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European River Cruising: Growing and Innovating

Written by  Lillian Africano


River cruising is still the fastest growing sector of the cruise industry. In addition to the new ships being launched each year, there are new itineraries, more and new theme cruises. Wine cruises are especially popular, and here, AMA Waterways has gone all in, with more than 50 wine-themed offerings this year. With ports, tours and tastings at some of the world’s most famous wine producing areas, as well as onboard tastings and lectures, these itineraries provide wine lovers with a richness of experience that could not be duplicated during an ocean cruise.

CRUISEIn recognition of the growing demand for Christmas Market cruises, Scenic Cruises now offers itineraries from 8 to 22 days, with two additional programs being added this year. These cruises abound in holiday cheer, with visits to the illuminated streets and markets of such cities as Prague, Vienna, Nuremberg and Budapest. Guests can shop for handcrafted wooden nutcrackers and toys, sample mulled wine and stolen-and experience a wonderful array of holiday festivities.
While expanding proven favorites, cruise lines have, in their push for younger passengers, bumped up their health and fitness offerings, added healthier and/or more creative dining options-and introduced sexy adventure options like spelunking and trendy activities like TRX suspension training, as well as in-depth culinary explorations.
In addition to all the innovation, there are traditional reasons for the appeal of a river cruise. First and perhaps foremost is the ability to visit a new place virtually every day-and to do so easily and conveniently. In almost every instance, river boats dock at convenient locations, either in the center of a town or within walking distance of principal attractions.
The journey itself is more interesting on a river boat, where no days are spent sailing on open water and where there is something to look at and observe throughout the day.

Value World Tours has been offering European River cruises for over 25 years and was one of the first US companies to offer travel packages to Russia and other Eastern European countries, with their most popular cruise being along the Volga River. Their ships sail along the Adriatic Coast to see Slovenia, Montenegro, and Albania, and along the Danube River to Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. Thanks to their smaller size and low draft, river vessels can go where no land transportation can.

The phrase “all-inclusive” has almost universal appeal. River cruise passengers can be assured that for most part, the price of their ticket will cover the total cost of their trip, including tours and beverages (beer, wine and soft drinks) consumed with meals.

Size matters to those who buy river cruises. With the exception of the upscale brands, ships that sail the world’s oceans are big. This can make for a more anonymous or impersonal cruise experience-especially for solo travelers-than the cozier experience on river boats, where, for example, passengers can dine anywhere they like and meet new people at every meal. As I often travel alone, I especially enjoy cruises on family-owned AMA Waterways, where I find the staff to be unfailingly warm and welcoming. (I think this reflects the personality of co-owner Kristin Karst, who makes a point of spending time with each and every passenger when she is aboard one of AMA’s cruises.)

Riviera River Cruises also offers a style unique in tour operating - a real family ambience. They have been told by clients “it was like travelling with family” and “it was like coming home.” They treat passengers as individuals, tailoring their service to be flexible and catering for all needs. There ís so much to see and experience on a river cruise, and Riviera feels that if passengers want to take part in everything that ís fine, but if not, that ís fine too. River cruise clients appreciate the freedom to explore.

Given the size of river boats, they were, until fairly recently, devoid of such amenities as fitness rooms, spas, hair salons and pools worth mentioning. Today, discerning travelers can enjoy all these and more during their Europe cruises- with the ship of Scenic and Crystal offering such luxuries as all-suite accommodations, butler service and over-the-top dining experiences.
Collectively, all the changes and enhancements should succeed in attracting the young passengers that both river and ocean lines are competing for.

The biggest reach for the millennial market was made by Uniworld with its new product, U, which is being pitched to the 21-45 group, with such innovations as all-black ships, communal dining tables and a lively bar scene featuring DJs and mixologists. Conventional coach tours have given way to activities like mountain biking, pub crawls, paragliding and whitewater rafting.
On February 5th of this year, ABC’s The Bachelor featured the B, one of the line’s two ships. This was the first time a cruise was ever shown on the show. (The ship served as home for the female contestants while they were
in France.)

After a preview sailing last fall which relied on the heavy use of social media influencers, U’s 120-passenger ships A and B set sail this spring with nine itineraries on the Seine, Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. All cruises will have a celebrity influencer on board to serve as host and document the cruise experience.

In step with Uniworld, Amadeus River Cruises, the North American arm of Austrian company Luftner Cruises, has partnered with Zaven Global, an incentive travel and promotion specialist that uses brand influencers, to promote and launch the millennial cruises. Amadeus begins millennial sailings in 2019, with five- and six-night itineraries on the Rhine, Rhone and Danube. These cruises will also have a well-known influencer onboard to serve as host and to manage various programs. A marketing push kicks off with a spring 2018 sailing on France’s Rhone River on the Amadeus Provence, with social media hosts onboard.

Wellness and fitness will also be front and center in the coming years, and a number of lines have introduced strategies designed to appeal not only to millennials, but also to more mature travelers interested in maintaining good health.

Healthy Cruises
AMA’s Wellness Program, now offered on six of its ships, is featured on select Spring and Summer Paris & Normandy itineraries. An onboard Wellness Host guides passengers through a variety of exercise classes, including morning stretches, jogging, yoga, core strengthening, cardio, resistance-band workouts and circuit training. The exercise is complemented by discussions focused on relaxation techniques and healthy eating.

Avalon Waterways is also expanding its Active Discovery itineraries to include the Rhine River. This two-pronged program, another of the line’s efforts to attract younger cruisers, offers opportunities to engage in such activities as exploring an ice cave, helping with the harvest at an apricot farm and immersing themselves in local cultures.

Emerald Waterways has 17 EmeraldActive excursions on nine Europe itineraries for 2018. These include such activities as yoga classes, a hiking tour of vineyards in France and canoeing on a tributary of the Douro River.
Viking River Cruises will add active choices (extra fee) on several European itineraries in 2018 and 2019. These include canoeing, biking and electronic-biking tours. Viking boats will not carry bikes or canoes onboard; these will be provided when the ships are in port. This shift is part of Viking’s expansions of shore excursions offerings with a collection of optional tours grouped under several concepts: Local Life, Working World and Privileged Access. The new tours include such options as bike and e-bike tours in Austria and wetlands canoeing on a number of rivers. (As always there are included excursions, usually walking tours or coach tours.)

Scenic has renewed its collaboration with cycling vacation company Trek Travel, with 11 departures that feature a dedicated cycling program: Six Gems of the Danube sailings are dedicated bike-themed itineraries and five Rhine Highlights cruises have ample biking options. Scenic also added the option to use electric-assist bikes on its cycling-themed sailings this year.
In keeping with the push toward wellness, Scenic debuted the first-in-the-industry salt rooms (complimentary) aboard its ships. The humidity- and temperature-controlled three-station Salt Lounges are handcrafted from salt bricks and are said to create the micro-climate of a natural salt mine and to offer guests a non-invasive way to feel energized and healthier while relaxing. Low-level lighting and calming music promote the natural relaxing effects of the salt.

River cruises are also getting creative with their culinary offerings, adding healthier options, but also featuring gastronomic adventures and food and wine-related activities.
U has gone all in with its Eatwith partnership, which allows millennial passengers to immerse themselves in a variety of culinary experiences, including cooking classes, private dinner parties and meals in the homes of UHosts.
Scenic has an onboard cooking school called Scenic Culinaire on the company’s France ships, the Sapphire and the Diamond. The school features cooking stations and a cheese and wine cellar; it offers immersive courses in the culinary traditions of the Rhône, Saône and Bordeaux regions.

Last year Avalon rolled out its Avalon Fresh program fleetwide. Partnering with Viennese chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh, the program uses locally sourced produce from small local farms to create healthy regional dishes.
Uniworld offers a quirky progressive dinner option (extra cost) once per cruise, with Individual courses being creatively served as a limited number of guests visit the navigation bridge, engine room, galley, laundry room, etc.
Bottom line: This is just a sample of the ways in which river cruise lines have been enhancing their products in order to broaden their passenger base and to compete for younger guests, as well as those who want: to stay fit while traveling and to experience unique excursions and better/more interesting dining options.

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