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.

Princess offers shore excursion guarantee

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Princess Cruises has adopted a best-price guarantee for its shore excursions.

The cruise line will refund 110% of the price of a shore excursion if a passenger finds an equivalent excursion at a lower price.

Refunds come in the form of an onboard spending credit. The guarantee only applies to excursions booked before sailing, and only to competing excursions that are advertised with prices attached.

To get the refund, passengers submit proof at least seven days prior to the sailing date to for review by the shore excursion customer service team. Within two business days, guests will be notified if their request meets the guarantee criteria.

The program excludes excursions in Asia, Southeast Asia and Japan as well as private vehicle and driver excursions in ports worldwide.

In offering the guarantee, Princess joins Carnival Cruise Line, which has had such a program since 2014.

Many travel agents book shore excursions with independent providers who pay commission on the sale. Most cruise lines don’t pay commissions on excursions, with a few exceptions for groups.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Andy Stuart ~ Q & A

Norwegian president and COO Andy Stuart
Norwegian Cruise Line has worked hard to make value-added amenities rather than price discounting its go-to tool for making sales. The current Free at Sea promotion offers a pick among five items, including shore excursions, WiFi, unlimited beverages, specialty dining and third and fourth berths free. But Norwegian introduced Sail Away fares in March designed to eliminate those amenities with a reduction in fare after finding that the value of Free at Sea was hard to convey in some online searches. It disclosed the fares in a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts. Norwegian president and COO Andy Stuart spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst about Sail Away.

Q: What are Sail Away fares?

Andy Stuart
Andy Stuart

A: As a brand, we want our business to be very focused on value and away from price. The majority of what we sell comes with some value-added feature, either a beverage package or an internet package or onboard credit or free shore excursion or some other way. The Sail Away fares … come without a value-add.

Q: Why were they created?

A: What we were seeing is there are environments where the fares look too expensive. If you just have a conversation, it’s quite easy to explain. If you move into a more price-driven environment, it becomes more complicated. Most online sites were designed to show a particular cruise for seven nights or three nights or four nights. It tends to be cruise, the number of days it is and price.

In an online environment, it starts to get a little more complicated. There are two things going on. The higher prices move the cruise down in the search results. The second thing going on is even when we were well-positioned in search results, with the higher price the value-add doesn’t come through.

Q: How long has Sail Away been available?

A: We started testing it in March and April on a relatively small number of cruises, and we were quite pleased with it. It’s been widely available since the beginning of May.

Q: How much lower are the fares?

A: It’s hard to generalize because of the varying length of cruises involved and different itineraries. In most cases, if a customer were choosing between the Sail Away fare and a fare that includes the value-added items, we would expect them to choose the value-add. The cost of a beverage package on its own can be $600, and I don’t think any of the Sail Away fares are reduced by that much.

Q: Are they available only to OTAs?

A: They’re generally available. In the conference call we were talking about the OTAs because that’s the environment where people are selling in an online world.

Q: Can Sail Away be purchased as soon as inventory becomes available?

A: Most of these are available close-in, but we’re testing a lot of different things. But they’re only available in four categories; you can’t buy them on a suite. So it’s a tiny percentage of our inventory. There’s one inside, one outside, one balcony and one minisuite. It’s less than 10% [of the inventory].

Q: Are Sail Away fares contrary to Norwegian’s value-add strategy? If not, why not?

A: It’s not contrary. The reason it isn’t is that it applies to such a small percentage of our inventory. Secondly, the discount will never equal the value of the value-add. It’s a tactic that we think will ultimately be used on a very small percentage of our business.