Special Report: River cruise sector is ‘buzzing’

Josie Klein reports as operators say growing excitement has fuelled a strong start to year

River cruise lines have reported strong starts to 2024, saying the sector is “buzzing”.

Jamie Loizou, managing director of AmaWaterways, said January was the strongest booking month in the UK in the line’s history, with sales up 93% year on year.

He thanked agents for their support, saying 90% of the line’s sales come through the trade, meaning “our success is our trade partners’ success”.

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Asked why sales had been so strong, he said there was an excitement about the sector, which had prompted “huge interest” and driven demand.

“Since the start of the year, there has been a buzz around river cruise that there hasn’t been in the past,” he said. “We’ve been speaking to some of our key accounts who sell a significant amount of ocean cruise and they are all talking about river more than they have before.”

Growth strategies

Similarly, Lucia Rowe, A-Rosa’s managing director for the UK and Ireland, said the line had seen a 97% growth in sales compared with this time last year, which she attributed fully to the trade, because A-Rosa is a B2B business.

She said some agencies were including river cruise in their growth plans for this year, and recommended more agents do the same.

“This sector has so much to offer,” Rowe added. “It’s wonderful to hear from some key partners that river cruise is part of their growth strategy for the next few years. This is the perfect time to embrace river and use it to drive an agency forward.”

Claire Hills, key account manager at Riviera Travel, also reported a good start to 2024, with a 40% year‑on-year increase in sales.

She claimed the river cruise sector is having a “moment” and has returned to the height of its popularity before the pandemic.

“We’re coming off the back of a very, very successful 2023 and we are having a fantastic start to the year, which has continued into February,” she said. “In 2019, river cruise was at the height of its popularity. I feel we are now back to where we were: everyone wants a piece of the river cruise market.”

Paul Melinis, APT managing director for the UK and Europe, said “demand is truly back” for the river cruise sector, as customers secure sailings for 2024 and 2025.

“Trading has been the best it has been in a long, long time,” he said.

Andy Harmer, Clia UK & Ireland managing director, said there had been a “shift” in trade support for the river cruise sector, which had been shown by strong sales this year.

“Things have shifted within the past 18 months and river cruise is becoming a real contender within the holiday market,” he added.

Agency experts

Agencies need a dedicated river cruise expert within their teams if they are to be successful within the sector, according to lines.

Loizou said some agencies are “waking up” to the idea of having a staff member solely focused on river cruise, but more companies need to allocate someone to that role if they want to “reap the rewards” available to them in the market.

Loizou praised the performance of those agents who had taken the time to train someone to act as the river cruise expert within their organisation, saying they are “benefiting everyone” in the sector.

“Lots of big travel agencies in the UK are realising they need a dedicated river cruise person and we are seeing that happen more and more, which is really exciting,” he said.

“A dedicated ambassador for the river cruise sector benefits all of us and we are already seeing those agencies with someone in that role performing well.”

Melinis echoed Loizou’s thoughts, saying the most successful agencies are those that have created a role purely for a river cruise specialist. He warned that “success is not going to happen by accident”.

Melinis urged other agencies to follow suit, highlighting the financial benefits of being experts in the field.

“The agencies that are having the most success are those that have a specific focus on our sector,” he said. “More agencies need to set up their own strategies and ask themselves which lines they are going to promote, which destinations they want to sell and who within their business is going to drive that plan of action.

“As an industry, we pay phenomenal commissions, so those agents that are having success are now working in a sector that is incredibly profitable.”

Rowe warned that having river cruise “on the side” of an agency’s portfolio “won’t be enough”, because success in the sector requires a staff member to take ownership to educate colleagues and drive sales.

“Someone needs to fly the flag for river cruise and to take responsibility for the sector within each agency,” she said. “If you’re just doing it on the side, it won’t be enough. You have to own the sector and get behind it with passion.”

Honesty and reassurance

Agents must not avoid answering questions about low and high water levels, lines said, but instead reassure customers that “this is our day job”.

Wendi Hardy, national key accounts manager for Scenic, urged agents to listen to their clients’ concerns and be honest with them on the challenges around water levels, but make it clear that river cruise lines “know what we’re doing”.

She advised agents to educate themselves on how lines deal with these issues, for example by transferring passengers between ships in low-water areas to ensure sailings can continue, or by offering some land-based transfers if ships cannot pass under bridges.

“Be honest with your customers,” she said. “I think some agents often shy away from the challenges around low and high water. But if you’re honest with your customers and you explain all the things we do to mitigate those challenges, it’ll stand you in much better stead.

“Agents have to do their research and know tips about ship-swapping to explain to customers how minimal disruption is and how achievable a fantastic holiday can still be, even if there are water level issues,” added Hardy.

Harmer emphasised the importance of explaining the workload that river cruise lines put into reducing any impact on a passenger’s holiday, saying the “strongest” agents are the ones who are armed with the knowledge to answer challenging questions.

“Agents need to reassure their customers that this is what operators do every single day,” he said. “It’s all about showing customers that this is their day job and they are experts, so there is no need to worry about disruption.

“The strongest and most confident agents are prepared to answer those questions that they may get.”

Harmer’s thoughts were echoed by Hills, who said: “This is where the travel agent really needs to understand the industry, and it truly shows the power of an agent to a customer.”

Loizou also encouraged agents to highlight how infrequent water level issues are, saying AmaWaterways did not cancel any departures in 2023 due to low or high water.

He said challenges are often “blown out of proportion” in the national media, but in reality they are minimal. “Although it is talked about a lot, it’s very rare that cruises are actually disrupted due to water level issues, so that message should be relayed to customers,” Loizou said.

“We know what we are doing. We set up our sailing schedules based on data and our operations teams are on the ground dealing with any challenges that may arise.”

Melinis added: “Challenges happen but it’s all about finding ways to deal with it. We know that when a client is paying good money for a holiday, they want a great time and we always do our best to make sure that happens, so agents need to relay that to their customers.”

Picture: Shutterstock/O Laparoto

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