River cruise line’s UK managing director talks Venice, Brexit, market differentiation and trade plans with Harry Kemble

It is telling of how confident Chris Townson is about Uniworld’s product that he remains undeterred when citing Venice to talk up the luxury river line.

Less than a fortnight before our interview, the 2,150-berth MSC Opera collided with Uniworld’s 130-passenger River Countess at the San Basilio Terminal in the city. The crash, which led to six River Countess sailings being cancelled, saw concerns about cruise ships operating in Venice resurface as thousands of Venetians lined the streets calling for large vessels to be banned.

“We saw what happened with the protests,” Townson says. “This [issue] has been high on the agenda for a while, with the ocean cruise lines working with Venetian authorities to decide on the best way to deal with the bigger ships.

“If you look at our river cruises, we’re doing Venice and its islands in a hugely immersive way. We probably have the most immersive offering out there. We work with local suppliers and all the food and beverage is local. If you look at the things we do, they’re off the scale.”

Next year, Uniworld is introducing a docking station at Venetian day-trip destination Burano Island, which Townson says is an example of how Uniworld goes the extra mile for the destination and customers.

“There was nothing there beforehand,” he says. “We are taking our guests there for the evening to show a different side of Venice.”

Differentiation

Away from Venice, Townson has identified a persistent problem for agents. He says agents 15 years ago had a “real struggle” trying to differentiate between ocean lines. Now, he says, agents selling river cruise are faced with the same issue.

“Ocean [cruising] has matured,” Townson says. “Most trade channels understand the segmentation in the ocean cruise industry. People understand Silversea and Regent Seven Seas are ultra-luxury and further down the luxury line there is Oceania.

“River is still in its infancy – it is still very early days. We believe we are in the ultra-luxury sector of river.

“The good news is there is a product for everybody.”

While he says lines are guilty of “overmarketing”, Townson calls for robust training programmes to help agents differentiate.

“River cruise lines’ USPs are very similar,” he adds. “Everyone has the ‘best staff’, or is a ‘multi-award winner’, so how do agents or consumers understand the differences? This is about robust training plans and communicating clearly and effectively through fam trips.”

2020 plans

Next year, Uniworld will welcome three new ships to its fleet. River Countess is being stripped “back to the steel” as part of an unofficial fleet “elevation” project.

River Countess will emerge from a dry dock in March as La Venezia and offer eight-day cruises through Venice and its islands, including Burano.

River Royale has undergone a $14 million rebuild and been renamed Bon Voyage. It is now sailing in the Bordeaux-Medoc region.

“We could have rebuilt Bon Voyage in France, but we did it in Germany,” says Townson. “It cost us one million dollars to take the ship up to Germany and back to Bordeaux. It got pulled back to the steel.

“We have added more suites, public spaces and dining venues. It means that we are at the higher end of the market and the customer has a choice of facilities.

“We have spent the equivalent of what many operators spend on a new ship. We are not trying to be the biggest; we are trying to be the best.”

Beating Brexit

Uniworld sales have seemingly been unaffected by consumer uncertainty in the market as the Brexit saga continues. Bar around 10 days towards the end of March, Uniworld has done “unbelievably well”, according to Townson.

“We are 50% up year on year,” he says. “People are talking about Brexit and a soft market, but we have found the complete opposite.

“We did see a bit of a slowdown towards the end of March, but now we are really seeing it pick up. It is all about cut-through. You need to make it simple for the client to understand.”

Townson says the “higher end” of the market is not worried about booking a holiday while the question of when the UK leaves the European Union remains unanswered.

He says Uniworld works with agents from “all sorts of sectors”. Two weeks ago, he signed a deal with luxury tour specialist Classic Collection Holidays, which launched its first river cruise programme this month.

“Classic Collection never did river [cruise] beforehand. It is exciting to be working with like-minded colleagues,” he says.

He also highlights how Uniworld is working more with Kuoni and independent Blackpool-based agency The Cruise Village.

Trade plans

Uniworld sells solely through the trade, so Townson is acutely aware of the vital role agents play.

He adds that it was a challenge at first to ensure full trade awareness of Uniworld. This summer, the line is doubling the number of agent places on its fam trips across Europe. One hundred agents will be invited on 10 trips split over five sailings starting from the end of July.

Townson says: “We want to showcase the product properly. Agents need to understand the offboard and onboard products.”

Townson says he was taken aback by the impact of showing 200 agents an overhauled Joie de Vivre at last year’s Clia River Cruise Conference in Paris.

“There were 200 agents walking around five ships – including Joie de Vivre,” Townson says. “They are five-star brands, but we are a different level and it was lightbulb moment after lightbulb moment [for the agents].”

Townson says he is forever telling agents to “upsell” when the opportunity presents itself. “Do not just order-take,” he urges.

This again demonstrates how confident Townson is in the Uniworld product – 18 months after becoming the line’s managing director in the UK.

Whatever action the Venetians may choose to take, Townson clearly believes the quality of Uniworld’s product will ensure the line remains well-positioned for the years ahead.

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