Travel counselors find river cruises a greater opportunity, even with obstacles
River cruises have been hit hard during the pandemic, as many of them – in the United States and Europe – have been canceled. But as river cruise lines have announced plans to resume sailing in Europe this summer, these excursions are becoming a popular option for travelers.
And one of the main beneficiaries of the renewed interest in river cruises are travel counselors. While travel counselors still face major hurdles in getting their clients back on ships, they are using the benefits of river cruises to overcome travelers’ concerns after a year of bad press regarding ocean cruise safety. The advisers point out that river cruise ships have fewer people on board and that the itineraries allow cruisers the freedom to disembark more often.
The numbers certainly support the belief of many travel consultants in pent-up demand for river cruises. âOur bookings are 400% of that time last year and less than 20% of pre-pandemic booking levels,â said Annette Stellhorn, advisor at Accent on Travel, a Delaware-based travel agency specializing in in cruises.
Laurel Brunvoll has also witnessed a rise as the founder and owner of Maryland-based travel agency Unforgettable Trips. “[Weâve] seen a 100% increase in requests and actual bookings for 2021 river cruises, âshe said. In addition, 70 percent of bookings for future customers of his company are for river cruises.
barriers faced by travel counselors
Those who have been able to see an increase in bookings recently have had to overcome a negative perception of cruises to do so. While before the pandemic, travel counselors generally saw a potential boom in river cruises, âThe entire cruise industry has had a huge ‘black eye’ of the Princess fiasco and reports of turned back ships from the sea. ports last spring. This perception of âfloating petri dishesâ has spread to river cruises, âsaid Diana Hechler, president of New York-based travel agency D. Tours Travel.
âEven though travel counselors know there is a huge difference between deep water cruises and river cruises and river cruises, if you’ve never sailed at all, you probably wouldn’t distinguish between them. “
However, Hechler has found an opening in some of its clients to try out river cruises due to the freedom it affords to travelers. âKnowing that the boats are moored at the city wharf every day with complete freedom to independently explore as much as they want is a safety blanket for these travelers,â she said.
âA lot of my clients enjoy independent travel to Europe and this segment is more wary of giant cruise ships in general. Often times, these travelers will say that they have no interest in traditional cruising, but would like to take a river cruise.
If travel counselors detect a growing interest in river cruises, they would do well to follow the lead of Sherrie Funk, president of Tennessee-based travel agency Just Cruisin ‘Plus. Funk and her husband created a series of webinars which they then posted on the company’s website and YouTube page that explained, among other things, the differences between ocean and river cruises.
As river cruises generally use smaller ships than ocean cruises, this is a major point that travel counselors could use to sell passengers on river cruises. âWe are now seeing people who really want a smaller ship,â Funk said. âIt’s a great thing. Even on oceanic cruises, we see it.
But the ongoing pandemic has obviously made some aspects of selling river cruises quite difficult for travel counselors like Hechler. âI think people are still very apprehensive about travel. Very nervous, “she said.” As I specialize in international vacations, border closures and sometimes onerous entry restrictions have been devastating over the past year. “
Despite an increase in bookings for river cruises, she also sees a dark road ahead when it comes to getting large numbers of travelers back on board amid concerns about restrictions. So much so that she chose to postpone a river cruise for a group of alumni of her alma mater.
“I have deliberately chosen spring 2022, rather than fall 2021, because the openings of borders in Europe have been so uncertain,” Hechler said.
While numbers for river cruises operating in the United States signify a huge rebound as travel resumes – the American Queen Steamboat Company’s June-October crossings on American rivers are 90% booked – most counselors in country trips sell trips abroad.
âAs a professional travel advisor, we are selling the world beyond their immediate local area,â said Stellhorn of Accent on Travel. “The vast majority of the vacations we organize include a flight to the destination, whether it is a river cruise in the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa or Asia.”
When to book and take river cruises
Despite the reluctance of some travelers to take river cruises due to concerns about opening destinations, Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of cruise-focused travel planning firm Cruise Specialists, actually encourages her invited to travel as soon as possible.
“We encourage [customers] to travel now because it’s a great assessment, the destinations and ports are less busy and there is a little less occupancy on board the ships, âshe said. “And the staff are always at the same level, so the level of service is going to be exceptional.”
Of course, concerns about the pandemic are never far from the minds of many. But Scrivanich maintains that his company has taken detailed steps to keep its customers safe. âAll cruise lines have multi-faceted protocols. [Guestsâ] security will be taken care of very well, âshe said.
Once travel counselors convince their clients that their river cruise excursions are the safest possible, another question remains: when to book? Scrivanich thinks the time is right.
âFor those who don’t want to travel immediately and want to travel in 2022, we encourage these people to make these reservations because there is such pent-up demand that availability and pricing will become an issue,â she said.
However, Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, has seen many of his clients willing to wait before they book. âPeople are fine with booking last minute, relatively last minute,â he said. âWe consider the last minute if you are still booking something for this summer or fall to go to Europe. We see a lot of this because of pent-up demand. “
Leskovar said recent changes by Amadeus River Cruises to its policies have resulted in an increase in bookings. âUsually our deposits are not refundable. If you don’t go, you just lose the reservation, âhe said.
âNow we have a policy that will guarantee your deposit. So this means that if you decide not to go for some reason or if you can’t go, like airlines, your deposit is not forfeited. But you can move that to an alternative cruise or a different date.
The fact that travel counselors can confidently talk about travel dates is another sign that the travel resumption is upon us.