River Cruising Grows Up

Baby Boomers Are Jumping On BoardAvalon new head

It’s no coincidence that river cruising continues to boom as Baby Boomers expand on their collective purchasing power. The last of the Baby Boomer generation reached 50 in 2014, and today, this generation comprises the most powerful consumers in the marketplace. Baby Boomers are 77 million people strong—and they outspend other generations by an estimated $400 billion each year on consumer goods and services, according to the U.S. Government Consumer Expenditure Survey.

And while some of their priorities might vary, if there’s one thing Boomers do agree on, it’s the importance of spending money on travel. AARP’s 2016 Top Travel Trends found that an astounding 99 percent of the Baby Boomers they surveyed intended to travel this year, with 45 percent expecting to take an international trip. Reinforcing this finding, British Airways recently surveyed over 2,000 U.S. Baby Boomers (55 and over) and discovered that not traveling enough is one of the biggest regrets for one-fifth of the respondents when thinking back on their life so far.

“Generational values tend to be persistent through time, and the desire for adventure and learning have been in existence since this generation was in its formative years,” says Brent Green, a writer, speaker and trainer about marketing to the Baby Boomer generation.

“I started my own international journeys at age 50 with the intention of getting my most active travel done before I hit my 80s,” says Green. “That’s the way my wife and I proceeded to do it, and we’re not atypical—that’s reflective of the overall Boomer propensity for adventure and active travel.”

The Rise of River Cruising

The journey itself is the experience on a river cruise, with cities and towns strung like pearls along the waterways. Europe is usually the first destination people choose, but as Patrick Clark, the managing director for Avalon Waterways calls it, the “river cruising travel style” is available around the world. That makes river cruising a great repeat option for travelers, with an ever-growing array of possibilities.

Image result for yellow river cruise
Kakadu & East Alligator River Tour

“Once they’ve experienced it, people come back and choose river cruises in other destinations,” says Clark. “They want to enjoy that familiar experience of cruising on the river, whether it’s in Vietnam, Cambodia, China or the Amazon. For some of these more exotic destinations, it’s even more comforting for them to know they have the familiar ship, crew and food waiting for them at the end of the day.”

That’s one of the reasons river cruising has become the travel industry’s fastest-growing segment, with double-digit growth last year. Overall, it’s now one of the top three international travel destinations, up from #4 in 2015, according to a Travel Leaders Group survey this summer. The trend is even stronger among well-heeled travelers, with river cruising cited as the top travel trend (along with multigenerational travel) in the 2016 Virtuoso Luxe Report, sponsored by the international network of luxury travel agencies. 

Trish Mercer, a home-based Virtuoso travel agent in Columbus, Georgia, touts the ease of the travel experience as one reason that river cruising is “absolutely, positively going up” in popularity. “There’s almost always something interesting to see while you’re sailing, and then you pull up to shore and have the opportunity to be involved in things right away,” she says.

Mercer’s experience is echoed by travel agents who participated in the third Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook Report of 2016 by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)—more than six out of 10 (64 percent) expected to sell more river cruises this year. 

“River cruising is a great option for travelers who are looking to explore multiple memorable destinations in one vacation,” says Lorri Christou, SVP of strategic communications and marketing for CLIA. “River cruises offer an intimate and immersive experience for people to explore new and different cultures.” 
    

A Perfect Fit for Boomers

“When you look at river cruising, Baby Boomers represent the core of all the travelers on cruise ships,” says Clark. “That segment is living longer and they have a greater desire for travel than their parents.”

And as river cruising continues to develop and mature, increasingly sophisticated amenities are being offered that appeal to Boomers and differentiate the river cruise experience from a land tour or an ocean cruise.  “There’s more interest now in what’s happening with the cruise’s themes rather than just the destination, including a focus on things such as wine, heritage and biking,” says Daniela Harrison, a river cruise specialist with Flagstaff, Arizona-based Avenues of the World Travel. “Cruisers want a unique focus on the sightseeing portion.”

Baby Boomers are looking for all that and more. Here’s a look at five major trends in river cruising that Boomers are seeking out in their travel.

The Joy of Discovery 
First and foremost, travelers crave the unknown, and that makes discovering unique places the No. 1 must-have experience among Virtuoso’s Top Travel Trends for 2016.

Harrison hears that “more so with river cruising than anything else,” because it allows Boomers to explore a variety of places. “They want itineraries with multiple ports in a country that are close to each other so they get to know the region in depth, like sailing the northern part of the Rhine,” she says. “Plus, the excursions are more hand-crafted on a river cruise, and there’s more free time to stroll through the city afterwards to take it all in.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal for explorers when simply sailing down a river is such an ongoing sensory treat. “They’re interested in the scenery and what’s passing before their eyes constantly,” says Mercer.

Meaningful Experiences

Image result for yellow river cruise

Another must-have reported by Virtuoso’s travel advisors is the quest for experiential travel in order to create the unforgettable memories travelers are looking for from a vacation. “Baby Boomers want to take a much deeper dive into a destination,” says Green.

He points out that immersive travel engages people in the “flow experience,” a phenomenon where travelers become intensely focused on the activity itself. “The flow experience increases mindfulness and overall contentment with what you’re doing and you become more productive. It’s not enough to just see the sights, you have to dive deep and engage in it. That’s the direction all smart travel is going for Boomers.”

Theresa Mullen with Enchanted Waterways agrees that river cruising gives people a story to take back home. “In addition to the included excursions, the optional excursions offer river cruisers the opportunity to enjoy cultural activities such as a Viennese evening concert or being welcomed into the homes of locals to enjoy home-made refreshments and conversations about their lives; visiting local schools and engaging in activities with students; and enjoying cultural presentations. On board, cruisers will enjoy dining on wonderfully prepared local cuisine, local guest lecturers and entertainers sharing their lives through history and local song and dance.”

Traveling with Family
An important part of creating meaningful memories comes from sharing those experiences with the people you’re closest to. Though river cruising has been traditionally considered a couples’ vacation, there’s been a recent rise in multigen travel on river vessels.

“Multigenerational travel is an indication of our times,” says Clark. “Everyone has busy lives and they don’t always have the time they want to spend together as a family. It’s often on a vacation that families reconnect. Where we see it the most is the Christmas Markets in Europe in December, and we also see it around theme cruises that focus on food, wine and music.”

Image result for Christmas markets cruise

Not only does this include younger Boomers and their parents, it also means Boomers are traveling with their young-adult children. “I see more of the older millennials taking their Boomer parents and treating them to the cruise,” says Harrison. “They usually tend to do the more active itineraries.”

Healthy Activities
An emphasis on health and well-being is another key element for Boomers, who are living more active lifestyles and looking to maintain those lifestyles even while traveling. “In how they’re leading their lives in terms of diet and exercise, they’re much more conscious of taking care of themselves than perhaps the focus was of the previous generation,” says Clark. “River cruising is appealing to the Boomers who are attracted to a more active life.”

To meet the demand from cruisers, more adventure excursions are being offered as part of the experience, whether it’s going for a horseback ride over the hills or canoeing down the river.

“One thing that is really nice about a number of river cruises is they bring along bicycles, either traditional or electronically enhanced bikes that are very easy to ride,” says Mercer. “On some ships, you can ride 10 or 20 miles to the next stop and the people who don’t want to bike that day can stay on board. It’s something for everyone at every level.”

Hassle-Free Travel
The ease and convenience of sailing to multiple destinations along a river, without having to pack and unpack or deal with different hotels and transportation, is very appealing to Boomers. They want something new and exotic without a lot of the stress and inconvenience associated with traveling. River cruising suits that desire—it’s like staying in an intimate boutique hotel that floats from one destination to the next, making it an independent but controlled experience.

“You have some Boomers who are completely self-propelled, like two couples traveling together,” says Green. “On the other hand, there are other people who want the fully catered vacation where they show up and everything is handled from that point on and they don’t have to do a thing. Then there are those who want the hassles removed, but they want to be able to plan their own details.”

River cruising offers that flexibility, with the added benefit of all-inclusive pricing. “Now almost all river cruises are all-inclusive, so that peace of mind is very nice,” says Harrison. “Travelers have a wide selection of excursions they can choose from as part of the cruise, or they can walk off, do their own thing and add a little adventure of their own. It empowers the traveler to know they can’t make the wrong choice.”

New technology brings lower travel calling costs

ChatSim is a SIM card that offers users the ability to message on certain apps for a baseline price of $12 per year.

An Expedia.com study recently revealed what most suspected: The majority of travelers consider their smartphones to be the most important item to bring on trips. But signing up for and using overseas calling plans offered by U.S. wireless companies are among the most frustrating, and among the most expensive, experiences consumers encounter in their journeys.

Travel advisers have taken note: The importance of keeping their clients connected internationally has not escaped them, and many are now offering more convenient options for staying connected, including applications that enable cheap international calling via WiFi, in an attempt to combat the historically expensive and confusing international plans offered by most domestic carriers.

T-Mobile is now including in some of its simple choice plans international roaming in about 140 countries with unlimited data and texts. The plans start at $50 per line per month. WiFi calls made back home to the U.S. are free, but WiFi calls to another country are 20 cents per minute, the same rate as cellular calls.

Other carriers have more complicated  — and more expensive — ways to make international calls. For example, AT&T offers a three-tiered plan for coverage in some 190 countries with base charges of $30, $60 and $120. Each includes unlimited texting, but depending on the base plan, a user could pay as much as $1 per minute for calls and more for data.

In contrast, Wireless Traveler offers several popular solutions that travel advisers can share with their clients. In addition to renting and selling global phones, the company has an eponymous app that offers international calling for as low as 2 cents per minute over WiFi. It is a  voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) service that is available wherever there is WiFi.

Rates vary by country, but for example, a traveler in France could call another country from the app for 3 cents per minute. Calling another person who has the app is free.

The company also offers a white-label version of the product, working with agencies and tour operators such as Valerie Wilson Travel and Collette Tours to create branded apps that offer the same calling technology. Wireless Traveler also has preferred-supplier relationships with Virtuoso, Ensemble Travel Group and others, according to CEO Ian Benson.

Valerie Wilson Travel Co-President Kimberly Wilson Wetty said she uses her company’s branded app when she travels and is impressed with the quality of the service for the price.

“It is the cheapest thing I have ever used as a service,” she said, calling the quality “so clear it was unbelievable.” Her agency promotes the app to its clients, including leisure and corporate travelers.

Wetty particularly likes that the app carries her agency’s name and logo, keeping it in the forefront of clients’ minds.

“As an agency owner, that’s one of the concerns as we look at the increased advancement of travel technology,” she said. “How do you maintain your own brand and your own relevance in a world where there’s information 24/7 and completely at your fingertips?”

Elaine Carey, an affiliate of Travel Experts, uses the app as a gift that she gives to some of her younger, more tech-savvy clients. Before they travel abroad, she pre-loads an app with $20 for them. It also provides them with a good — and free, for them — way to get in touch with her if something goes wrong on their trip, she said.

Benson said that while some agents do gift within the app, “not enough [do] in my opinion. … I think it’s a fabulous gift to give to somebody because it’s so relevant.”

Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of Travelsavers and NEST, said the companies encourage their agents to gift WiFi calling credit within their Affluent Traveler Talk App. Many use it as a value-add for their clients.

In addition to the Wireless Traveler app, the company offers global SIM cards, which Benson said are his biggest sellers. They work in most countries in the world through partnerships with some 400 carriers. The card costs $24.99, with $15 of free airtime included; it also includes a U.S. and European phone number.

Rates vary, but for example outgoing calls from France to the U.K. have a 40-cent connection fee and are 65 cents per minute. Text messages and data are available at additional per-country costs.

Like the Wireless Traveler app, Benson said there are agents who gift global SIM cards to clients, as well as the company’s pocket WiFi hotspots.

It is important to note that Wireless Traveler’s global SIM cards only work on unlocked GSM cell phones, meaning they will not work with Verizon handsets.

Travelers could, of course, purchase local SIM cards if they have a compatible phone once they reach their destination, but Benson said

he only recommends that for longer stays because it eats into vacation time, and the local cards cannot travel from country to country. They also expire after a set amount of time, while the global SIM card does not.

ChatSim, another relatively new international telecom service, is making its way into the U.S., and its investors are hoping agents here will start using the technology themselves and gifting it to clients, as the company is seeing internationally.

ChatSim is a SIM card that offers users the ability to message on certain apps for a baseline price of $12 per year. The card itself is also about $12, but it does not expire at the end of the year.

ChatSim works on messaging apps WhatsApp, Messenger, LINE, WeChat, imo, Kakao Talk, QQi, Hike and BBM. It provides coverage in 150 countries by connecting to over 250 service providers.

Pierre Brais, an angel investor in ChatSim, said the company differentiates itself from others thanks to its flat annual $12 fee to chat within compatible apps. The card can be ordered online through Amazon for $25, which includes the card and the first year’s $12 fee.

For an extra $12, users can buy a multimedia package of 2,000 credits, which they can use to send photos and make voice calls within apps. ChatSim estimates 2,000 credits would give a user enough bandwidth to send up to 200 photos or 50 videos or make up to 80 minutes of voice calls. Brais said around 60% to 70% of people buying the card are also buying the multimedia option.

Costs are kept down by preventing other apps on a user’s phone from running in the background, eating up data, according to Brais.

“Our tests have shown that 90% of data traffic on a smartphone now is used by the background applications on your phone,” he said, not by what the user is actually doing. The ChatSim card automatically turns off non-messaging apps to limit the amount of data used.

ChatSim has been on the market for about a year, and 100,000 cards have been sold, including to travel agents and tour operators, who are gifting the cards or selling them to clients.

The company attended the recent New York Times Travel Show and got a positive reaction from agents, Brais said, marking the start of ChatSim’s push into the U.S. market.

Brais said the card works in most unlocked, SIM-capable phones, both GSM and CDMA, meaning that unlike Wireless Traveler’s SIM cards the CDMA version of ChatSIM will work with Verizon handsets.

River cruising’s staying power

For those of us steeped in the world of river cruising, the fact that river cruising is a hot trend is old news.

But last week Virtuoso released the results of its annual survey of travel advisors, who for the first time picked river cruising as the top trend for the coming year, beating out heavyweights such as multigenerational travel, adventure travel and celebration trips.

Clearly, there are still plenty of travelers and travel sellers who are only just now discovering and fully embracing river cruising as a travel style, which indicates that it likely has a long journey of growth ahead of it, despite the rapid rate at which Viking Cruises and others have been churning out new river cruise vessels in Europe and farther afield in recent years.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

While it may seem like there is only so much that the river cruising segment can grow, the Virtuoso survey results are a reminder that in many ways the segment is arguably still in its infancy.

With demand and hype still strong, we can only expect to see more new ship announcements in Europe as well as further development of exotic river destinations such as Myanmar’s Irrawaddy and India’s Ganges. We can anticipate that some more new players will try to enter the market and that the competition will become even fiercer. I see greater design innovation and even more amenities on the horizon.

Perhaps there will come a time when we all realize that river cruising isn’t just a hot, new trend, but that it is here to stay;  dynamic and permanent fixture of the travel industry. What has been a booming trend over the last several years, will eventually just be a travel reality.