLIA’s 2019 State of the Industry report says, “Combining work with leisure time is on the rise…modern travelers or ‘digital nomads’ are opting for trips where they can work remotely, which cuts down on time off and lost wages.” Rather than being forced to spend time in port at Internet cafes, river cruise guests can increasingly rely on onboard connection.

Stronger onboard connectivity is also important to younger travelers, spurring increased interest in river cruising as an option for families and multigenerational groups. Fambrini, for example, recently sent a family with three children between the ages of 17 and 21 on a river cruise where there were at least 10 inter-generational groups. In addition to loving the availability of WiFi all around (including on tour buses), she says the teens and young adults appreciated the multiple dining options and the ability to explore multiple destinations without having to repack. 

Between the new technology, increased flexibility and choice, and shorter, more affordable itineraries, it seems there will soon be a river cruise option for just about every traveler, representing a new frontier of opportunity for advisors in this market. “There are no new rivers, but there are new ways to present and combine them,” Harrison says. “There’s more portfolio and ways to mix it up, new itineraries and land options—and it all gives the travel advisor a lot more to work with.”

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