Doing more onshore

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The Palace at Versailles
For all the fuss river cruise lines make about their pretty ships (and don’t get me wrong, most are a visual delight), the truth is that many of the most memorable river cruising moments don’t take place on the water – they take place on land.

Yes, images of boats sell cruises. And yes, we all love to get a sneak peak of and visually approve of our sleek vacation accommodations before we journey out into the world. But in theory, those accommodations are just a means to an end, a literal vessel to bring us to the places we battle through long flights and jetlag to get to: the destination itself.

In recognizing that, river cruise lines are steadily highlighting and enhancing experiences that go beyond the hardware with ever more intriguing onshore programs. For instance, Crystal River Cruises has said that in addition to its onboard culinary program, its guests will have access to dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, each 2017 Crystal river itinerary will feature at least one Michelin-starred dining opportunity, the first of which will be complimentary, the company has promised.

 
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Tauck, a tour operator first and foremost, has repeatedly touted its emphasis on and investment in onshore experiences. The company recently announced that it would continue along that path by adding more and enhanced shore excursions for 2018.

Along those lines, Tauck has secured exclusive pre-opening visits to Versailles and after-hours tours of the Louvre (both of which have been piloted on select departures in 2017 and will be expanded for next year). In 2018, some river cruise passengers will also be invited to a private Tauck dinner inside the German Parliament building, and there will be an included lunch at Alain Ducasse’s newest restaurant, Ore, in Versailles.

Hotel barge company European Waterways said that it has also noticed that passengers are asking for more immersive and experiential encounters ashore. In response, the company is adding excursions such as an exclusive tour of a castle garden in Scotland led by the head gardener, and the opportunity to try some fresh oysters after a private tour of an oyster farm. 

 
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Castle at Loch Ness, Scotland


In recent years, European Waterways said that it has also worked to better curate its wine tastings excursions to passengers’ tastes and to enhance the culinary experience by including more private cooking demonstrations with regional chefs.

You see, while it’s definitely a close cousin of ocean cruising, river cruising is by nature of the restricted size of the vessels never going to be able to bank on the “ship as the destination” appeal that many blue-water behemoths benefit from. Thus, while the promise of a fetching ship and a comfortable mode of travel may lure many travelers to river cruising, it will ultimately be the “wow” moments onshore that are likely keep them hooked.

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Low water levels plague Europe river cruises

With a low water level, a large stretch of the Elbe’s riverbed was exposed in August near Magdeburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
 

A hot and dry summer in Europe has led to lower-than-normal water levels on portions of the Danube and Elbe rivers throughout the summer, and has forced river cruise lines to alter their itineraries during July, August and now into September.

“Water levels on the Elbe and Danube rivers are currently lower than normal and Viking has had to make adjustments to the cruise schedules of several ships sailing these rivers,” Viking River Cruises wrote on its website this week.

Five Viking cruises have been altered this week, four of which include a ship swap. Passengers will be transferred in order to avoid a low-water area of the Elbe River that ships cannot bypass.

Additionally, Viking’s Sept. 2 “Grand European Tour” from Budapest to Amsterdam, scheduled to depart on the Viking Aegir, will begin in Komarom, Hungary, on the Viking Embla. Viking will provide transfers from Budapest to Komarom.

“These are currently the only sailings we expect to be altered by the low water on the rivers,” Viking stated.

But low water levels have been a problem all summer. The low levels on the Elbe came during a year when Viking launched two new vessels on the river in eastern Germany. Other river cruise lines have avoided the Elbe in part because of the challenges presented when the water level is low.

The Danube River is one that all the major river cruise lines sail. The area on the Danube where the low waters have posed a problem is the 75-mile stretch between Regensburg and Passau in Germany.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection had to alter eight Danube River sailings in July and August, which included having guests swap ships from one side of the low waters to the other. The company canceled its Aug. 9 “European Jewels” cruise on the Maria Theresa, deciding that there wouldn’t be enough actual cruising in the trip to justify the departure.

“We sincerely appreciate the understanding and support our guests and travel industry partners have shown during this challenging time,” Uniworld wrote on its website.

Avalon Waterways wrote on its Facebook page last week that the river levels on the Danube had again begun to recede.

“Danube River waters receded over the weekend and early this week. Once again, the waters between Regensburg and Passau are beginning to delay and/or stall ship passage. We are fervently working to keep cruise itinerary disruptions to a minimum. If or when cruise itineraries are altered, however, we will provide affected travelers with alternate opportunities to see and explore the best Europe has to offer,” Avalon wrote on Facebook.

The post elicited a string of comments from passengers, some concerned about current and upcoming sailings, others with positive messages of support and kudos for how Avalon handled past sailings that were disrupted due to low water levels.

The forecast is calling for rain in the coming days, according to Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, which has not had to alter any of its Danube itineraries yet this summer. Schreiner is hoping that some much-needed precipitation along the Danube will help bring the river’s water levels back up.

It’s all about relationships

It’s no big secret that so much in the travel industry is about relationships — relationships between agents and their clients, relationships between suppliers and agents, relationships between suppliers and vendors.

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.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

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.