Special report: River cruise lines seek calmer waters

After 10 months of pandemic disruption, Harry Kemble asks AmaWaterways and Uniworld how 2021 might pan out

AmaWaterways and Uniworld were poles apart operationally in 2020.

Los Angeles-based Uniworld decided to stop all sailings and focus on marketing future products, while AmaWaterways signed a charter deal with German cruise agency E-Hoi.

AmaWaterways: ‘trust is key’

Across 24 departures between July and November, AmaWaterways carried more than 1,500 German passengers on AmaKristina and AmaStella without a single case of Covid-19.

Reduced ship capacity, daily temperature checks and dividers in communal areas were among the measures “perfected” during the shortened 2020 programme, co-founder and executive vice-president Kristin Karst says.

Speaking to Travel Weekly, Karst says: “Out of challenges come opportunities – that’s how we see it.

“A very important advantage of this experience has been the trust and the confidence we’ve gained with agents and guests.”

Karst says her team needs just three weeks to bring ships back into service and roll out Covid-19 protocols across its 25-ship fleet.

December was AmaWaterways’ best sales month since July and 2021 Christmas sailings are 58% booked.

“Pent-up demand means there will be an explosion when we can start again,” Karst says. “We’ve never been booked so well for Christmas and holiday cruises as now for 2021.”

Double-width 196-passenger vessel AmaMagna is to sail on the Danube. When it resumes operations, capacity can be reduced, creating even more room for guests.

“This is a ship everyone is looking to secure,” Karst says.

“Little did we know it would be so relevant when we built it, because it offers the luxury of space.”

Uniworld: ‘proactive marketing’

Uniworld’s mantra during the pandemic has been to work with agents and to market for the future.

UK and Ireland managing director Chris Townson says the line’s resolve was strengthened after it featured in a Cruising with Jane McDonald programme in April 2020.

“No word of a lie, the website went boom,” he says. “We did so much business off the back of it and that was in the middle of so much doom and gloom. From there, we went into proactive marketing.”

The line opted to push back the launch of four ‘Super Ships’ – Mekong Jewel, Sao Gabriel, Sphinx and La Venezia – to 2021 and resume sailings once global travel restrictions ease.

Marketing, enhanced trade relationships and the vaccine rollout in the UK mean, in Townson’s eyes at least, 2021 is not a year to be feared despite the current UK lockdown.

The “vast majority” of Uniworld’s would-be 2020 passengers switched to 2021 sailings, he adds.

Townson says: “In 2020, there was no revenue. We’re very fortunate that we’re part of The Travel Corporation which allows us to ride it out. The parent company has good cashflow until Uniworld can restart at the back end of April and May.”

Reflecting on the latest UK lockdown, Townson adds: “There’s a lot of doom and gloom again but I was talking to the trade and all of our customers over 65 are getting vaccinated by March,” he says.

“They want to get out and start travelling again. 2021 will be a very strong year with huge bounce-back.”

After nearly a year of turmoil, the river sector can finally look ahead with some optimism.

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