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River Cruises: The Ultimate in Customization

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Evolving opportunities on ships and on shore let advisors tap into client desires for personalization and immersion like never before.

Personalization and immersion are two of the fastest-rising trends in today’s travel market, leading an ever-increasing number of travelers to seek out fully customized vacations that will speak not only to their personal tastes and desires, but also to the unique attributes of the destination they are visiting. 

In fact, the 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report found that travelers are looking for a deeper level of personalization for their vacation and have a desire to experience new destinations in unique ways. Notably, the report also listed river cruising and luxury cruising among the top four travel trends for 2019—and it’s not hard to see why.

In addition to the longstanding appeals of river cruising (such as extensive time in ports, included excursions and more), river cruise lines are upping the appeal of this travel experience by offering more options in their onboard amenities and in-port adventures, making them an ideal way to satisfy client desires for both personalized and immersive vacations. Thanks to countless choices now available both on board and on shore, travelers can customize nearly every detail of their trip—from meals and excursions to fitness options, itinerary themes and more—resulting in the opportunity to be completely absorbed in their personal interests and passions during their river cruise. 

“With river cruising you have choices, so guests don’t all have to do the same thing,” says Penny Clarke, owner of Acquire Adventures LLC, an independent agency of Avoya in Auburn, Washington. “It’s all about immersion in the culture and the types of things you want to do.”

Experiential Exploration
Transformational cruise travel is the next evolution of experiential travel, according to the 2018 Cruise Industry Outlook from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), with cruisers seeking a shift in perspective from their vacation. Travel Leaders Group also found that most cruisers ask for information about shore excursions and what to do in port, according to 72 percent of the agents who responded to their latest travel trends survey.

“People who choose a river cruise are typically more interested in experiencing the destination in depth,” says Dolores Strait, president of Global Express Travel in Brandon, Florida. “They’re looking for new experiences. And river cruising is responding to keep them coming on cruises.” 

One way that river cruise lines cater to immersion-seeking clients is by offering a variety of excursions in each destination, along with onboard experts who can advise more independent travelers. Excursions are not only available for different interests, but also typically at different activity and fitness levels, so travelers can choose exactly the right fit for their on-shore experiences—or opt to explore on their own. 

“On one Danube cruise, my husband and I biked on our own through the vineyards and hiked up a hill to a castle where Richard the Lionheart was captured—and that was just such a highlight for us,” says Strait. She adds, “Then on our river cruise last summer, my husband and I did hardly any excursions together. And that’s okay! There are choices. And you always come back in the evening and have dinner together and share what you did during the day.”

This freedom of choice is especially welcome for active travelers. “I have a client who rides his bike to come see me, so I suggested river cruising as a good option because of the bikes on board that they can take out all day,” says Stacy Wangelin, travel consultant and team leader with Travel Leaders in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

For people who like to explore on their own, having access to local knowledge and a bit of guidance is key. Look for cruise lines that provide maps, GPS-driven devices, guidance apps and onboard hosts who can offer suggestions and information for free time in port. 

When it comes to guided tours, most river cruise excursions don’t sell out (unlike on ocean cruises), so the booking process is much more relaxed. “If the excursion is unlimited, then they can wait and see how they feel in the moment,” says Wangelin. “But for something like kayaking on the canals, when they only have 20 kayaks, I suggest they book in advance.”

In addition to matching clients to their ideal excursions, agents can go one step further in river cruise customization by suggesting special interest and themed itineraries that tap into subjects such as art, music, history, food and wine, and more. “This way, you’re talking to their passions, and they know they’ll be traveling with like-minded people who enjoy those experiences,” says Pam Hoffee, managing director for Avalon Waterways. “Each line does something different, so help them pick and choose.”

Clarke fondly remembers her own cruise from Paris to Normandy that focused on World War II. “My uncle was a medic on D-Day, so it was so meaningful to me to see all of that and learn about it firsthand. The local experts really enhanced the experience.”

Savvy agents have also found that special interest itineraries make it easier to pitch river cruising to groups. “We’ve been reaching out to local health clubs and spinning classes to see if we can put a group together for a river cruise,” says Wangelin.

Customized Onboard Experiences
Spurred by the burst of new-build river ships coming to the market, there’s been a simultaneous evolution in the onboard river cruise experience. 

One such transformation: River cruises are now offering multiple dining venues and a variety of culinary choices, with some lines also embracing flexible dining and seating. “People want options—they don’t all like the structured dining,” says Wangelin. “It’s more appealing that it’s more open now. The whole point is to be free on your vacation.”

Clarke agrees, pointing out that along with the main dining room, “it’s nice to have a lighter meal upstairs on the top deck and sit inside or outside if you want. They even have picnics if you want to take a meal with you.” 

Culinary choices are also a selling point for the growing number of health-conscious travelers, according to CLIA’s 2018 Cruise Industry Outlook, along with wellness seminars and fitness classes like yoga on the top deck. “Not every ship has a fitness center, but it’s important to some people, along with fitness classes,” says Hoffee.

For those who enjoy nightlife, find out if musicians will be playing on board or if the itinerary offers opportunities for an evening out on the town. For added immersive experiences, look for itineraries that feature onboard talks by local experts, beer and wine tastings, cooking classes or other demonstrations. 

Along with considering the dining and onboard amenities, it’s important to help clients choose the right cabin for their needs. “I show them pictures of the room and the view, giving them measurements,” says Wangelin. “I mention that when you’re sailing, you can open your door and watch the world go by. That’s pretty cool and it’s an easy upsell.” 

Some cruisers, on the other hand, may plan to spend little time in their room or want a less expensive option so they can travel more frequently. “That’s where I can save them some money, especially if they say no because of expense,” Clarke points out, adding that the entry-level rooms come with the same access to excursions, dining and public areas.

“All staterooms on most river cruise ships are outside, so everyone gets a view of some kind; it’s just a matter of if they want to sit in a private place and have an outdoor experience,” says Hoffee. “Most people do, and that’s why river cruise lines have so many staterooms featuring that.”

The Right Choice 
With all of the options available today, it’s imperative to ask the right questions of your clients so that they are matched with the ideal line, destination and itinerary, as well as to ensure that they are taking full advantage of the many customizable opportunities available to them.

“I think a good way to bring up river cruising and pick among cruise lines is to ask what kind of hotels they stay in and what kind of service they appreciate,” says Hoffee. “Some cruise lines have butlers and white gloves while others take a more relaxed approach. Look at how your client travels and what things they like to do on their vacation.”

Beyond price and destinations, consider factors like who they are traveling with and what they want out of the trip. “It’s the experience itself that is important, so what kind of experience are they after?” says Clarke. Are they looking for a more active or relaxed travel experience? Do they need an onboard spa or fitness center? What are their in-destination interests? How would they like to spend their shipboard time? Are there any lifestyle factors that need to be taken into account? 

Before locking in air travel, have a conversation about adding a pre- or post-cruise extension, especially if they want to see a city that’s not included in the itinerary. Cruise lines often offer packages so that travelers enjoy a seamless experience that can include transfers and even hosts to provide guidance while on land.

“When you talk about customization, it makes sense to do a pre- or post-cruise stay,” says Strait. She points out that some clients use hotel points for this portion of their trip, which agents can recommend as an affordable way to add time to the vacation. 

“What things are your clients dreaming about?” asks Clarke. “You can create it for them with a river cruise.”

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