Charting a different course: river cruising in the new normal
For the first time since AmaWaterways suspended operations mid-March, the river cruise company launched AmaKristina on the Rhine River for local guests in Germany to embark on private charters on July 5.
Although it’s far from business as usual, AmaWaterways’ co-founder and executive vice president Kristin Karst is optimistic about the recovery of the industry and says the pandemic is making way for some creative measures.
“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to have AmaKristina sailing for the local German market giving us the unique chance to perfect the new safety and health protocols, while delivering unforgettable river cruises,” she tells Travel Courier.
Hear more from Karst about the barriers to overcome, the role of travel advisors and how river cruising will be different in this one-on-one interview.
What are some of the biggest challenges river cruise lines like AmaWaterways are facing?
COVID-19 has certainly created barriers for travel companies who rely on international flights to get their guests to their destinations or ships. That, combined with the changing travel restrictions imposed on certain countries, has proved more challenging than the new health and safety protocols.
For those in the travel industry, I encourage you to treat these challenges as opportunities, and embrace them with passion and creativity. We have become more creative with our virtual sales and marketing training, introduced new on board services to accommodate different operating protocols and reimagined aspects of our ship design for the future.
We have actually re-started our river cruise operations with AmaKristina sailing the Rhine river in conjunction with a German tour operator catering to the local market. While operating with less than 100 guests, we are very happy with the feedback received and we will continue to work closely with local governments and global health authorities to update as required our new health procedures, which can be found at www.amawaterways.com/protocols.
What do you think those in the travel sphere will have to do to regain consumer confidence in travelling — or river cruising in particular?
I do not think that guests have lost confidence in the river cruise experience with AmaWaterways. Rudi and I have more than 48 years of river cruise experience between us, and we know and love Europe so much. Travel advisors and their clients can rest assured knowing that the health and safety of our guests is always our top priority and our crews have received the in-depth training and continual supervision to ensure the highest standards of hygiene. Rudi purposely designed our ships incorporating individual fan coil heating and cooling units to avoid any recirculation of air in staterooms or in public areas. With fresh air balconies in almost all staterooms and spacious Sun Decks to relax on, guests can sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery unfolding before them.
One motto we have taken to heart at AmaWaterways is the importance of optimism and options. By staying positive and offering travellers more options to travel safely and comfortably, I am confident that travel will rebound quickly, as it has in the past. We are a strong, debt-free, family owned-and-operated company, and we will continue to build industry-leading sustainable ships, curate immersive and unique itineraries and employee the genuinely carrying crews that turn a river cruise into one of our guests’ most cherished memories.
One of the biggest challenges is the unknowns surrounding when travel will be a go again. How are you handling this?
Serenely! As co-founders of AmaWaterways, Rudi and I have always pursued a conservative growth plan which has resulted in a company that is strong and debt-free. While we wait to welcome North American travellers to an AmaWaterways river cruise, the rivers continue to flow and we will continue to pursue opportunities like the German charters to provide employment for our crews and to perfect our guest services while respecting the new protocols. We have put a top priority on remaining personally connected with our travel advisors and loyal guests, from a virtual celebration of AmaWaterways’ 18th anniversary to weekly Webinar Wednesday sessions, featuring our executives, travel advisor peers and engaging Q&As.
Once again, out of challenges come opportunities. In this past month alone, we engaged with more than 1,000 town halls and virtual cruise nights and uploaded 41 YouTube videos to help travel advisors tell the story of our magical itineraries and special excursions. In addition to our Webinar Wednesday series, we’ve launched a virtual “Sip & Sail” Cocktail Hour series and the Virtual Marketing Suitcase in partnership with Sandra McLemore. It seems our BDMs and marketing team are busier than ever, as we create new resources for travel advisors to stay informed, inspired and connected, while providing them with the training and resources they need to engage with their clients from home.
The value of using an agent has truly come to the forefront over the past few months. Can you tell me a bit about your commitment to agents, and what role you see them playing in the future of travel?
The foundation of our company is made up of travel advisors, and I’ve personally been inspired by the way they have gone above and beyond to help their clients whose travel plans have been impacted by this current situation. Now more than ever, travellers are looking for an expert to guide them through options and help book safe and unforgettable vacations.
When the cruise suspension was first announced, we listened closely to our travel partners on what they and their clients needed from AmaWaterways. Those conversations led to our company redirecting all our marketing resources to release more tools and support for advisors, empowering them to spark wanderlust and inspire their clients to embark on an AmaWaterways cruise. We will always remain committed to our valued travel partners.
Beyond increased health and safety measures and protocols, what are some of the ways you think the travel industry will be different post COVID-19?
Wellness and health will continue to be top priorities for travellers, and they may opt for more exclusive and private experiences, which are so easy to find on a river cruise. For example, each AmaWaterways itinerary includes immersive shore excursions, with no more than 10-15 guests per group. Our guests have always had the option to explore a destination at their leisure on foot or on a bicycle, and this option may become even more popular. We are already seeing a trend in increased demand for private transfers, back-to-back longer cruises with pre and post-cruise land extensions and open balcony spacious suites.
I also believe that brand trust will weigh heavier in consumers’ travel decisions. Over the last 18 years, AmaWaterways has built a reputation as one of the most trusted luxury travel brands. Since our operations were suspended mid-March, we’ve kept our sales and reservations teams very busy supporting travel advisors and their businesses with virtual training and cruise nights, answering questions and ensuring their clients’ much-anticipated vacations plans are protected. Remaining flexible on the use of future travel credits and providing options like Travel Waiver Plus to safeguard against unpredictable disruptions are more important than ever. I also believe more people will rely on the services of travel advisors, and travel advisors will be looking to book all aspects of a trip – air, transfers, pre- and post-cruise land programs – with one supplier ensuring a seamless and worry-free vacation experience.
What about river cruises specifically?
By nature of the small capacity of river cruise ships, we deliver an intimate sailing experience, and I truly believe that river cruising will remain unforgettable experience post COVID-19.
With a passion for our guests, we have implemented several practices that protect the health of travellers while ensuring the magic of the AmaWaterways experience. This includes limiting capacity on our ships to currently 100 guests, adding room service dining options and finding new, creative ways to permit social distancing during our immersive shore excursions.
It seems like there is a lot more optimism for the recovery of the river cruise industry compared to cruising. What are your thoughts?
With intimate ships, small group excursions, lots of healthy hiking and biking options and always cruising within a country at close proximity to medical facilities, river cruising is poised to be one of the first travel experiences to rebound and capture many ocean cruisers. There are also so many ways to personalize a river cruise, and this may entice more travellers as they plan future vacations with their loved ones. Whether they prefer to admire the beautiful views along the river from their twin-balcony stateroom or wander off the beaten path in a new destination, AmaWaterways guests can choose how they want to enjoy their cruise.
Do you have anything to add?
The destinations AmaWaterways sails through hold a special place in mine and Rudi’s heart. We grew up in Europe, celebrated our honeymoon in Africa and made personal friendships in Asia. We have drawn on our passion for river cruise experiences to overcome many unexpected challenges that impacted the travel industry since AmaWaterways launched in 2002. As a strong debt-free company, we are confident that international travel will return and continue to be a force for good in the world.