Indeed, relationships are the building blocks that create the foundation for the high-touch world of travel.
So, perhaps it should come as little surprise that on the last evening of the christening cruise for Avalon Waterways’ freshly minted Avalon Tapestry II, when the travel agents at my dinner table were asked by consumer press why they choose to sell certain river cruise lines over others, they responded, “It’s all about relationships.”
Initially, the answer was a bit disappointing to me. I was hoping for some real insight into how the agents choose between the river cruise lines, something more about the vessels themselves or about the overall experience that sets the companies apart. But saying that they choose based on “relationships” felt a bit like a copout; like code for better commissions or enhanced perks for their clients.
But when I thought about it a bit more, I realized that in a segment of the travel industry that is only just now starting to see more differentiation between the players involved, it can still prove challenging at times to explain what sets one company’s product apart from another. The fact that Avalon has positioned the majority of the beds in its cabins facing towards the balcony; that Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has invested heavily in its extravagant exteriors; that Viking River Cruises is churning out sleek vessels at hard to beat prices; that AmaWaterways is pushing the themed river cruise envelope; or that Tauck has reinvented the lower deck cabin — these nuances might sway some, but for others these factors might still not seem like explanation enough for why they should book one line over another. Enter relationships.
The two agents at the table worked for two different host agencies that had both selected Viking and Avalon as preferred suppliers, so the decision to book more customers with those river cruises lines had already been pre-selected for them. But what dawned on me after the conversation is that while it’s definitely important for river cruise lines to continue to help us better understand and embrace their tangible differences, perhaps their most important differentiator is just that, relationships — including those between the river cruise lines and their agent partners, group travel leaders, tour operators, and of course their customers. And it will be how they continue to initiate those relationships and what they do to maintain them that will likely decide how the game plays out in the long-term.