The lessons learned from Tom Harper’s closure

When a company suddenly shuts its doors, a lot of different factions are often left picking up the pieces, which has certainly been the case in the aftermath of river cruise reseller Tom Harper River Journeys abruptly closing its doors in early May.

There still isn’t any clear course of action for the now cruise-less travelers who had booked river cruises with Newton, Mass.-based Tom Harper River Journeys. Founded in 2013 by CEO Bret Gordon, a former Vantage Deluxe World Travel executive, Tom Harper has now gone mum.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

Travel Weekly hasn’t seen a bankruptcy filing for the company, but the Better Business Bureau has an alert stating that Tom Harper is no longer in business, and the company has been placed onTravel Guard’s financial default alert list.

Until (and if) Tom Harper resurfaces, travelers and their agents have been taking matters into their own hands, scrambling to try to get their money back and to salvage their vacations. River cruise companies that had sold inventory to Tom Harper, including Haimark Travel, CroisiEurope and Zambezi Queen, are dealing with the fallout as well.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a calamitous event such as this to be reminded of the precautions travelers and agents should take when booking a river cruise. Really, there are three main ones: book with a credit card; buy travel insurance; and look for river cruise companies that have some kind of financial safety net, such as being a member of an association like the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA).

Many of the major river cruise lines are active members of USTOA — including Viking Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Avalon Waterways, Tauck and Grand Circle Cruise Line — and as such are required to post $1 million in the form of a bond or letter of credit that is held by a USTOA trust for the sole purpose of reimbursing consumers for payments or deposits lost in the event of bankruptcy, insolvency, cessation of business, or failure of an active member to refund consumer deposits or payments within 120 days following the company’s cancellation of a vacation.

According to CLIA, passengers sailing on ships serving U.S. ports (for river cruising this would apply to vessels that ply U.S. rivers) are protected by a performance bond of up to $15 million, administered by the Federal Maritime Commission, which covers passenger refunds for “non-performance of transportation.”

“Travelers purchasing a cruise also can protect themselves by paying with a major credit card, and/or obtaining low-cost travelers’ insurance that covers trip cancellation for any reason, including supplier default,” CLIA advises.

For many who booked Tom Harper, much of this is too little, too late. For passengers who are booked on upcoming river cruises through Tom Harper, the river cruise lines on which they are booked have advised that they find a travel agent to help them or that they get in touch with the river cruise line directly to salvage their booking.

The larger lesson learned is that no sector of the travel industry is safe from sudden financial turmoil, not least the booming river cruise segment.

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Pandaw: Proven ships, new waters

It’s been 20 years since Scotsman Paul Strachan started taking people up and down the Irrawaddy River on a single chartered vessel in Myanmar. Since 1995, the founder of Singapore-based Pandaw River Expeditions has grown his enterprise in Southeast Asia into a fleet of 12 ships (and counting) and is now once again looking for that next unexplored stretch of river.

“In the last year, I thought, ‘We’d better do some more pioneering,'” said Strachan, who has in recent years been joined by a rapidly growing number of river cruise lines in Southeast Asia. “So, it’s exciting times. We’re opening up Laos, we’re building a ship there … and then we’ve got the Red River, up in the north of Vietnam … and we’re looking at possibly putting a couple Pandaw ships in India.”

As competition heats up in Southeast Asia with a flood of new river cruise vessels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, Pandaw is hoping to separate itself from the pack by introducing ever more remote and exotic river cruise destinations, while at the same time remaining true to its original vision.

“The ships we build today are much the same as the ships we built 20 years ago,” Strachan said. “They are the same style, which is something we believe in passionately. Something that is fundamental about Pandaw ships is that they are exactly how ships were 100 years ago on the Irrawaddy, and they were designed like that for a reason.”

Today's Pandaw vessels take their design cues from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. vessels of yesteryear.
Today’s Pandaw vessels take their design cues from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. vessels of yesteryear.

Pandaw emerged from the ashes of the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which in its 1920s heyday consisted of a fleet of more than 600 passenger and cargo vessels. In 1998, Strachan acquired the Pandaw, a steamboat built in Scotland in 1947 that he renovated and operated for several years. That vessel is now operated by Myanmar-based Ayravata Cruises. Strachan’s company built its first ship in 2001 to be almost a replica of the original Pandaw.

The look and feel of those Irrawaddy Flotilla vessels — colonial-style, three-deck ships with wraparound balconies — remain the unifying design of Pandaw vessels today even as newcomers such as AmaWaterways, Sanctuary Retreats, Haimark Travel and Aqua Expeditions have emerged on the Southeast Asia river cruise scene with larger vessels, indoor hallways, sprawling suites, spas and swimming pools.

“I know we sound very old-fashioned,” Strachan said. “But really, our clients, who tend to be very adventurous, very seasoned travelers, they’re not coming for the pool or the Jacuzzi. They do not want these things. And I’m afraid we’re very stick-in-the-mud about this.”

Instead, Strachan is focused on building river cruise vessels that foster a more social atmosphere with ample public spaces. The wraparound balconies, for instance, encourage guests to mingle and also facilitate the movement of fresh air as the vessels sail, something Strachan says is both a comfort and safety issue, offering stability to vessels that have more shallow drafts.

The simplicity and practicality of the design as well as the smaller size of the vessels is what the Pandaw founder says enables the company to explore further along various rivers in Southeast Asia and ultimately bring clients to more off-the-beaten-track destinations.

Pandaw’s new cruises

While the design of the Pandaw vessels hasn’t changed much in 20 years, more recently the company is pushing the envelope with new river cruise routes. This November, Pandaw is introducing a Mekong River sailing through Laos on the newly constructed, 20-passenger Laos Pandaw.

Pandaw's new itinerary in Laos launches in November.
Pandaw’s new itinerary in Laos launches in November.

The vessel will sail an 11-day itinerary that will begin in the French colonial city of Vientiane and continue north to Ban Paklay, Pak Lai, Tha Deua and the Unesco World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. There will be a stop at the Pak Ou Caves, and the itinerary will end in Chiang Khong, Thailand.

The Laos Pandaw is being custom-built with a shallow draft to sail the Upper Mekong. The staterooms will measure 180 square feet each, and there will also be an open-air lounge; a bistro-style dining room with outside seating and air conditioning inside; and a bar that will be open around the clock. The cruise-only price starts at $3,250 per person, based on double occupancy. Pandaw pricing includes all excursions, crew gratuities, meals, nonpremium drinks and airport transfers.

Additionally, Pandaw has introduced an 11-day Halong Bay and the Red River itinerary that will initiate a new route along Vietnam’s Red River. The sailing will take place on the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, which will reposition from the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of June.

Vietnam's Lower Red River, part of a new Pandaw itinerary for 2015.
Vietnam’s Lower Red River, part of a new Pandaw itinerary for 2015.

The itinerary will begin in Halong Bay. From there, the river cruise will head up the Kinh Thay River and on to the Duong River. There will be two days of sightseeing in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, before continuing on to the Upper and Lower Red River.

The Angkor Pandaw was built in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. It features 16 staterooms at 170 square feet each, and the public spaces consist of a main dining room, bar, lounge, shop and library. The cruise-only price starts at $2,340 per person, based on double occupancy.

Pandaw is testing the waters beyond Southeast Asia, as well. The company is chartering some vessels in India this year, with the hopes of perhaps introducing its own vessels there in the coming year. For 2015, Pandaw offered a single, 16-day departure on India’s Ganges and Hooghly rivers on the 40-passenger Rajmahal, which has already sold out.

Pandaw's new Ganges itinerary begins in the holy city of Varanasi.
Pandaw’s new Ganges itinerary begins in the holy city of Varanasi.

There is also a new eight-day cruise on the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India onboard the 46-passenger Mahabaahu, with departures starting next month.

The cruise will visit the largest river island in the world and will include an encounter with the Mishing people who inhabit India’s Assam region. Pandaw guests will also learn more about the aromatic tea the region is known for. Included will be an excursion to Kaziranga National Park and areas known for their single-horned rhinos, buffalos, Indian tigers and river dolphins. The snow-covered Himalayan Mountain range can be seen from the Brahmaputra River. The cruise-only price starts at $2,430 per person, based on double occupancy.

The company also added four departures of a new seven-day itinerary in southern India’s Kerala region starting in December, which includes a three-night land program in Cochin and a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam from Thottapally through Kanjipada and on to the Champakkulam village. The Backwaters of Kerala trip is priced from $1,530, based on double occupancy.

The Pak Ou Caves in Laos will be a stop on Pandaw's new Laos itinerary.
The Pak Ou Caves in Laos will be a stop on Pandaw’s new Laos itinerary.

“We’re constantly trying to go further and further up these rivers into remoter areas. That’s our ambition,” said Strachan, adding that Pandaw is hoping to ultimately introduce an itinerary that will include all six countries through which the Mekong River flows: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China.

Getting permission to sail across the border into China has proven the biggest challenge and is what the company is working toward in order to be able to eventually offer a complete Mekong sailing.

Strachan said that he also isn’t opposed to looking at opportunities beyond Asia in places like the Amazon, for instance, if he were to find the right partners.

Courting more Americans

Pandaw’s largest customer base consists of Australians, followed by Brits and then Americans. But that’s something the company is hoping to change.

“We’re trying to grow our direct-sales market in America,” Strachan said, referring to Pandaw’s desire to sell more of its product directly to agents and consumers in the U.S., rather than predominantly through partner river cruise lines and operators. “That’s very important to us. We’re working on that.”

Pandaw doesn’t currently have a U.S. office, but San Francisco-based Sayang Holidays is the company’s preferred agent in the U.S. for booking Pandaw vacations.

Pandaw's new seven-day itinerary in southern India's Kerala region includes a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam.
Pandaw’s new seven-day itinerary in southern India’s Kerala region includes a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam.

As U.S. river cruise lines have been expanding beyond Europe into Southeast Asia over the past five years, many of them have partnered with Pandaw on various charters on the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, including Viking Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Avalon Waterways.

But as demand for Southeast Asia picked up, so has shipbuilding competition. Pandaw isn’t the only game in town anymore. Some companies, such as AmaWaterways, forged their own shipbuilding partnerships in the region to develop ships they partially own, while others, such as Haimark Travel, are working to build vessels and partner with U.S. companies on charters, similar to what Pandaw has done.

In fact, Haimark was formed in 2012 by a group of three former Pandaw employees who struck out on their own. The Breckenridge, Colo.-based company has come on very strong in the last two years, building luxury vessels in Southeast Asia and India, which many U.S. companies, including Uniworld and Abercrombie & Kent, are now chartering.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to them. It’s amazing how they’ve grown so quickly,” Strachan said of Haimark. “It’s a completely different style from us, it’s a different market they’re going for.”

As for Pandaw’s market, the company continues to operate charters for several U.S. operators.

Last year, Pandaw hired Hugh Clayson to serve in the newly created role of commercial director. Clayson oversaw the opening of a global sales and marketing office for Pandaw in West London.

Luxury on the rise on Southeast Asia’s rivers

By Michelle Baran

The temples of Bagan, Myanmar.After Europe’s busy ship-christening season this spring, the river cruise spotlight is shifting to Southeast Asia for the fall, where the latest lineup of river ship launches is showcasing an ever-escalating level of luxury, service and amenities. So much so that it begs the question of whether this new crop of vessels could actually surpass the standards that have been set by Europe’s river vessels.

“It’s a very fair question to ask if [the ships currently launching in Southeast Asia] are in fact more luxurious that what is on offer in Europe. I wouldn’t say that they are more luxurious, but it’s a different definition of luxury,” said Tom Markwell, managing partner, sales and marketing, at Haimark Travel, which this month launched the first two vessels to set sail for the exotic river and small-ship cruise company.

In September, Haimark launched the 68-passenger Mekong Navigator in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the 16-passenger Irrawaddy Explorer in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), vessels that are helping to usher in a new generation of luxury service and amenities on river cruises in this part of the world.

Others are raising the bar higher, too, such as Sanctuary Retreats’ 42-passenger all-suite luxury vessel the Sanctuary Ananda, debuting next month in Myanmar, and AmaWaterways’ 56-passenger AmaPura, which sets sail in Myanmar in November.

Those will be followed by more impressive river cruise launches in Southeast Asia in 2015 (see related story, “The latest batch of Southeast Asia ships”).

Vietnam vs. Vienna

What these new vessels represent is not just continued growth in demand for river cruising in Southeast Asia — where new ship launches on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River are shadowing an initial boom on the Mekong River that began several years ago — but an elevation of product in those destinations that is bringing it closer to what river cruisers have come to expect in Europe.

Life on the Mekong.Not long after introducing the Mekong in 2009, AmaWaterways created a separate business division for its non-European product called AmaVoyages. The idea was to manage expectations a bit — a subtle way to let passengers know that river cruising in destinations such as Southeast Asia and Botswana, where the company has exotic river itineraries, does not mimic the product in Europe.

It’s not that the product is inferior; it’s just different. In fact, river cruise operators have noted that while some things are harder to deliver in Southeast Asia, such as decent docking facilities (a challenge that is mostly out of their hands), other things can be easier, such as high service levels. And then there is the biggest difference: the destinations themselves.

“The Mekong, Tonle River and Tonle Lake are a much more important lifeline for the locals than European rivers,” said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, about the major waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia on which the company sails.

“In Vietnam and Cambodia most of the daily life happens on the water. There are floating markets, floating villages, and fishing is a main source of local nutrition. Many sightseeing excursions are by boat, whereas in Europe, the ships are used as luxurious floating hotels to take you from city to city. On the Mekong more happens on the river than in the towns.”

River cruising in Vietnam vs. Vienna is not surprisingly a vastly difference experience. And despite the economic and infrastructure disparity between Europe and Southeast Asia, river cruise passengers “should not expect anything subpar” in Southeast Asia, Schreiner said.

Bigger staterooms, better service

Angkor Wat, CambodiaIndeed, as river cruise operators such as AmaWaterways continue to improve the product in Southeast Asia, the results mark a consummate change from the region’s earlier generation of ships and the sophisticated vessels being rolled out today.

Schreiner noted that the company’s 124-passenger AmaDara, debuting on the Mekong next year with twin-balcony staterooms and two restaurants instead of just one, “is a testament to how AmaVoyages is able to continuously improve in exotic destinations.”

Another prime example is the Sanctuary Ananda, which Sanctuary Resorts, a company owned by Abercrombie & Kent, is launching next month in Myanmar. The Ananda marks Sanctuary’s first project in Myanmar, and the company is giving ample attention to the hardware.

For one, the suites will range from 291 square feet to a 721-square-foot suite, a marked increase in space compared with many European river vessels. That added spaciousness is possible in Southeast Asia because there are no locks on the waterways and thus fewer restrictions on ship dimensions.

River lines with product in Southeast Asia are also putting a much bigger emphasis on service than they have in the past, providing private butler service for some of the highest category suite guests, for instance.

The spa element is becoming an increasingly important part of the Southeast Asia river cruising experience, as well, and river cruise operators have been steadily amping up their spa service offerings.

“It’s the hospitality factor that will allow us to surpass European river cruise product along the rivers of Asia,” said Haimark’s Markwell.

“It’s the gentle, kind and most of all sincere willingness to serve the guests that blows veteran cruisers among the European waterways out of the water.”