Peter Deilmann Cruises brought luxury river cruising into the 21st century, and now its successors are carrying the torch into the future, innovating and updating river cruise ships and services to create a modern, high-end travel experience.
European river cruising takes place in what is, at maximum, a 38-by-410-foot vessel, dimensions dictated by the locks and bridges the vessels must past through and under along Europe’s rivers.
But even within that box, the 21st century river cruise experience has evolved.
“If you compare the amenities of the Avalon Artistry [built in 2004] at introduction with the Creativity at her christening [in August],” said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, “we have added an elevator, rear club lounge, whirlpool on the sundeck, sundeck grill and outside forward viewing area; increased the percentage of floor-to-ceiling windows/French balcony staterooms; enlarged the shower; added flat-screen TVs, additional dining options — the late-riser breakfast, afternoon cake and coffee and an alternative lunch option — and added beer or soft drinks as a choice with wine at dinner.”
With companies like Avalon Waterways and AMA Waterways building new ships with new amenities at a rapid pace, older companies like Uniworld River Cruises and Viking River Cruises have had to work hard to stay relevant in this new, young-ship market.
“With the added competition and rapid growth, the river cruise sector has undergone changes, to the ultimate benefit of the customer,” said Guy Young, president of Uniworld. “What we have seen is a very marked evolution in the service standards onboard the ships. Basic service no longer satisfies the needs of travelers attracted to river cruising.”
Consequently, Young said, the number of onboard staff has increased, and the quality of the staff has improved.
As for the ships themselves, “20 years ago, you did not have a river cruise ship with spacious staterooms, hotel-style beds, comfortable mattresses, luxurious linens and other fine amenities,” Young said. “You also didn’t have all-inclusive wine with dinner, an all-English speaking staff, Internet, TV.”
To keep up with the evolving demands of the marketplace, Uniworld, for one, adopted an aggressive refurbishment schedule.
“All of our ships have been completely refurbished since 2005, and we have a strict capital improvement plan whereby all of our ships undergo a refurbishment every four years,” Young said. “Our two oldest ships are the River Ambassador and the River Baroness, and these are also two of our most successful ships in terms of load factors.”
For instance, Uniworld’s River Ambassador (pictured below) entered service in 1993 and was refurbished in 2006. The River Baroness entered service in 1994 and was refurbished in 2005. Truth be told, the Ambassador’s refurbished interior is not all that different in look and feel from Uniworld’s newest ship, the River Beatrice, which launched in 2007 and was refurbished this year.
Part of the reason is that Uniworld’s parent company TravCorp also owns the Red Carnation Hotel Collection of luxury boutique hotels, which consults on Uniworld’s interiors.
That investment in creating fresh design appeal is not unwarranted in a market where Avalon is on course to introduce two new ships in 2010 and recently announced that it will add three new vessels in 2011.
AMA plans on introducing an additional ship in 2010, one more in 2011, and possibly an additional program on the Mekong River in 2011.
And this year, Tauck World Discovery unveiled its third Tauck-branded river ship, the Swiss Jewel.
“You keep your customers enthralled with new ships,” Ron Santangelo, vice president of business development at AMA, said of the recent emphasis on newbuilds.
Meanwhile, Viking River Cruises, whose 19 ships constitute one of the biggest river fleets in Europe, has a huge amount of inventory to sell compared with even the fast-expanding fleets of its competitors. Uniworld will have 10 company-owned ships when its first Nile vessel launches this fall, and Grand Circle Travel, a direct-to-consumer operator, owns 15 river vessels in Europe and Russia.
It’s no surprise, then, that travel agents say Viking is the go-to river cruise line for competitive pricing, such as ongoing two-for-one river cruise deals. It is, many in the industry have said, what keeps Viking in the running against its younger contemporaries.
Which isn’t to say, Viking isn’t innovating as well. Viking’s Legend, which launched this summer, has only three engines, as opposed to the standard five. The engines are diesel-electric and are linked to a computer that determines how much energy is needed for propelling the ship as well as for all other functions. Viking estimates the technology will help cut fuel costs by 15% to 20%.
As for whether there’s room for further innovation on river cruise ships, “I absolutely believe that will continue,” Santangelo said. “People will continue to come up with some unique ideas and make the product interesting. And any limitations onboard are compensated for by the opportunities ashore.”