This week I interviewed Ellen Bettridge for my podcast, Avid Travel With Britton Frost. Bettridge is the President and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Uniworld, the company was founded in 1976 by Yugoslavian entrepreneur Serba Illich. Uniworld places emphasis on its all-inclusive luxury concept, while also trying to keep its sailings unique. It is one thing to say that you are striving to be unique, it is another to successfully craft experiences that cannot be found elsewhere.
Whether it’s Uniworld’s Jewish Heritage cruises, Generations sailings, or its sister company U River Cruises, Uniworld strives to have something for everyone – and in the interview with Ellen Bettridge it became clear that they do.
If you are interested in listening to the interview, you can do so here. Otherwise, the transcript follows below.
Britton: Hello everyone. Today I am joined by Ellen Bettridge who is the CEO of Uniworld and also U River Cruises, which we’ll talk about as well. But we’re going to start with Uniworld, which is probably a name that you all know and love. But let’s kind of get a feel for what Uniworld is. Maybe if you’re not familiar with the product. So Ellen, tell me about, you know, your fleet, how Uniworld started, and then also what people can expect on your ships in any order that you see fit.
Bettridge: Great. Thank you, Britton. Yes, so Uniworld is, it’s a company that’s been around for over 40 years. But it was purchased by the Tollman family, which is owns the Travel Corporation back in 2008. And and since then they have just been focused on how they can actually ensure that customers absolutely deserve the, they get the very best because they truly believe that they deserve the very best. And that’s been their focus. We have a fleet now including U River. We have two ships. And in Uniworld there are 17 ships. You know, we have ships all over the world. So we have a ship in Egypt, one in Vietnam, a one in Italy, one in Portugal. Majority of them are across, you know, the most ideal places that people love to river cruise on the Main, the Rhine and the Danube. And it’s, you know, it’s really, is it truly a unique experience at Uniworld the incredible floating boutique hotels.
Britton: And I mean, I, I’ve seen the interior of, of some of your ships and they’re so different to everything else on the river. What was the inspiration behind the decor on the ships? Because it’s beautiful and it’s so different, as I said.
Bettridge: So like a boutique hotel none of the, you know, world ships are alike, so you’re never going to walk onboard one and be like, Oh, wow, I was on this ship in this country and now I’m on this ship in another country. So if you’re on our, our beautiful Joie De Vivre, in France, you’re going to feel as though you’re in Paris and you absolutely never leave Paris or France. You got the essence of from the materials around you to the art on the walls, to the music playing to the wines you’re drinking, to the incredible local food that you’re eating every day. You will feel like you’re in France, very similar to if you happen to be in Italy and you’re on our incredible new ship, the La Venezia, you would absolutely feel as though you are in Italy all the time and Venice is part of every moment of your experience. So we really feel that this does set us apart and makes us very unique in every way.
Britton: And I know that you mentioned one of the new ships. Do you want to talk about the new ships in 2020 because you have four?
Bettridge: We do. So once again, the brand is all about how we continue to elevate what we’re doing. So it’s not about just continued adding more ships out there, but we want to ensure that every time a customer goes onboard, they have the absolute best experience. So we’ve continued to elevate our fleet. And in 2020 we have a new ship coming out in Egypt called the Super Ship Sphinx which will come out in January of 2020. We have a new ship in Portugal, the super ship São Gabriel, she’s going to be incredible fall, should be there in April of 2020 in in March we’re going to have the La Venezia which will be in Venice. And she once again a sailing on the Po River and in the lagoons in the heart of Venice. And then we’ll have the Mekong Jewel, which will be doing Vietnam and Cambodia also in January of 2020. So I’m a very exciting year ahead of us which will continue to help to elevate our brand.
Britton: And as you mentioned, you know, you, you do have this focus on, on elevating the brand and really just making sure that everything that you, you are doing is, is at a certain level. And I mean, how does that translate across the rest of your fleet apart from these new ships?
Bettridge: Yeah, so it’s so our, our path down the road is we’re heading towards what we’re calling Super Ships. So all of our ships as we go forward, we’ll continue to elevate them. And what they’ll have is they’ll have more suites, more dining venues, and more luxurious finishes throughout. So it’s really about how we take each one of our ships and we turn them into a super ship. So that’s really the idea of it, and once again, it’s listening to our customers. They’ve told us that they want more suites, they sell out first that they want more dining venues. They don’t want to just eat in the same dining venue and they really do want more exclusive, incredible experiences. So that’s really been our focus.
Britton: So speaking of those kind of experiences that you mentioned, and you mentioned the word, you know, exclusive, but something that I’ve noticed and I was doing a piece about Uniworld Danube itineraries the other day, just the different itineraries that you offer on the Danube alone. And something that really stuck out to me was that there were these Jewish Heritage tours and that you, you seemed to have a lot of tours that I haven’t heard of other companies doing. And then also, you know, making stops in ports that other companies may not stop in. And so, I mean, can you elaborate on why that is so important to you and to the brand?
Bettridge: Yeah. So once again, it’s about how do we, how do we stand out? How can we be unique? How can we not be clustered into the same group of just like them? You know, we really believe in, in, in enhancing the experience in a different way. So I love that you picked up on the Jewish Heritage cruises cause within those that we really are embracing, you know, central Europe’s rich heritage and history of the Jewish ties that they have. And it’s a complimentary program that’s part of the itinerary. So it’s really it’s like there’s a couple of different, they’re in depth cruises, and there’s one that happens to be on the Remarkable Rhine and Historic Holland. And the other one is the Authentic Danube and Prague. So we actually have two different itineraries that are highlighting this there and completely Jewish inspired through the architecture, through their memorials, to the museums, the synagogues, et cetera.
So, you know, and it really has helped us to capture a new customer. As I’m sure you’re aware of Britton, you know, river cruising is still just getting started. You know, when you imagine that each little river cruise ship, at least for Uniworld that is on average for 130 passengers, you know, that’s nothing when you stop and think about it. And so, you know, in a year, you know, you’re talking, you know, 50, 60,000 passengers, it’s not a massive number. Whereas, you know, you could think of a big ocean ship and on one cruise they’ll have 5,000 people. Right? So there’s so people have actually river cruised and so it’s how do we start talking to different audiences. So through the Jewish heritage program, we’ve actually been able to talk to customers who’ve never even thought of river cruising, but they actually chose it because of the experience that we were going to be offering.
Britton: And if it’s okay with you, because this seems like kind of a natural segue with, with talking to people of different backgrounds and, and reaching for different demographics. I would like to talk about U for a minute. U River Cruises. So can you talk about kind of how that idea came about? And I know that it was targeted toward people my age. I’m 24. And, and when I first saw the pictures of the inside of those ships and, and the black exterior, I was like, this is awesome. Like, that is so something that I would like to do. And you know, the tattoo themed cruises and the drag queen theme cruises. And that seems like it’s, it’s such an offshoot. So how did that kind of come about for you?
Bettridge: You know, it was an opportunity to once again try to figure out how do we reach that next generation and the next group of people or for those people who really not thought, you know, river cruising is not for me. So it really is a fresh approach to river cruising and it’s the whole idea is how do we create a really fun and fresh and immersive experience for likeminded people. So I think originally we did come out and say, you know what, we really going after the millennials and we’re going after this young person. But now what we found is that, you know what, it’s young as a it’s a, it’s in your heart, right? So it’s how you feel and what you think. And we found that, you know, we’ve got people who are really looking for that really active fun experience are not necessarily 24 years old. So we will find, we have people of all ages now who are going on and I’m absolutely loving it. And majority of them are new to river cruising, which is also very exciting for us because it is actually capturing exactly what we wanted it to do was to introduce the idea of river cruise to people who never thought it was for them. Right. People always kind of peg themselves into these little places. And I think we’ve kind of unleashed a new idea.
Britton: And just to elaborate on that a little bit, it was funny because I was actually in the airport a couple of months ago and I was in like Fort Lauderdale. It was somewhere so random. And there were two people standing next to me and they were talking about river cruising. And of course, you know, I listen for these things and they were talking about U because someone was saying, you know, I, we went on a river cruise and we loved it. And the guy that they were talking to was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to cruise with all these old people.” Which is not really the case so much anymore, but you know, and they were like, “No, but this was a totally different experience. It’s is not what you think of.” And, and really, were so complimentary of the experience and, and you know, were saying they couldn’t wait to do it again and just, and just how different and unique the experience itself was. And so I, the I that is such a compliment of course to you and your team and everyone there as well. But it was just interesting because these, these women were in their forties. Yeah. So like you say, it’s not necessarily about an age, but kind of a mindset and, and about personal interest as well.
Bettridge: Well, you know, thank you so much. You’ve just made my day. But you know, with, you know, would U River Cruises it really is, it’s like an effortless way, river cruising is, to travel. And we really are able to personalize it. But at the same time, people don’t feel as though they can’t. It’s not, it’s not their vacation. They can do whatever they want. We, we create. We just, we’re just the floating hotel, right? So we’re just that floating hotel who gets them from place to place. But they realize that they can actually get out there and explore these incredible little destinations.
Britton: So while we’re still talking about U, let’s, let’s talk a little bit about kind of, I mentioned some of the, the, the theme sailings that happened this past summer, but what is new coming up with excursions and itineraries for you?
Bettridge: Yeah, yeah. So for 2020 for you river cruises, we’ve got three new itineraries. One is an updated itinerary and the B is back. So giving travelers new access to European destinations like Amsterdam, Vienna, Brussels. So we had actually had, the, B, she did not sail last year because she had been over on the Seine and we’ve moved her over into Eastern Europe. So now that she’s over there, so we’ve got in 2020, we’ve got itineraries Amsterdam and Brussels Bound, and we’ve got the Vienna Vibe and we’ve got Rolling on the Rhine, and European Escape. So once again, it’s about hitting those, get those really hot European destinations, the ones that people want to fly in and out of and spend time in and be there overnight like Amsterdam, Vienna, Cologne. But then it’s also about taking them into these little cool places that they can experience.
So we’re really excited about the itineraries because they are, once again, we’re just continuing to evolve what we’ve started two years ago. We’ve actually added a new excursion. One of the really cool one is we’re doing a nighttime crime cruise where they get to learn about crime and mystery and mayhem. That’s hosted by the local police officers, not really our team. So there’s a lot of fun and people are, we tested it earlier this year and people just loved it. So we’re excited to roll that out next year. We’ve got additional hiking and wine tastings in the Wachau Valley and we’ve got a new masters chocolatier session with Belgian chocolate. So once again, continue to figure out what it is that people want to do in these destinations that they might not be able to do on their own. And how we can serve it up to them.
Britton: And you do mention like some of these nighttime, late night…Do these tour start later or are they still starting in the morning? So can people, you know, stay out late and still do the tourist in the morning? I find it, it’s hard for me to wake up after a night at the bar. But-
Bettridge: Yeah, I mean that’s one of the nice things about U is that, you know, it’s the majority, majority of the cruise you’re actually able to sleep in to, you know, you’ll get up maybe a little bit later, maybe grab a croissant and a cup of coffee and then you’ll head down and have a beautiful brunch and then you’ll be out for the rest of the day, you know, enjoying the destination, which is why we’re traveling. Right? And then you come back on the evening and have dinner and maybe that night might be a night that maybe we are staying overnight in port. So therefore you can then jump off and go off into a night excursion as well and experience the destination at night. So you know, it’s, each day the itinerary changes. So there might be some days that I might be a little bit of an earlier start so it might just be a a breakfast in the morning and then you’ll end up having a lunch or dinner. But each day is kind of going to be designed based on where you are and what the itinerary looks like. So you can definitely plan your sleeping schedule around it as well. Cause you know, a big part of vacation is getting some rest too.
Britton: Sure. Yeah. I often feel like sometimes I don’t get off the ship as much as I should because I’m up too late. But let’s go back to Uniworld for a second because we did talk about the itineraries with U, but I know that you have some new itineraries for Uniworld as well. This year, or excuse me, in 2020. So what can we look forward to there?
Bettridge: Yeah, so we do so we’ve got Rhine, The Moselle and Blissful Baden-Baden, and Baden-Baden is a very cool, like little hidden destination that we wanted to bring to our customers. So that they could experience it, go there and say kind of like think of it as like a little village of spas and really tranquil, beautiful place. So we’re excited about that. And then we have another, a 10 day trip that’s gonna go from Strasbourg to Frankfurt as well. And you know, both of these are, you know, incredible Germany and the breathtaking wonders of what the Moselle and the, and the Rhine Rivers bring people. So we’re very excited about these itineraries and, and what they can bring. And we’re constantly looking to say, what’s the next new thing that someone’s looking for?
So, you know, a few years ago we did the Jewish heritage and we also added in our Connoisseurs Collection cruises, and we’ve added in, you know, our generation cruises. And then this year it’s a little bit more on the wellness side. So we’re excited about Baden-Baden as well as some of the stuff that we’ll be doing in Bordeaux, which is about really bringing the destination to life, you know, through a little bit more of some additional yoga classes maybe, you know, offshore you know, hiking to a scenic view in the mornings. So it’s, we’re trying to find different ways that we can find the customers and really attract them to what we’re doing next.
Britton: Yeah, and I mean, I think that that you kind of, we talked about the Jewish Heritage, but I think that that really translates into, you know, how diverse you’re, you’re trying to make the itineraries and, and while keeping them unique and while keeping them, you know, going to different ports. And it’s, it’s about kind of this balance of being able to do these new things and give people what they love and, and have these ships that are unique but in, but very, I mean, from what I’ve seen from Uniworld, the decor is, is traditional but not in the way that people might think of traditional, but just, you know, that it’s maybe historic or, and, and I think that it’s just all kind of about this balance. And for me that’s what makes Uniworld special is that you have all of these different things for different people and that can even be seen in the separation of, of Uniworld and U River Cruises as well, is that you’re really trying to engage this audience of, of river cruisers in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re reaching and in a way that you’re able to be relatable and really take people on this journey. And as you mentioned, that’s about travel on. That’s an, and then the Uniworld experience just enhances that, that travel.
Bettridge: I completely agree. I mean, we’re very fortunate because we are part of the Travel Corporation, which you know, does have this absolute relentless pursuit of excellence. And we’re constantly working to bring you the highest level of luxury in river cruising. We actually have one of the highest staff to guest ratio on the rivers. The dining experience is like other you know, we literally are getting our produce and our, our specialty dining items, you know, in the ports as we’re traveling. You know, and bringing customers in the local produce. So what’s in season is what they’re having. And people just love this. You know, and you mentioned the decor and it is because you feel so special when you’re in each of these destinations because you feel like you’ve never left the destination.
The ship is part of that. It really is that little cute boutique hotel. And it’s that level of service that no one else can offer. One of the slogans that we use all the time is, “No request is too large, no detail too small.” And it’s something that we live by our crew lives by and the staff on board. They are, they’re not just the staff, they’re our family. You know, there are our employees, which is different from other river cruise lines. These are actually our employees, you know, they’ve been with us for years. You know, we, we contribute to their health benefits into their 401k and into their future. And so they’re, they’re part of us and it makes an enormous difference in the level of service that we’re able to provide someone.
Britton: And this is this, maybe it shoots off a little bit from, from what you’re talking about, but I think it also kind of touches on maybe those details that you mentioned. And I was so happy when I started coordinating with your team and we went over talking points that I saw that, that one of the talking points was sustainability initiatives. And that’s something that I’m really passionate about. And I’ve done many articles on our ocean cruise site about how different cruise lines are being sustainable because it’s so important to, you know, make it so that people can still go to these destinations and they’re still there for us to see. And so can you talk about the sustainability initiatives that Uniworld and, and U River Cruises have kind of taken?
Bettridge: Absolutely. We’re incredibly proud and, and it’s a perfect segue because a lot of it is driven by our crew. Remember, they’re on these rivers every day. This is where they live, this is their home. So they take great pride in it. And they also really are constantly looking for new ideas of how we can continue to eliminate single use plastics. So as a, as a company we have actually been leading the way in sustainability for the rivers, you know, for years. And we have, we make it a priority to say, how do, can we actually reverse preserve this, the world’s rivers. And we work with an organization called we.org and with we.org we’re actually helping to create water wells around the world to bring fresh water to people. And, but what better way to do it than through a donation that we give to we.org? And so one night during the cruise, each customer will get this beautiful chocolate from Ecuador and on it, it actually talks about we.org and this organization and how, you know, what and how they also can contribute and be part of it. So that’s one way that we’re focused on it.
The other one is around eliminating single use plastic. So we’ve been on this mission for years. This is not new to us and we reduced the small little bottles that you have for your shampoo and stuff years ago. We’ve moved away from plastic straws. We’re just constantly looking at what else can we do to eliminate single use plastic. We reducing paper and one of the things that we’re going to be doing in 2021 which we’re very excited about, is we’re working with One Tree Planted. And so if you choose to actually take your documents that you get, if you were to actually take them electronically, instead of us sending you paper documents, we’re actually going to plant a tree in your name because we believe really important to once again giving back and, and how do we actually make this, this world that we belong to a better place.
Britton: Yeah. And it’s, it is, it’s so important, especially in this industry where you’re on the water and you’re, and you know, in tourism in general where you’re going into these places to make sure that when you go into these places, you’re not also bringing what travel, you know, used to kind of ensue with it. So I think that that’s always something really important to talk about. When we’re talking about any sort of travel. But especially with cruising, where you have these, I mean, yeah, relatively small for the industry, but you have large amounts of, of guests and big groups of people that have the potential to create a lot of waste. So I just, I really appreciated the emphasis on that. It was something that really stood out to me. And yeah, you know, not a lot of brands talk about that. So I thought that that was great.
Bettridge: I was very proud on, on September 27th, we actually were together with the Travel Corporation we actually all did a pledge together and that pledge was as to how we are going to protect the people, the planet and the wildlife. And that was kind of put together through the Treadright Foundation. And it was very, it was a perfect day because it was world tourism day. And if, you know, if you go onto our website, if you go onto the Treadright website, you’ll actually, you can read all about it. And you can also also pledge yourself as to how you’re going to actually support the people and take care of our planet. And, and, and love our wildlife. And it’s, it’s very cool because being part of this larger organization gives us that opportunity. And through the Treadright foundation, we’ve actually done over 50 different projects around the world in order to continue to take care of the people, the planet, and the wildlife.
Britton: Yeah, that’s, that’s awesome. My hat is off to you and everyone at Uniworld for that. Do you have, you know, this is kind of going back to the itineraries cause we have a few minutes here, but is there an itinerary that’s a favorite of yours or something that really sticks out to you that you’ve done recently on Uniworld that you would like to talk about?
Bettridge: Well, you know, I’m sure people probably think that all I do is go on cruises, but I wish that was the case. But I, unfortunately, I don’t, but this year I did have a chance to go on a full week cruise. I hosted the President’s Cruise on Brilliant Bordeaux and it was on our new ship, the Super Ship Bon Voyage and you know, Bordeaux is a very little region, and you’re on the Garone and the Dordogne rivers up there into the estuary and you’re going into these wonderful little places. And I absolutely loved every bit of the experience because first of all, you have amazing wine and the scenery is spectacular, especially in the evenings and sitting on the top deck and watching the world go by. Going to the amazing gold town of a st Emilio and, and walking around and experiencing it with just absolutely just fantastic.
But my highlight of the entire trip was actually hiking up to the top of a dune. Dune Du Pilat which is Europe’s highest sand dune. So we went there at four o’clock in the morning and we hiked the top of it and watched the sunrise. And it was it was really cold at first, and then, you know, then the sun comes up and it’s really beautiful and warm. And it was just absolutely breathtaking. So incredible way to see this region, drink some great wine and spend some time with some wonderful friends.
Britton: Yeah, that’s, that sounds awesome. Sometimes those early mornings, you know, does sunrise is always spectacular, but especially on, on a tall dune like that. That’s so cool. There’s the one here in the coast of North Carolina and that’s just always something that’s nice to go see. Is there anything that you feel like we’ve kind of glanced over or anything that you would like to put a little bit more emphasis on? Or do you feel like we kind of covered it?
Bettridge: Well, I think there’s one, it’s just been the fact that with Uniworld, you know, it really truly is an all inclusive experience. So it’s not just that it’s a lot of people can say they’re all inclusive, but I just wanted to quickly run through a few things to make sure people understand what the value of what they’re getting. It’s an incredible value. So you have your unlimited choice of your premium spirits and wines. You’ve got your incredible dining opportunities. And it’s not just through one restaurant, but through several onboard, you’ve got, your transfers are included. All of your gratuities are included, so you don’t have to worry about that. Of course wifi is included. We have wellness, so in the mornings we’re offering incredible yoga classes on the top deck or else you can go out and go bicycling in the middle of the afternoon. We have beautiful gyms on each one of our ships.
And you know, everyone’s so focused on wellness nowadays. It’s very important to us and to most of our guests as well. Of course your excursions are included. Which everybody loves. And then of course we have some onboard entertainment, which continues to evolve. So we’re trying to figure out how can we bring on the local, really talented people on board to give people a flair for it without it being hokey. So we’re very focused on onboard entertainment and bring it to life. But at the same time, once again, giving people an opportunity to be in a destination at nighttime, cause there’s nothing better than experiencing a city or a village at night and seeing it come to life in a completely different way than you would during the day. So I think it’s just making sure people know that this incredibly carefree, effortless way of traveling is also all included.
Britton: Yeah, absolutely. And there, you know, so often people inquire about, what are the hidden costs when they write to me and, and you know, what, what is this hidden costs? And, and when you have something that’s all inclusive like that, it’s, it’s so easy to say, well there aren’t any, you know, maybe you might have this excursion that you’re paying more for or a bottle of wine or something. But I mean there aren’t, everything is there and it’s laid out. So that’s always really nice for people. It’s easy cause they don’t have to budget more than, you know, what they anticipate budgeting for.
Bettridge: Exactly. No. And that’s what we want and we want people to feel like they’re on vacation. And they can just relax and they don’t ever feel any pressure. And that’s exactly what we want. And we want people to be able to come on board and make new friends and connect with others and really experience the world in a magical way. And that’s, that’s what we’re focused on. We want guests to come to us over and over again. We’re not looking for the one-time person who comes to go on that one river cruise. I want someone who really realize that this is a pretty spectacular way to travel. They come once and the cool part is we keep to see them come back year after year.
Britton: Yeah. I mean, and that’s something that, that is, that makes this so special is that I think once people do it, they get hooked. So it’s really, it’s, it’s always a lot of repeat customers and I know people love, you know, kind of taking the same ships and taking different ships and doing the same itineraries and doing different itineraries. And that’s always really spectacular as well.
Bettridge: And you know, it’s, it’s, it’s no bet, no time better than now to start looking at your itineraries for 2020, because it’s amazing how fast these things start to fill up when, like you said, you only have, I only have 130 passengers on a ship on average. So it’s not a lot of room. Yeah. So people do have to think about booking early. They can’t wait till the last minute in order to get the dates and the itinerary that they want.
Britton: Exactly. I always recommend, you know, at least planning a year ahead. So, yes. Now that you know about these new itineraries for 2020, listeners, I encourage you to go talk to your travel agent. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it. It was so good to talk to you and, and learn more about Uniworld and I hope that we can do this again in the future.
Bettridge: Absolutely. Britton, I appreciate the opportunity and thank you so much for all of your support.