Susan Wolfson took her first European river cruise two years ago and fell hard.
She loved the “effortless” way the cruises unfolded and showcased the history and scenery along Europe's historic riverways.
Wolfson decided to switch specialties from destination weddings to river cruises and took every educational program that she could about selling the product.
However, one theme kept coming up that wasn't a good fit for her: wine. Wolfson enjoys wine but, her location in beer-drinking Allentown, Penn., isn't conducive to wine-related travel.
Laura Del Rosso
"I was listening to a webinar about promoting wine-themed cruises and realized that there just aren’t a lot of great wineries in Pennsylvania. People drink wine, but there's much more interest in beer.”
Wolfson knew that the destinations most popular for river cruises – Germany, Austria, Belgium, Holland – are some of the top beer-making areas of the world, filled with beer gardens, brewers and a long history of beer-making.
By 2012, Wolfson, who operates Go Astro Travel, an independent agency of Avoya Travel, had developed a solid river cruise business with AmaWaterways.
At “Philly Beer Week,” a large, annual 10-day celebration, she met Don Russell, also known as “Joe Sixpack,” a beer expert and the event founder. She asked if he'd like to lead a river cruise focusing on European beer. Assuming he's been asked before about leading a similar program, she was surprised when he immediately expressed strong interest.
“He'd never been approached by a travel agent,” said Wolfson. The timing also was right for the river cruise line, which was looking to fill cabins in the low season. AmaWaterways worked with Russell in creating an April 2015 itinerary with special beer-themed excursions in Belgium and Holland. It was tagged as Tulips and Beer.
AmaWaterways gave Wolfson full rights to sell the cruise until last March at which point it opened its books to other agents and the public. The cruise includes five brewery tours, including Heineken and Cantillon, Russell's lectures and a beer-pairing dinner. Wolfson started marketing in September 2013 and has sold about half the cabins on the ship Amalyra.
The success led Wolfson and AmaWaterways to create a second beer-themed cruise – this one combined with Christmas markets – in December.
Wolfson, a former computer programmer, got into the travel industry in 2001 by working with a local travel agency. She built a solid destination weddings business and moved to her own home-based agency but tired of weddings after 10 years. She had been looking for a new specialty when she took that first river cruise.
Her business has grown to about 50% river cruises. She produced $2 million in sales in 2013, with about 75% of sales generated from Avoya's Live Leads program which directs clients to her home-based agency.
Wolfson's new focus on beer has also influenced her family.
“I haven't been a big beer drinker but my son has become a home brewer and he's gotten me into it more,” she said. “It's just grown a lot as something people enjoy and now want to learn more about all of its complex flavors and varieties. It's like wine that way.”