Christening season is upon us

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Viking Cruise multiply River Cruise ship Christening
It’s that time of year again: River cruise companies are rolling out the red carpet and getting ready to smash Champagne bottles against their newest vessels as christening season gets underway. So what, if anything, will be new this year?

As anyone who has been on at least two or three river cruises may know, river cruise ships are confined by length and width dimensions that are dictated by the locks and bridges along Europe’s inland waterways; in essence river cruise ships are all very similar in size and can only include so many onboard features and amenities.

Well, sort of. If the ships were so totally the same, travel media and travel sellers wouldn’t bother to make our annual pilgrimages across the pond to see what’s new and different among all the new European river inventory. We are heading over there to scope out whatever tweaks and adjustments river cruise lines are making. And while I don’t know what all the possible surprises that await this spring may be, I can tell you what I’ll be looking for in terms of fresh takes on river cruise ships so that you, too, can be on the lookout.

Always high on the list is food, of course. Despite the limited amount of space on river cruise ships, lines have increasingly been making efforts to amplify and expand their culinary offerings. So, this christening season I’ll be taking a close look at new and different takes on dining venues. Crystal in particular has ambitious plans for multiple dining venues on its forthcoming “river yachts”, slated to launch this summer. And Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has teased us with some serious new dining ventures, as well, on its latest creation, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, launching later this month in Paris; think a Bistro resto; special al fresco dinners; chef’s table, farm-to-table dining; and something it’s calling a “progressive dinner” involving a tour of the vessel.

Next up is public spaces. As I tour these freshly christened vessels, I’m always looking for new and unique features in the lounge and bar areas, perhaps in the spa and fitness room or on the sun deck. Lately, river cruise lines have been breaking up these spaces to offer more diverse options. So maybe in the entryway to the lounge, there might be a new library or sitting room (something AmaWaterways has implemented on its newer vessels). Is there a new pool or whirlpool element? Not a lot of vessels in Europe have pools because of the unpredictable weather, so if there’s a pool, that’s noteworthy.

And then, of course, there’s always the up-close-and-personal inspection of the staterooms and suites. Are there balconies off of the cabins? Are they full, step-out balconies or French balconies? Are the staterooms relatively roomy or pretty petite? What about the furnishing and decor: pretty standard or rather distinct? What kind of toiletries are stocked in the bathroom? How comfy are the beds? These are some of the questions I’ll be arming myself with.

Off the ship, the excursions are key and often are what truly make the river cruise memorable. River cruise lines have been working to offer more active and interesting shore experiences, so I’ll be looking for those “wow” activities, meals hosted in charming venues, fun hiking or biking trips that raise passengers’ heart rates or more interactive outings, such as cooking classes or encounters with locals.

Lastly, there is, of course, the service  the people element. I will be looking out for whether there are new policies or service enhancements available, such as a concierge or butler service, another area where river cruise companies have been upping the ante.

All told, when christening season is through, we should have a better sense of some of the new trends emerging on and off the vessels and a reaffirmation of the fact that even within a relatively confined space there is always room for progress and innovation.

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Demand and inventory, a delicate balancing act

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When you have more bookings than you know what to do with, that’s the good kind of problem to have in the travel industry, right?

Well, sort of. No travel company ever wants to have too many empty beds/seats/cabins. But not having enough openings to meet demand, that’s a tricky problem too, because that’s when you risk losing clients to the competition.

And when demand is a bit in flux, as it currently is in the river cruise market, it’s hard to plan for unknown growth and an unknown future. For those watching closely, you may have noticed that shipbuilding momentum has eased up in the river cruise industry. Viking River Cruises is only building two ships next year, down from the six it debuted this year, 12 last and the record 18 the company launched in 2014.

AmaWaterways too is only launching one new vessel each in 2017 and in 2018 (the company typically launches two each year). And Avalon Waterways doesn’t have any new ships planned for 2017, after several years of consistently building two or three vessels annually. The shipbuilding frenzy clearly has died down a bit for now, even as some newer players (I’m looking at you, Crystal) have entered the market.

But then there is the issue of pent-up demand following a softer year such as the one the river cruise market just experienced, driven by the terror attacks in Paris and Nice and by high water levels that disrupted some departures. River cruisers who put off the popular travel style in 2016 may now be looking to get onboard in 2017.

Noting pent-up demand from the U.S. market and on the heels of two promising future booking months, AmaWaterways this month announced its 2018 sailings are open for booking. And several other river cruise lines have been promoting their 2018 availability as well. If there really was some pent-up demand as AmaWaterways claims, a shipbuilding slowdown could potentially create a capacity bottleneck that might force river cruise lines to offer up 2018 cabins as an overflow alternative to 2017.

Then again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This past year was a challenging one, and river cruise lines will likely be happy to simply fill their 2017 inventory at higher capacity levels than they did in 2016. If demand for river cruising returns with a fervor strong enough to have some river cruise lines regretting they didn’t put in some additional ship orders, that is a problem they would probably prefer to have over figuring out how to fill empty ships.

Disney successfully adds its character to river cruise market

Adventures by Disney’s cruises on the AmaViola sail by Budapest’s Parliament building.

ABOARD THE AMAVIOLA — Adventures by Disney’s first river cruising season is nearly halfway over, and so far, it has proved a successful move into a market generally overlooked by family travelers.

On this seven-day Danube sailing on the 170-passenger AmaViola from Vilshofen to Budapest, Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Adventures by Disney (ABD), said the company was already looking forward to its expansion to a second river, the Rhine, next summer, and that Disney was broadening river cruising’s demographic.

“[We’re] bringing new people into the river cruise category,” Potrock said. “They’re kind of locked into a segment of the population, and we can expand that segment by bringing families into the equation.”

ABD made its foray into river cruising in partnership with AmaWaterways, which purpose-built the AmaViola with family-friendly design details, including connecting staterooms and suites suitable for three- and four-member families, a rare feature on river cruise ships.

As you would expect with Disney, cruisers will find a family-friendly experience onboard, with movie nights and dance parties for kids. Disney Cruise Line fans will recognize the pirate party with face painting.

Kid-friendly excursions include a walking tour of Bratislava, Slovakia, where kids can complete a puzzle of landmarks; a salt mine tour in Salzburg, Austria, with train rides and wooden slides going into the mine; an Austrian park where kids can walk above the treetops on wooden ledges; and a marionette show offering children a chance to go backstage and try manipulating the dolls themselves.

Parents will appreciate touches such as the tour of Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, where Adventure Guides take the kids through garden mazes and to an onsite children’s museum, enabling adults to explore on their own.

Launching the first of this kind of product has been a learning process, and Disney said it would continue to tweak the programming and dining to make it better for both adults and children.

The biggest change so far is the minimum age for its cruises: next year, Disney raised it from 4 to 6, but it still recommends 8, based on feedback and “seeing how the different aged kids were dealing with the river cruise experience,” said Terry Brinkoetter, public relations director for Disney Destinations.

The line also adjusted its dining options. Previously, everyone ate dinner together in the dining room. Now, kids can choose to eat in the lounge, supervised by Adventure Guides who hang out and play games, giving parents a chance to dine alone. Teens may eat together in the wine cellar, and many on my cruise chose to do so. The main dining room has a kids menu for when families wish to dine together.

Disney also learned on the go with its bicycling excursions, increasing the minimum age from 12 to 14 years after seeing how challenging the tour was, with rough roads (think cobblestone streets) and non-English street signs. An example of the high level of onboard service is that with no bikes suitable for younger kids such as my 9-year-old for the “ride on your own” option, the cruise director had local bikes delivered to use.

Future plans

Potrock, who was also onboard with his family, said over dinner at the ship’s Chef’s Table Restaurant that next year’s expansion to the Rhine on the upcoming 170-passenger AmaKristina made a lot of sense.

“There’s a lot of culture and character in that region of the world,” he said. “And we think there’s a lot of connection to classic Disney lore and stories there. … We think it’s going to play really wonderfully.”

With ABD expanding to two rivers for summer 2017, the next area of growth might be cruise timing, Potrock said, possibly expanding into May or September. Disney currently only offers the cruises from June through August, which works well for ABD and AmaWaterways, he said, because summer is not the strongest market for older couples, the mainstay clients for river cruises, due to the heat and crowds in Europe, but is perfect for Disney’s family-oriented approach.

Beyond that, he said he sees an opportunity to focus on the adult-only market and get “creative in terms of thematics.” With the popularity of wine cruises, he said, Disney could possibly find a tie-in with the Epcot Food and Wine Festival to create a new river cruise product.

ABD’s Danube river cruise fares include daily shore excursions; WiFi; gratuities; all onboard and some off-ship meals; unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks with every lunch and dinner; and onboard entertainment, including classes for the kids.

Ports include Vilshofen and Passau in Germany and Linz, Melk, Krems and Vienna in Austria, as well as Bratislava and Budapest.

The basic cruise price starts at $4,719 for adults and $4,489 for children. A three-day Prague extension package bumps the total to $6,008 for adults and $5,708 for children.