Tap into special interest sailings to boost your river cruise business.

River cruising has grown as a travel trend for more than a decade, picking up major steam in recent years to become one of the most sought-after experiences in the travel market today—and it shows no sign of losing its appeal. 

Among the evidence of the market’s rising appeal, Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), reported that passenger counts on river cruises rose 11 percent between 2015 and 2016, and European river cruising was the top trend in Travel Leaders Group’s 2017 luxury travel trends report. What’s more, the 2018 Luxe Report from Virtuoso ranks river cruising third among the top five travel trends for the year ahead.

This ongoing popularity has spurred huge traveler demand along with impressive growth from river cruise providers, who continue to find new and innovative ways to attract travelers and distinguish their product. One of the most interesting recent developments? The rise of themed river cruises, which tap into special interests to offer unique itineraries and attract travelers with specific tastes. 

What’s behind the growth of themed river cruises? There are a couple main drivers, according to Terri Burke, MCC, CTC, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “Around the globe, there’s a tremendous interest in wellness and in all kinds of enrichment activities, yet we are all time-starved in our busy world. The themed cruise experience is an opportunity to grab onto a passionate interest and really explore it in a unique way in a particular destination.”

The Rise of River Cruising
As Beth Schulberg, owner of Cruise & Travel Specialists, points out, the river cruise travel trend began with the opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1992, which opened up river travel in Europe from the Black Sea to the North Sea and created a new way for travelers to explore 2,200 miles of local experiences. 

Since then, the sophistication of river cruise ships and the experiences and luxuries passengers can enjoy have grown exponentially, upping their appeal even more. 

“I sell a ton of river cruises,” says Schulberg. “It’s a unique travel experience. Before, people were motor-coached all over Europe to see the interior cities. Now, they can wake up every morning in a new place and enjoy beautiful scenery and cruise ship amenities along the way.” 

Though modern river cruising spans destinations from Asia to North America, the Amazon and beyond, Europe remains the most popular market, with 1.36 million passengers cruising on the continent’s rivers in 2016, up 2.7 percent from 2015, according to Seatrade. Almost 39 percent of these passengers came from the U.S. and Canada, making for a highly lucrative market for U.S. travel agents. 

When it comes to demographics, Baby Boomers continue to be the largest target market for river cruises, thanks to their collective purchasing power. But the lure of river cruising is drawing a growing number of millennials and Gen-Xers as well. Some 36 percent of millennials would like to take a river cruise, according to a 2017 MMGY Global study—and river cruise companies are taking note. 

For one thing, growing demand is resulting in increased capacity: CLIA cruise line members have 13 new river cruise ships on order for 2017, an increase of about 7 percent for a total of 197 ships. River cruise lines are also enticing guests with new destinations and itineraries, expanding their offerings on less-traveled rivers such as the Elbe in Europe and throughout Asia, the Amazon and North America. Other tactics include upping the luxury factor with larger cabins and more high-end amenities, increasing the opportunities for active travel (carrying bikes on board or offering active excursions, for example), and even creating sailings for a specific target market, such as millennial-only river cruising.

Spotlighting Special Interests 
One of the most noteworthy elements of river cruising’s evolution is the recent focus on itineraries that revolve around a particular theme, such as art, music, history, beer, wellness, or food and wine. These themed river cruises not only help lines differentiate their itineraries from other offerings on the market, but also attract repeat cruisers who have already enjoyed the more standard sailings—and even draw travelers who might not normally think of themselves as cruisers.

“Themed cruises are very appealing because individuals no longer need to go out and create an itinerary around their passion,” says Kim (Schott) Steiger, CTA, a member of Travel Leaders. “These niche-based itineraries are being crafted by the river cruise operators around a specific desired experience that can be shared in a group. An individual with a passion for oenology, for example, has an opportunity to meet multiple vintners and share their love of wine. A person with a passion for food has an opportunity to cook with an international chef on the vessel. Cooking experiences may also be offered at ports of call, and opportunities to experience exquisite restaurants along the journey is icing on the cake.”

Cultural immersion and experiential discovery consistently rank as top preferences for today’s travelers. River cruises deliver those experiences in spades, but themed itineraries are laser-focused on areas that are personally meaningful—and enhanced all the more by being shared with others who have the same passion or interest. 

“The opportunity to travel with a professional sommelier or a well-established art historian or composer offers incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” says Lisa D. Fitzgerald, CTIE, owner of Fitzgerald Travel and a member of Travel Leaders. “Everyone on the themed cruise is there to explore the same interest, providing easy conversation and the excitement of sharing discovery together.” 

Wine, food, music, art and history are among the most popular themes of river cruises on European rivers, but there are also options focused on beer tastings, gardens, Jewish ancestry and holiday seasons, to name a few. One fast-growing niche of themed river cruising is the active/adventure cruise. Here, the focus is on discovery through activities that can range from bicycling and hiking excursions to interactive local experiences such as helping out at an orchard.

Selling Themed River Cruises
When it comes to selling themed river cruises, qualifying a client for the correct experience is key. 

“I ask a series of questions to ensure that I have matched the client with the appropriate river cruise experience,” says Steiger. “For example, the Danube is one of the most popular rivers, but if the client is looking for a cruise that focuses on wines, I would recommend the Seine.” 

Fitzgerald goes through a similar process. “When I meet a potential river cruise client, I schedule an hour-long meeting with them in person, on the phone or through Skype. I ask a lot of questions and take a lot of notes. You have to know your clients and what’s out there in the market to marry them to the cruise company and experience that fits their particular passion, personality and expectations.”

Selling themed river cruises to groups—while fruitful—takes an even bigger time investment, according to Steiger. For wine-themed tours, for example, she cultivates relationships with select area wine retailers. Once a relationship is established, she will set up and market an event at the winery, inviting a river cruise vendor to attend and share a short film on the company’s vessels while the group enjoys wine and cheese. Or for a culinary group, she says, “I will reach out to chefs and fine-dining establishments, as well as places that offer cooking classes. For history or architectural groups, I ask clients who are interested in such cruises if they know of others who may also be interested in this type of cruise.”

Fitzgerald makes an annual business plan for the upcoming year with a few different river cruise companies. She produces a “River Cruise Talk” quarterly newsletter during the year. She also works with local wineries and high-end restaurants for presentations. In addition, she says, “I always do a launch party to introduce people to the idea of river cruising, and I do a slide presentation of what Fitzgerald Travel has planned for the year. At the end of every presentation, I offer a group option. Last year I offered a Christmas Market Cruise on the Danube. I have 10 couples sailing this year and I am hosting that group.” 

Whether it’s an individual or group sale, the river cruise niche is a lucrative one for travel agents. It’s a premium sales market, and one that calls for expert travel advisory services, notes Schulberg, adding that river cruises that bring people together to explore a shared passion can only fuel the growth of what is already one of travel’s hottest trends.

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