What Viking’s growth means for river cruising

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The news that Viking River Cruises will add 24 Longships to its fleet signals two things: That following a brief lull in shipbuilding momentum, Viking is experiencing strong enough demand to merit a hefty commitment to more ships, and that the river cruise industry at large is entering a new growth phase.
So, let’s start with Viking. With the addition of 24 vessels in addition to the existing 65 ships already in the company’s river fleet (though we don’t know if and how many ships the company may retire in the coming years), one has to ask, what is in Viking’s secret sauce that lets it sustain such growth?
While only Viking is privy to the nuances of its success, the line has certain unique features that have likely helped fueled its expansion and popularity.
For one, Viking has become a household name in river cruising thanks in large part to its ads that blanketed popular TV programs like Downton Abbey on PBS and that air on National Public Radio. That kind of brand recognition definitely gives it an advantage.
In addition to product awareness, Viking has found the sweet spot in offering well-designed hardware at affordable prices. The line’s newest vessels, the Viking Longships, launched in 2012, feature open and airy public areas and contemporary Scandinavian design that makes them feel like unstuffy, sleek floating hotels. They also offer a wide range of stateroom options, from a modest 150-square-foot lower deck cabin with small windows to 275-square-foot veranda suites with step-out balconies and 445-square-foot explorer suites with a separate living room and bedroom.
It doesn’t hurt that Viking is also known for its attractive deals. For travellers who find river cruising to be too expensive, Viking’s promotions make its cruises more attainable.
Viking also pays agent commission on all components of its river cruises, including port charges and airline fees, which few other lines do.
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While Viking’s fleet expansion always makes good headline fodder, Viking isn’t the only river cruise line that is growing. AmaWaterways recently announced that it will launch three vessels in 2019, including the double-wide 196-passenger AmaMagna, and this spring the last two of Crystal Cruises’ four new-build river ships set sail (the first two launched last fall).

The steady stream of ship orders suggests that demand for river cruising hasn’t let up. So, can Europe’s rivers sustain all the inventory? Well, there are certain issues the industry needs to consider as it continues on its shipbuilding path, including staggering itineraries so that that numerous ships aren’t all docked in the same ports at the same times. And docking space itself needs to be re-evaluated and solutions explored to ensure that ports don’t get overcrowded.

Physical growth logistics aside, however, river cruise lines often point out that the demand for the new ships is there. The number of river cruise passengers is still a small fraction of the number of ocean cruise passengers, meaning that many cruisers have yet to discover river cruising. For the river cruise lines, that fact alone signals that this segment is poised to continue on its current expansion path for years, if not decades, to come.

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines May Open Rivers to Big 3

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines May Open Rivers to Big 3

PHOTO: Amadeus Princess. (photo via Flickr/Lutz Blohm)

After Crystal Cruises decided to venture from the oceans to rivers, we speculated that other brands might follow suit, and now Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has: The UK company plans to sail the Brabant beginning in 2018.

Upon further inspection, it turns out the Brabant will actually be the 2006-built Amadeus Princess renamed for Fred. Olsen’s purposes. That means its presumably chartered program will more closely mimic how Celebrity Cruises once collaborated with Amras Cruises, or how Adventures by Disney is still partnering with AmaWaterways.

Crystal Cruises, on the other hand, started its Crystal River Cruises division with a permanent takeover of an existing riverboat followed by complete new-builds.

Either way, Crystal and Fred. Olsen will essentially be the only two ocean operators on the river. (Adventures by Disney doesn’t quite count as an independent brand from Disney Cruise Line.)

So, again we ask: Might even more ocean cruise lines soon be inclined to roll down the river?

The river cruise market boom is beginning to slow a little. Ubiquitous Viking River Cruises only christened two of its signature Longships this year and does not have any additional new ones currently scheduled to launch next year. (It does have the Viking Ra, a heavily redesigned existing vessel, set to come online in Egypt in 2018, however.) Conversely, AmaWaterways is growing even bigger with the new double-wide AmaMagna planned for 2019.

With such characteristic ebbs and flows, there definitely remains room for other players to make a move.

European rivers often appear saturated with ships, but additional charter opportunities seem to abound. Major US companies like Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Limited and Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited are the most likely to consider, albeit likely with purpose-built riverboats.

The question is whether or not they would apply any of their current ocean brands to the river or if they would establish new lines for the purpose.

The decision would have to be made whether a Holland America River Line, Oceania River Cruises or Celebrity River Cruises make sense as example sub-brands for each of the big three corporations respectively.

Previously, it appeared that Norwegian might corporately want to stay out of the river market to give Crystal Cruises the edge with their link via Genting Group, but now the financial separation is growing wider, making direct competition fair game.

It’s still possible that the domestic brands would prefer to test the waters locally, however, heading out on the Mississippi over the Danube first. Getting loyalists to try a new product closer to home is always an easier sell. Then if it proved successful, it could be expanded abroad.

Otherwise, a completely new brand under one of the corporate umbrellas could be a better approach to drawing from several pools of loyalists at once to build up a new river cruise base.

Of course, the timeline for any of this is likely dependent on the success of another current experiment: Cuba.

As long as the Trump administration does not reverse relations with the island nation, ocean cruise lines are focused mostly on sending existing hardware there now and into the immediate future. Any likelihood that new river hardware and software is next established by such companies will likely be put on hold until they can better measure success or failure in the Caribbean.

In the meantime, keep looking to Crystal River Cruises and Fred. Olsen River Cruises to pave the potential way for others.

AmaWaterways to launch ‘biggest river cruise vessel’ in Europe in 2019

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AmaWaterways is to launch the ‘biggest river cruise vessel’ in Europe in 2019.

The ship will be twice as wide as standard river cruise vessels and accommodate 194 passengers.

The ship will sail the Danube with itineraries released by the end of the month.

President Rudi Schreiner said the ship, which will be called AmaMagna, would have more facilities and ocean style cabins.

The announcement was in Amsterdam during a week-long sailing on the line’s newest ship AmaKristina which was sailing a Rhine River itinerary from Basel to Amsterdam.

AmaWaterways was set-up in 2002 by husband and wife team Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst and Jimmy Murpy.

The cruise line has 20 ships and is expected to launch another five by 2019. It runs cruises around the world, including Europe, Asia and Africa.

The company set-up a UK office in Guildford last year headed up by cruise industry veteran Stuart Perl. Previously, it had been represented by Fred Olsen Travel since 2008.

Ama also has a partnership with APT which has chartered its ships since 2006 for its luxury cruises.

The ship will have multiple dining options including an al fresco glass-enclosed restaurant, an open-water sports platform, with zodiac boats, canoes and recreational equipment. Construction for the new began on March 6.

Schreiner made the announcement during a Rhine sailing on the line’s newest ship AmaKristina.

“As the luxury river cruise market continues to grow, we want to carry on as the leader in industry innovation,” he said.

“While this new double-width concept has been on the table for some time, we believe, given the unique demand that exists, that now is the perfect moment to introduce this style of ship.

“AmaMagna will provide guests with generous personal space, the freedom of multiple dining choices and exceptional stateroom comfort. “Combining this with our award-winning cuisine, noteworthy shore excursions and remarkable onboard service, we feel this ship is a game-changer.”

AmaMagna will feature 97 staterooms – the majority of which will be over 300 square feet.

Additional amenities include a large heated sundeck swimming pool with whirlpool and sky bar, spa area with new treatments, a fitness room large enough for small group classes.