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Full speed ahead

Most hotels, airlines and tour operators would give anything for the kind of business that European river cruise companies have seen in the past two years. In spite of an economic downturn that has softened the international tourism market, most river cruise companies report that they continued to operate at or near capacity in 2009, even as they added new ships to their fleets.

Courtesy Viking River Cruises

The success of these companies in today’s economy underscores the dynamic growth of river cruising as a travel method. The industry, which was launched in the 1990s, has grown during this decade to be one of the hottest tourism products on the market, outstripping the growth of both ocean cruising and land-based tours abroad.

Record-breaking year

“We’re having record-breaking bookings right now, for both F.I.T.s and groups,” said Michele Saegesser, vice president of North American and South Pacific Sales for Viking River Cruises. “We’re about triple-digit growth over this time last year, and we’re thrilled. That says a lot about where river cruising is going in the leisure market.”

Established in 1997, Viking River Cruises is one of the longest-sailing companies on Europe’s waterways. It’s also the world’s largest river cruise operator, with 21 vessels sailing in Europe, Russia, Egypt and China.

Saegesser said that for 2009, Viking ships have operated at an occupancy rate of about 85 percent. Next year is looking even stronger.

“We had some discounti

Courtesy Avalon Waterways

ng for 2009 — the rates were lower,” she said. “But for 2010, the rates are right in the ballpark of what we want, and we’re selling at incredible levels. We already have sailings that are sold out for next year, and we’re very tight on space.”

AMA Waterways, a company that launched in 2002, has seen similar success. It currently operate six ships on European rivers, with two more scheduled to launch in 2010.

“We’ve been very successful,” said AMA business development director Ana Figueroa. “We see ocean cruise lines struggling, and other river cruises have had to resort to some price slashing. We’re very lucky that we do a very good group business. Our rates held up in 2009, but it was hard work.”

Another relatively recent entrant into the market, Avalon Waterways, has also experienced rapid growth. The company was launched in 2003 as part of the Globus Family of Brands, and last month took delivery of its eighth ship, the 70-cabin Avalon Creativity. Next year, it will add two more similar ships to its fleet.

Courtesy Viking River Cruises

“We’ve had a very aggressive growth product,” said Patrick Clark, Avalon’s managing director. “We’re now No. 2 behind Viking. In a space of under six years, we’ve had enormous growth and gained a strong position.”

Clark said that Avalon has used special promotions to counteract the economic crunch that has cooled sales throughout the tourism industry.

“Throughout the hospitality industry, everything has been affected this year,” he said. “But we expect to end 2009 at or above 2008 level. There are more promotions and discounts this year than in previous years.”

A value proposition

Clark attributes much of river cruising’s success to the value it offers customers. Many first-time river cruisers have also taken land tours or ocean cruises.

“You have a huge pool of big ship cruisers, and the majority of our travelers have done two or more big ship cruises,” he said. “So there’s a tremendous potential for new customers.”

All of the river cruise companies boast about the added value that comes along with river cruising.

Courtesy Avalon Waterways

“You really can’t compare an ocean cruise to a river cruise,” said AMA’s Figueroa. “We include shore excursions, and no ocean cruise line does that. We have complimentary specialty coffees, complimentary Wifi [Internet access] and complimentary wine with dinner.”

In Europe, the relatively weak value of the U.S. dollar has made incidentals such as drinks and meals priced in Euros expensive for American travelers. But the all-inclusive nature of river cruising can help to soften the blow.

“It’s an incredible value for people who are worried about exchange rates,” said Staegesser of Viking River Cruises. “That’s been one of our best sales points in the last six months. We even have beverage packages, so people can prepurchase their alcohol in the states with U.S. dollars.”

River cruises also take advantages of the relatively small size of their vessels, taking passengers to towns in the heart of European countries that large cruise ships could never reach and that might be too remote for many motorcoach tours.

“The ships dock right in the heart of the little towns and villages up and down the river,” Clark said. “So you get better sightseeing, better shopping and better experiences with the locals.”

Going exotic

Though European rivers such as the Rhine, the Seine and the Danube are at the epicenter of river cruising, companies are also venturing into more exotic destinations, such as the Nile River in Egypt, the Yangtze River in China or the intricate waterways of Russia.

Courtesy AMA Waterways

“Our big move is into Asia this fall,” Figueroa said. “We launched that earlier in the year, and it’s been extremely successful. There’s a lot of interest in that from long-time ocean cruisers who want to try something new.”

Staegesser said that Viking is focusing more of its marketing on products in Russia and China, which travelers often find surprisingly luxurious.
“China is as five-star as it gets, which is often a surprise,” she said. “It’s one of the best values out there.

“Russia is starting to become more popular, maybe because of our own marketing. More upscale passengers are now focusing their attention on Russia. And then those people come back and go to China the next year.”

Courtesy AMA Waterways

Back in Europe, Avalon Waterways is rolling out some three- and four-night itineraries to attract a younger audience that hasn’t taken a river cruise before, as well as themed itineraries that will focus on European music, food and wine.

“France is hot,” Clark said. “For 2010, France is up there with our most popular itineraries. You see what France is known for — food, wine and art. As a destination, France has a great deal of appeal for Americans.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.