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U.S. River Cruises Are a Hot Market

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Tap into this burgeoning market for high client satisfaction and repeat sales

River cruising is hot, and U.S. river cruising is heating up the sector even more. This lucrative niche attracts a wide range of clients, has high repeat travel rates and is part of an emerging trend, as cruisers increasingly choose smaller-ship voyages.

All the more reason for travel advisors to focus on U.S. river cruising, especially because ever more travelers are choosing domestic travel. The July 2019 Travel Trends Index (TTI), for example, found that domestic leisure travel has surpassed its six-month average and maintained a strong growth trend of 4.2 percent as of July, while AARP’s 2019 Travel Trends reported that 94 percent of baby boomers surveyed anticipated taking at least one domestic trip in 2019. Add in the popularity of river cruising—AAA Travel’s booking data from 2018 found that sailings on small, luxury cruise lines have exploded—and it’s clear that this market is full of potential for U.S. travel advisors.

Furthermore, as the demand for domestic river cruising grows, U.S. river cruise operators are upping their game, adding ships, itineraries and waterways to their roster of options. “U.S. river cruising is growing by leaps and bounds. For us, business has gone up 37 percent month-over-month this year,” says Cindy Anderson, with USA River Cruises, a Travel Leaders Network Affiliate Agency in Vancouver, Washington. “It’s been a crazy year. We’ve watched the growth and it’s been continual.”

Despite the increasing popularity and sold-out sailings, there is still limited awareness and education about U.S. river cruising—and that’s a great opportunity for travel advisors to step in. “Travel advisors are critical to our success,” says Bob Salmon, SVP of Sales with American Queen Steamboat Company. “They can generate the interest and excitement about U.S. river cruising. They know who of their clients are looking for something different, and that’s what we offer.”

New Perspectives of U.S. Travel
U.S. river cruises offer clients a new way to explore the United States, one with simple logistics but bountiful payoffs: Getting there requires no passport, currency exchange, language barriers or multiple hotels.

Among the most popular rivers for cruising are the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the center of the country, and the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Others include the St. John’s River in Florida and the Hudson River in New York.  

“U.S. river cruising offers a variety of local flavors. Whether you’re on the Mississippi or on the Hudson, you’re going to get the flavor of the region through the history, entertainment, music or dance that is local, along with the cuisine and wine, of course,” says Linda Kauffman, a travel consultant with Designed Destinations in York, Pennsylvania. “And clients don’t even have to leave the boat to experience all of that.”

“I think the appeal is the slower pace,” says Brando Quinn, of Brando’s Fun and Sun Travel and Cruise, an independent affiliate of Avoya Travel Network in Safford, Arizona. “Travelers are seeing a variety of homes from the river, and they’re also seeing cotton fields, ranches, wildlife and birds that migrate to the shores. Cruises bring those areas to life.”

Rather than jumping on and off busses or in and out of the car at every stop and checking into  new hotels, river cruisers enjoy the advantages of deep explorations, immersive experiences and knowledgeable guides, all from the comfort of a home-base state room. Well-designed itineraries showcase a variety of stops and experiences, with much of the travel taking place at night so that days can be centered around exploration.

Another reason for the increase in interest is the smaller, intimate nature of river cruising, which creates a more personalized experience, something that is in high demand according to the 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report. Travelers appreciate that it’s easy to get to know other people on a river cruise, rather than being lost in a crowd, and enjoy the onboard experts who can provide personalized education about U.S. history and destinations.

Matching Clients with Cruises
River cruise companies have some of the highest repeat rates in the cruise industry, according to Cruise Critic, so it makes sense that clients who enjoy European river cruising will also enjoy cruising in the United States. “We often get clients who have been to Europe and want to do something locally, someone who likes river cruises and is looking for something different,” says Salmon. “The quality exceeds people’s expectations. They’re used to European river cruises, but they aren’t expecting that same high quality on a U.S. river cruise.”

According to Kauffman, the number-one reason her older clients are choosing domestic river cruising is that they have already traveled the world, so now they want to stay closer to home and avoid long international flights.

On the flip side, Kauffman adds, “My younger client base is choosing U.S. river cruising because they don’t have as much vacation time, and these U.S. cruises start at seven days. Even the nine-day and 13-day cruises can be doable with the short flights involved.”

The travel advisors we spoke with all agree that the average age on a river cruise has dropped since a decade ago and is now between 55 and 75 years old, but they have clients as young as those in their 20s or 30s who are enjoying river cruising.

And all ages come together for multigenerational trips on U.S. river cruises, from children through seniors. “I’ve done a lot of anniversary trips where you’ll have all four generations go,” says Anderson. “We do these with group rates to get the price down, and you can get three or four people in a cabin. We’ve even had honeymooners in their late 30s and 40s who choose a U.S. river cruise because it’s so unique. But most of what we sell is to groups of friends—eight or 10 friends traveling together.”

Even clients who previously weren’t interested in U.S. river cruising might now be more open to it thanks to a growing range of shore experiences. “We call them the ‘land cruises’ because you’re on land every day and you spend the day seeing local sites and museums,” says Anderson. “All those towns up and down the river have stories. On the Mississippi, for example, they took us to a house on a hill to show us where a pastor and his wife hid hundreds of slaves after they escaped and sneaked across the river at night. Those are the kinds of things that are so important for people to know about.”

Getting the Sale
For clients who are interested in river cruising, U.S. river cruises are a natural starting point for a conversation. Quinn points out that clients need to hear more about the spectacular waterways that are close to home. “If they talk about doing a European river cruise, then I also bring up U.S. cruising,” says Quinn. “It’s something that’s unique for America.”

Anderson adds, “I would tell the agents to try to sell America first. In 2008 to 2010, when boats dropped off the Mississippi and went into dry dock, so many of those little towns suffered.” By the same token, clients planning to do their own driving or escorted tours throughout the United States might not even be aware that a U.S. river cruise is an option. Client education is key. Many travelers appreciate that riverboats by law are made in America and that the crews receive U.S. wages and pay U.S. taxes.

Successful advisors also find that it helps to market the special promotions offered by U.S. river cruise lines, including those tailored for more niche travelers such as adjoining staterooms for families or waivers for solo traveler fees. While Instagram is a favorite with travelers, travel advisors note that direct mail also works well when it comes to selling U.S. river cruising because older clients like to hold something tangible before they book.

“I send out all sorts of programs and flyers, and when I travel, I put out updates on social media about what we’re doing,” says Kauffman. “All those gorgeous plantations are going be decorated for Christmas, so I prepared a flyer and it was emailed to everyone on my client lists. I also get preprinted cards from the cruise lines through the agent portal, and I jot a quick note on it, something like, ‘Thinking about you today, and you may have an interest in this.’ If they’re a foodie, historian or have some other special interest, I point that out.”

Another way that advisors can add benefit for their clients is by helping with shore experiences and pre- and post-cruise extensions. Quinn provides a printout of the premium shore excursions as well as the included ones, and tells clients about the experiences he’s been on. Typically, he recommends they purchase the premium shore excursions in advance to guarantee space because they can sell out.

“River cruising is a fantastic way to see America. People can gain a greater appreciation for America by seeing our rivers,” says Quinn.

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