European River Cruises up the ante with themed cruises

For many years, river cruises were the stepchild of the cruise industry writ large. But a few years ago, the sector hit its tipping point and now the vying lines are competing with each other in order to acquire new customers while retaining loyal clients.

Most major river cruise lines cover the same territory the Rhine, the Danube, the Seine along with more recently added rivers like the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia and the Douro in Portugal. For the most part, at this point, river cruise companies are focused on finding less-crowded ports on the same rivers rather than looking for new rivers on which to ramble.

Upping the game in the river cruise industry, therefore, is not so much about the destination as it is the expansion of the experience. Adding more local experiences and more active options gives current customers what they are demanding, while appealing to younger demographic groups as well.

According to Terri Burke, managing director for Avalon Waterways, "Today's luxury travelers are different than ten, or even five, years ago. They are not looking so much for new rivers or destinations, but rather a range of experiences."

"It's about giving the customers more choices," says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways." We are developing more local experiences, while also adding active options." In fact, in 2015, the cruise line started a partnership with Backroads to offer biking and hiking tours on select cruises. Backroads charters cabins, takes its customers on active adventures during the day, and then returns them to the ship for the evening's activities.

In 2017, these active river cruise departures have doubled in number and are now available on 100 sailings. Meanwhile, pedestrian AmaWaterways passengers are being offered their own active options and more ways to experience local cultures. Many of the latter involve food - including Belgian chocolate-making demonstrations and tastings in Antwerp and French cooking classes in Provence.

To meet the increasing demand for active adventures, Burke says Avalon has introduced "Active Discovery" tours. Passengers can exert themselves by walking, waltzing or taking part in Roman games, togas included, or they can opt for less-active, but uber-local experiences like learning to paint like Van Gogh, ear included, in Amsterdam or wine tasting along the Rhine. Next year, the Active Discovery program will be expanded to more rivers. "We believe the new program, with its increased personalization of choice, will attract a younger demographic," Burke said.

Ah, that elusive younger demographic. That's the group Uniworld is chasing with the 2018 launch of a new brand designed for more active adventurers. According to President and CEO Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is "changing the travel industry paradigm with a groundbreaking approach to experiential travel with U by Uniworld." The line (which will be priced lower than Uniworld's usual line-up) is largely aimed at travelers between 21 and 45, with "land activities thoughtfully curated to appeal to, and meet the needs of, this audience," says Bettridge. "For example, there will be plenty of land options for daredevils, like rock-climbing or whitewater rafting, while those preferring softer adventure can focus on local experiences like nightclubbing or beer tasting."

Theme cruise departures are another way for river cruise lines to appeal to passengers wanting experiences that go deeper. Avalon is upping the amount of special interest trips from 38 to 2017 to 55 in 2018. There will be more cruises focusing on beer, wine, culinary, history and music. AmaWaterways is adding more wine cruises next year. And Uniworld, on its traditional ships, is adding more Jewish Heritage-themed trips, along with a Monarch Collection focusing on European royalty of past and present. The line will also expand its Connoisseur Collection, departures for foodies who want to drink in local culinary traditions.

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