Actress Joan Collins, godmother of the S.S. Joie de Vivre, christening the ship on Monday. At left is Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
PARIS — Actress Joan Collins christened Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s new river cruise ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, here on Monday, signaling the company’s confidence in the enduring allure of Paris.
“Like so many places in the world, [Paris has] had problems in the last couple of years, and like everything else in life and history, that too shall come to pass,” Stanley Tollman, founder and chairman of The Travel Corporation, Uniworld’s parent company, said during the christening ceremony to the backdrop of one of Paris’ most iconic landmarks, the Eiffel Tower.
“Paris is coming back. It’s coming back strongly, ” he said, adding that the Joie de Vivre is nearly 90% booked for 2017, indicating that the $26 million investment The Travel Corporation made in the Joie de Vivre is paying off, despite some initial hesitation about whether to go forward with the launch following the November 2015 attacks in Paris,
Dressed head-to-toe in white, Collins on Monday morning officially named the ship, which set sail on its maiden voyage along France’s Seine River toward Normandy shortly after the ceremony.
The 128-passenger Joie de Vivre is the latest of Uniworld’s Super Ship class of vessels and is a floating ode to Parisian aesthetic and charm, including an impressive collection of unabashedly French artwork throughout the vessel. The entire ship combines rich wood finishings with intricate upholstery, resulting in vintage-looking details that are at once both classic and clean.
The Joie de Vivre houses several new spaces and features for Uniworld, namely a greater variety of onboard dining experiences, including Le Bistrot, an endearing eatery with red banquette seats situated adjacent to the lounge that serves traditional bistro fare throughout the day.
At the aft of the vessel is Club L’Esprit, a pool and juice bar by day that transforms into Claude’s, a lively supper club and live music venue by night with a dance floor atop a retractable pool cover. Here, a covered patio also allows guests to sip their beverages and nosh on small bites either al fresco, weather permitting, or enclosed behind a glass roof and windows. Claude’s will be open about three nights on any given one-week sailing, and will become a small cinema that will show movieson two nights of each sailing.
Passengers on the Joie de Vivre will also be able to reserve a seven-course wine-pairing dinner at La Cave du Vin, a 12-person venue on the lowest deck of the ship where a cooking demonstration will be followed by a menu that incorporates the resulting dishes. While all the other dining experiences are included, this one costs an additional 92 euros per person.
The Joie de Vivre also has a fitness and a spa room, two 24-hour tea and coffee stations and a guest laundry room.
There are five categories of staterooms, ranging from 162-square-foot lower-deck cabins to 410-square-foot suites. Most staterooms range from 180 square feet to 260 square feet. All suites and staterooms on the upper two decks have wall-to-wall retractable windows that drop down with the flip of a switch, converting into French balconies. Some suites can accommodate up to three people and there are adjoining staterooms available, too. There are USB ports in the cabins and the lounge and free WiFi is available to guests onboard.
The christening was attended by numerous Travel Corporation executives, including Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge; Beatrice Tollman, president and founder of Red Carnation Hotels, Uniworld’s sister company; Brett Tollman, The Travel Corporation’s chief executive; and Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar, The Travel Corporation’s guided vacation brand.
Last month, more than 3,500 river cruise staff members, including 2,800 crew and 700 officers, headed to Viking River Cruises campuses in six cities across Europe to train and prepare for the start of the 2016 season. Elsewhere in Europe, other river cruise lines were hosting their increasingly sophisticated annual staff training events, too.
With the rapid expansion of the river cruise industry over the last five years, operators have had to quickly overhaul and expand their operations, evolving from boutique companies that could manage their small fleets with something as simple as a spreadsheet into large, dynamic enterprises that carry tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of passengers each year on anywhere from a handful to dozens of vessels.
The growth has required river cruise lines to implement advanced inventory-management systems, enhance their customer service strategies and hire a myriad of additional staffers each year to adequately cater to the additional passengers and vessels — all within a relatively short period of time.
The challenge along the way has been to ensure that increased quantity has not meant a decrease in the quality of the experience. After all, it was high customer-satisfaction ratings that helped river cruising take off in the first place.
“As an industry grows, it is not unusual to gain more attention and sometimes be challenged for resources,” said Guy Young, the president of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. “Clearly, competition for good staff has intensified.”
Young said that in addition to the fast pace of growth that has sent operators racing to find quality employees, the increased competition and exposure has also meant pressure to improve the standards of service onboard as well as manage the added inventory.
“Managing and meeting guest expectations has also intensified,” Young said. “Guests are better informed than ever, have high expectations and may be quick to post on social media when expectations are not met. This is both a challenge and opportunity for us.”
As an example, Young recalled how a few years ago Uniworld received feedback from guests who didn’t like having to pay gratuities for what was being marketed as a luxury cruise.
“Many guests commented that we should pay our staff a fair wage and not expect the guests to subsidize their wages,” he said. “So in 2014 we went all-inclusive, including all gratuities onboard and on shore, and our ratings improved dramatically. So guests are more vocal and have more outlets to communicate to a wide audience. But it also allows us to get great feedback and make the necessary improvements to continually improve our product delivery.”
Finding the right people
With a small-ship model, river cruising has built its reputation on being an intimate experience with highly personalized service. While the ships are developing into sleeker and more sophisticated vessels with each generation, the limitations on their dimensions and amenities means that passenger satisfaction often ends up being much more dependent on other aspects of the experience, such as onboard customer service and off-ship sightseeing excursions — all of which are driven by people.
For Viking, which has launched 52 Longship vessels on Europe’s rivers in the past five years, that has meant creating extensive recruitment and training programs. The line must identify, coach and prepare thousands of crew members each year to ensure that it isn’t just the Scandinavian-designed Longships that impress travelers; the customer service experience must be consistent across all 52 ships.
“We have a number of measures in place to maintain and improve quality control,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing. “One of the things we are most proud of is our season-start training program, which takes place each March and is essentially an intense off-site service-training camp for new and seasoned crew members.”
With thousands of crew to train, Viking divvies them up across its campuses, using its vast fleet to house the recruits and undertake the training programs. New and returning staff members go through several different training modules over the course of between three and eight days, guided by either Viking staff or professional external trainers.
As for the initial recruiting efforts, Marnell said, “Our crew … are actually our best recruiters.” That sentiment was echoed by several other river cruise lines, which noted that they often get referrals through their staff. Marnell said Viking has a crew retention rate of just over 90%.
Joe Maloney, the vice president of sales and marketing, USA, for Scenic, which has grown into a 14-vessel river cruise line in the eight years since it launched, said many of its new hires also come from staff recommendations. He said that Scenic also pulls from across its global tour operation, as well as from the ranks of ocean cruises.
With such a high demand for large numbers of quality crew members, river cruise lines have come to realize just how crucial retention is.
“Competitive pay, rewarding outstanding service, engendering loyalty and respect are the hallmarks of Scenic,” Maloney said. “And retention has been the cornerstone of our management philosophy.”
Other lines are also trying to reduce turnover by improving benefits and living standards for their crew members.
Patrick Clark, the managing director of Avalon Waterways, said, “We believe that a happy crew creates happy guests [and] working conditions are an important part of that process.
For example, we offer crew cabins on a twin-share basis with several amenities. With different shifts, a crew member can still have a good deal of privacy. The twin feature also allows us to recruit couples who can work together for the season and thus provide additional recruitment opportunities.”
Clark added that Avalon likes to provide its staff the opportunity to work in different departments and to encourage promotions and growth. He said the current retention rate is around 80%.
Uniworld’s Young, too, said that achieving low turnover (Uniworld retained 95% of its 2015 crew for the 2016 season) is “based on core pillars of treating our employees with respect, providing above-market wages and benefits, offering great training opportunities and doing our very best to promote from within.”
Once Uniworld has made all its hires, the company brings them together at the start of the season for a two-week training session, which this year was held in Cologne, Germany, at the end of February and start of March. In addition to both general and department-specific training sessions, Uniworld also likes to inject some fun and motivation into the process, ending the program with a big party for the staff.
“We value and recognize the importance of our staff and try to treat them like family,” Young said. “This is how our ownership, the Tollman family, has approached all of their businesses and is, I believe, one of the reasons they have enjoyed so much success.”
A web of logistics
River cruise lines have numerous variables to balance beyond just the crew. They have many more passengers to manage and more ships to keep track of today than they did as recently as a few years ago. They have to keep clients happy in good times, such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, as well as in bad, such as during itinerary disruptions caused by high or low water levels.
In some cases, that has meant better technology and automation to keep track of everything from passengers’ flight information to their dietary preferences while still keeping the experience hands-on and personalized.
In the high-tech realm, Viking this year implemented My Viking Journey, an online portal that enables booked guests to create an account and customize their experience in advance. They are able to browse and book excursions, access and print documents, manage their daily schedule and opt for other add-ons. The site launched last year for Viking’s ocean guests and is now rolling out for its 2016 river guests.
For several years now, Avalon Waterways has had a similar system in place that it calls My Avalon, an online service center through which optional excursions can be prepurchased, dietary preferences selected and beverage packages purchased among other options. In addition to web-driven options for guests to manage their vacations, river cruise operators have had to invest in and develop more sophisticated back-of-house systems to keep track of all their passengers and inventory.
“When you have one or two ships for example, you can manage inventory on spreadsheets,” said Avalon’s Clark. “We realized early that in order to grow we needed a more sophisticated centralized inventory system so that all markets could have real-time access to it, and we developed one accordingly.”
But no matter how much high-tech has helped the lines manage their growth, when they encounter tricky situations such as water-level disruptions, many say there is no way to automate the kinds of solutions you need to put in place and that they still rely on the same old-school problem-solving they used years ago.
“While we have specific processes and protocols for many scenarios,” said Viking’s Marnell, “there is nothing automatic about managing these situations, and our staff individually manages the logistics and communication with guests.”
In fact, Viking touts that while it has more ships to manage, its larger fleet size gives the company greater inventory to rely on if and when ship swaps are needed to help itineraries bypass high- or low-water areas.
“We have a Switzerland-based nautical team and a network of local partners and authorities that are focused on monitoring and adapting to current water levels so that our guests experience the least possible disruption,” Marnell said. “Our size is a significant help in the event of high or low water, as we have the largest fleet with sister ships sailing in opposite directions. This allows us to implement a ship swap that is typically seamless for guests. Both they and their luggage are able to be transferred to their exact, identical stateroom on a sister ship.”
At the same time, the river lines that have grown more slowly say that their unhurried approach to expansion has made them more flexible when dealing with challenges such as high- and low-water issues, maintaining product consistency and dealing with unpredictable market factors such as a slowdown in bookings following the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Rudi Schreiner, the president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, defended his line’s slower growth as strategically wise.
“We have been increasing our fleet slowly and steadily to ensure that we not only maintain the highest standards but also to increase the quality onboard year after year,” Schreiner said. “Since 2006, every year, we have built either one or two ships for our European fleet. We continued building one ship per year during the recession years, and we didn’t build more than two ships per year during the big, booming years.”
Schreiner said that rather than figure out ways to reaccommodate hundreds of passengers during high water or drought situations, the company has been focused on a prevention strategy, minimizing itinerary disruptions by building ships with a low draft and by managing their deployment based on historic weather patterns to avoid problem stretches of various rivers.
In the end, each line has tackled the rapid growth and the opportunities and challenges that have come with it in their own way.
Few passengers realize how much has changed and evolved behind the scenes in the river cruise industry in the past few years. Some of that change has likely been for the better, especially competition-driven enhancements in onboard amenities and services, while some passengers might feel the river cruising industry has become less personal and is gradually being run more like a big business. According to the river cruise lines, passengers should feel that river cruising is and will remain a very customer-oriented industry no matter how big it gets.
At a time when other river cruise lines are scaling back on growth, French river cruise company CroisiEurope this week announced it will launch seven new river cruise vessels this year and next.
Granted not all seven are full-size European river cruise ships — two are 22-passenger canal barges, and one is launching on the Mekong — but still, seven ships is worth noting, especially for a company many of us here in the U.S. didn’t know much, if anything, about as recently as a couple years ago.
By the time these seven vessels are launched, CroisiEurope will have 46 company-owned vessels in its fleet. In 2014, the company carried some 200,000 cruise passengers (compared to the approximately 250,000 passengers carried by Viking River Cruises), although only about 8,000 to 9,000 of those hailed from the U.S. But CroisiEurope is growing its U.S customer base, and quickly.
So, what’s the deal with Croisi? Well, the company saw an opening at the lower end of the river cruise market and it is clearly going after it. For a long time, river cruising has grappled with a reputation of being a bit pricey. Travel agents would lament that while they wanted to sell more river cruises, especially since the very inclusive vacation style generally offers lofty commissions, not all of their clients could afford it.
Therein lies the opportunity for CroisiEurope, which after 40 years of building river cruise ships in Europe, is banking on its home-turf shipbuilding ties and a more pared down version of river cruising to bring lower prices to market. And while CroisiEurope’s older vessels do not compete with the sleek newbuilds being churned out by U.S.-facing river cruise lines such as Viking, AmaWaterways, Avalon, Uniworld and all the rest, the company has upped its ship design game and its newest batch of river cruise ships is focused on chicer interiors and enhanced amenities.
Another line going after this segment with arguably even chicer ships is Emerald Waterways, the lower-priced sister brand to Scenic. And it is having a good deal of success too. Having only launched in 2014, Emerald is on pace to have seven river cruise ships in Europe by 2017 (its fifth vessel, the 182-passenger Emerald Belle, was slated to launch this spring, but has been set back by a fire in the shipyard).
As river cruising piques more travelers’ interests, and the travel style opens up to a wider audience, there is clearly going to be more demand for and thus greater opportunity to provide a more accessible river cruising experience.