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.

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.

Lines hope weak ruble helps reignite Russia river traffic

By Michelle Baran

Moscow river cruise
A cruise ship sails past the Kremlin on the Moscow River. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
With the dollar gaining momentum and the ruble losing ground, river cruise lines still sailing Russia’s Volga River are hoping the favorable exchange rate might help to re-stimulate bookings for Russia, which have taken a big hit since last year’s rise in tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

In November, AmaWaterways decided it would not operate its 212-passenger AmaKatarina on Russia’s Volga River in 2015. Viking Cruises is only operating three of its five vessels in Russia this year — the Viking Helgi, Viking Truvor and Viking Ingvar. And Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is only offering four of its originally scheduled 12 departures in Russia in 2015 on its 202-passenger River Victoria.

But Samo Toplak, CEO of Value World Tours, which sells river cruise throughout the world including in Russia, notes for those that want to go, Russia offers incredible value right now.

“A drop in both the cost of fuel and the ruble by over 50% in the last six months makes Russia the best deal out there to visit,” said Toplak.

Viking said that it too is hoping that an encouraging pricing environment in Russia will increase demand.

“Favorable exchange rates against the ruble, combined with lower prices, will make Russia an exceptional value for North American travelers in 2015, so we are definitely encouraging guests to consider it as a destination this year,” said Viking’s SVP of Marketing Richard Marnell.

Marnell noted that Viking has seen a good response to its current Russia promotions and is optimistic for the remainder of the year.