This week on Avid Travel With Britton Frost I am joined by Riviera’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing for North America, Marilyn Conroy.
Last year Conroy joined me to do a podcast where she gave an overview of Riviera’s fleet, itineraries, and ships. This time, we are looking at what the UK-based cruise line has to offer the North American market in 2020.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Britton: Hi, everyone. Today I am joined by Marilyn Conroy from Riviera. She’s the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for North America. And I know that we did a podcast about Riviera last year, kind of a getting to know you, so we will not do that again, but I will link that in the description for everyone. So if you have some more questions about Riviera and how they started and everything like that, then that is your podcast.
Britton: Today we’re going to be talking about what Riviera is going to be doing this year for 2020. So before we get into that though, Marilyn, how are you? How’s the weather? You know, all of those things?
Marilyn Conroy: Well, I’m very, very well, thank you. And having the privilege of living in Florida, unlike some of my colleagues throughout the country, we have beautiful sunny weather, probably about 75 degrees with no humidity.
Britton: That sounds great. I’m jealous. I just took my dogs out and I had to wear my winter coat and my legs were freezing. It’s cold here in North Carolina.
Marilyn Conroy: Yeah, I get my winter coat out of mothballs now and again.
Britton: Well, I know the Riviera has a lot coming up this year, so I think that we should just jump straight into it. I know booking is still open for 2020, and I know that you have some wave season deals. So for those of you who don’t know, wave season is kind of like the first month in… two months, three months of the year, and it’s where cruise lines offer certain incentives for booking. Can you tell me about what Riviera is offering travelers for wave season?
Marilyn Conroy: Yes, of course. And it’s interesting that you say that bookings are still available in 2020. We have more or less every itinerary available because fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the side of the fence you are, we are always late in announcing our rates and dates. For instance, 2021 is going to be announced at the end of February, which in comparison to our friendly competitors is very, very late.
Marilyn Conroy: But to answer your question, wave season, now we call it waive, W-A-I-V-E, because river cruises don’t make waves. I know that’s a nomenclature used by the cruise companies’ wave season, but we’re calling ours with a different spelling.
Marilyn Conroy: Anyway, essentially what we’re doing, our waive season promotion, which is applicable now through the end of March, is you save up to $1,500 a cabin. Obviously, that discount is available for the two-week cruises in a higher category but, even on a seven-day cruise you can save $1,000 a cabin. It’s on our webpage, but basically it’s a tiered system of what you save. But this is actually unprecedented for Riviera, because they haven’t done this type of promotion in the past and that’s what the North Americans want. They want the opportunity to book relatively early and save.
Britton: Yes, exactly. And you know, we just did this Budget Cruise Hacks webinar and how to save money during the cruise. And one of them, people are kind of on the fence about booking early and booking late. Some people say that booking early is better, and then you can have your cabin category choice and you can usually get better deals. And then some people say waiting until the last minute is best because people are trying to sell cabins. So, I don’t really know which way is better. It seems like oftentimes when you do choose to book early, you do get these incentives. And $1,500 per cabin is generous. I mean, that’s pretty nice.
Marilyn Conroy: It’s very, very significant, particularly when you take a look that our prices are very competitive to begin with. They’re competitive because we have to be to get the consumer’s attention. We’re an upper-premium product, but we’re not necessarily a household name. So we give these benefits for wave season and we also give competitive prices. So that, of course, is very, very important.
Marilyn Conroy: But as far as booking early, booking late, I know that some companies will offer last-minute deals. But that is terribly disruptive, because people do chat on board and it’s not very nice if you booked a year out and you’re paying X, and then you have a dinner partner who booked two months out and is paying a lower rate. That never makes anybody feel happy. So we have a very, very strict policy that the prices… the people who pay earlier are going to get the better prices.
Marilyn Conroy: We don’t do last-minute deals, which undercut our prices, our original prices. So you’ll never be in the position of, “All right, Mrs. Jones may have paid a little bit less than Mrs. X,” but that’s because she booked early, not because she booked late; it’s the reverse. And we’re very strict on that, by the way, because it’s terribly unfair otherwise.
Britton: I think that that makes perfect sense. So, I agree with that model because I actually have been on ships where something like that has happened, where people have questioned the cost and gotten different rates and… Yeah, I agree, it’s not fair. So, that’s good to know.
Britton: We’re talking about cruise fares and the price of a Riviera cruise, and I know that I said that we did a lot of getting to know Riviera last time, but will you just talk quickly about how everything works with Riviera, with the unbundling of the cruise fares and everything like that, and how you’re able to keep your rates low?
Marilyn Conroy: Well, exactly. Wonderful question, thank you. Firstly, we can keep our rates lower because we don’t spend a fortune in marketing in North America. If you look at the friendly competitors, they are marketing directly to the consumer, which is a very, very expensive way to market. Plus, they have these huge marketing budgets. Who pays for them? At the end of the day, it’s got to be built into the ticket price. It has to be. Otherwise, you’re paying for everybody’s vacation. So, we don’t spend a huge amount of money on marketing in comparison and we don’t do consumer marketing. So that’s one element that’s been removed, which is a very expensive element, of course.
Marilyn Conroy: So because of that, we are able to maintain a highly-competitive start-in rate. If you look at our categories, I’m giving you, obviously, starting rates, but the majority of them will start for about $2,800 for the week, per person. And you’ll find that that is extremely, extremely competitive. It’s roughly $400 a day.
Marilyn Conroy: What we do in terms of the onboard product: we include shore excursion every day, we include complimentary wifi, bicycles; obviously, all the meals onboard, midnight snacks. And in terms of meals, we are open seating, open dining, which is very important. So you’re not restricted what time you come down to the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have an alternative restaurant with no surcharge.
Marilyn Conroy: So basically, we are an inclusive product, but two elements we do not include is one, alcoholic beverages. We find so many clients say, “Why should I pay for everybody else’s drinks? So, that’s something that some people like, some people don’t like. So what we’ve done is we stripped that alcoholic beverage cost out. And on a seven-day cruise, a package for unlimited wine, beer, and soft drinks at lunch and dinner is only $159 per person for the week. And I must say, if you look at our bar prices, that is not a profit center for us. So you’ll see a superior glass of six-ounce wine, white wine, for instance, is a €2.75, which is roughly $3. I don’t know anywhere where you can go and get a nice glass of wine for $3.
Britton: No, I don’t either.
Marilyn Conroy: Thank you. The only thing stripped out is the alcoholic beverages and we also took out gratuities. Now, we’re a British company and we’re not known, Brits aren’t known to be particularly good tippers. So, we pay our staff a good salary and tipping is just-
Britton: At least you own up to it, Marilyn.
Marilyn Conroy: Yeah, that’s right, and Canadians. Sorry! So we pay our staff a good salary. So gratuities are discretionary, but if you want to give gratuities, then we reckon average of $12 a day, but it’s not one of these things where they’re going around with brown envelopes and every five minutes we live on our tips. It’s not like that at all on board. It’s very graciously done, if you want to do it.
Britton: But it’s always nice to have the option and it’s nice to, as you said, feel like you can choose. And if you’re not a drinker, to not have to pay for that.
Marilyn Conroy: Exactly, exactly.
Britton: And if you’re from a place where you don’t feel comfortable tipping, to not tip. I mean, it’s like when these people from Europe, because most of Europe is like that, where they don’t tip, that… and then you go on to this American product or you come to a restaurant here and feel you have to do that. It’s just not something that’s normal for you. It doesn’t mean that you’re unwilling to do it, but it’s just maybe not something that you even think of.
Marilyn Conroy: Yeah. Well, I’m Americanized, so I tip well.
Britton: Yes, I always tip. But yeah, I mean, it’s… and I’ve heard too that people enjoy having the choice to tip. I’ve heard this from multiple people and then also the crew, like when consumers or customers or guests have the choice to tip as well, because that way they’re tipping based on service and what they feel like they want to tip.
Marilyn Conroy: Yep, exactly.
Britton: And that way they’re not forced into paying something. And oftentimes, I’ve heard that the staff ends up getting more tips when customers are allowed to choose.
Marilyn Conroy: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right, because you’re tipping the people that you really feel deserve it. And no, you’re just, you’re right on all counts of that.
Britton: Yeah. And okay, so one other thing that Riviera does differently and that really helps with cost, is all of the wonderful things that you do for solo travelers. So, can you talk about… I know that you have the solo only river cruises, and then also that you have this allotted number of cabins on every itinerary. I’ll let you elaborate on that though.
Marilyn Conroy: Yes. Well, we recognize that the solo traveler is a market that’s growing exponentially. It really is a very fast-growing marketplace. So what we’ve done is, on every single departure we have up to five cabins with no single supplement. And these aren’t the cabins that are the back of the vessel, that are small and all the rest of it. These are double cabins for two people where one person would occupy it. Now, they are what we call river view, which is silly because they’re all river view. What it means, it has a window as opposed to a French balcony, because the majority of our cabins, 85%, have French balconies. So that’s how we recognize the solos there.
Marilyn Conroy: Plus, we’re the only company, and I know we’re the only cruise line to do this, we have entire departures dedicated to the solo traveler, where every single cabin has no single supplement. What that means, if you’re on a vessel that holds the 88 suites, you’re going to have 88 guests. So it’s going to be a wonderful cruise-to-passenger ratio, that’s for sure. And these solo cabins go throughout the season and throughout the itineraries.
Britton: Yeah, and I was talking to someone the other day, which was so interesting, who is married to a travel writer and says, “She always likes to travel with me. I like to travel alone, because when you are not involved in a couple, it is so much easier to meet people. Because when you’re paired off with someone, you’re put to the side, maybe you’re talking to each other, and is there a time to approach? When do you approach?
Britton: But when you’re by yourself and you’re traveling with other people who are traveling by their selves, talking, of course, to the solo-only departures, it really does make such a difference with who you talk to and who you can connect with. Now, I also think that traveling solo is rewarding regardless, but just having those sole-only departures that are unique to you, as you said, I think that that’s something that solo travelers will really appreciate. And I highly encourage anyone who’s listening to this, who is a solo traveler, to take advantage of one of these cruises because I think that it would be such a different experience, and I personally think that it would be a better experience.
Marilyn Conroy: No, I think that’s a very good point that you’ve raised there. But you know, it’s interesting because not everybody who travel on these solo departures are “single”. We get a lot of cases where you’ve got two guys that want to go on a trip that their wives don’t want to do, or vice versa. And when you get to a certain age, you want your own personal space. So they may know each other, but they just want a separate cabin.
Marilyn Conroy: But your point of not wanting to intrude as a solo onto couples is very valid.
Britton: Yeah, because I mean, if this is a cruise that you’ve saved up for, for however long and you’re going on your 50th anniversary cruise, you don’t want some 24-year-old sitting in the lounge, I’m speaking to myself, talking your ear off. You really don’t, and so… Not to say that there are not experiences that I’ve shared with people like that, because I think that people do realize that river cruising is such an intimate experience and you’re going to end up forming relationships.
Britton: But there are people who completely close themselves off and I can be one of those people, even as a solo traveler. I’ll go to the restaurant with my book and try to shut everyone out for a minute because I sometimes have had enough. But I do really think that that’s cool and it’s interesting to think about. And like you said, it’s a great option as well for those who are looking to travel together in a group of friends who don’t want to share cabins.
Marilyn Conroy: Yeah, agreed. Agreed.
Britton: Well, let’s speak a little bit to what’s coming up in 2020, because we said that’s what we would do at the beginning and then we haven’t done any of that yet, have we?
Marilyn Conroy: So?
Britton: So, what do you have on the horizon? I know that… Well, I’ll let you just answer that. I’m not going to give any spoilers.
Marilyn Conroy: Okay. Well, obviously the itineraries are very, very important. And I think we covered last time how we always tweak our itineraries in order to give our clients a more immersive experience. We offer 15 itineraries, different itineraries on 10 rivers. But we have three new things coming up next year, two new itineraries and a new vessel, the Geoffrey Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer is one of our longships, which means she holds 169 guests, which gives lots and lots of public space and very, very spacious cabins. But we also have two new itineraries, and I particularly like both of these.
Marilyn Conroy: Vienna, Bohemia and the Treasures of the Danube. This I like because Vienna is one of those cities, it’s a beautiful city, but can you really see it if it’s a port of call for a day? Well, the answer is no, you can’t, because you need to experience the city day and night. So we have a seven-day cruise, which stops in Vienna, you embark in Vienna, you spend the night in Vienna and then you set sail and you go all the way up to Krems, you go to Linz and you end up in Regensburg, and then you sail back without duplicating ports to Vienna. So essentially, the vessel is a floating hotel because you can… when you spend the night in Vienna, you just dock downtown, for starters, and you just get on and off. You know, you can go to a restaurant if you want to.
Marilyn Conroy: And the other itinerary is the Seine, Paris and Normandy, where we do the Normandy beaches, the Canadian and American beaches. So here, you embark in Paris, you spend the night in Paris, and then you sail all the way down to Honfleur and then on to Bayeux, where the beaches are to be found. And again, you don’t duplicate ports of call. So they’re our two new itineraries and they’re being very, very well received.
Britton: And I think that Vienna is one of those cities that almost always needs to be… there almost always needs to be more time, even if you do an overnight. I love Vienna, it’s one of my favorite cities. And as you said, you’re docking downtown so you can just hop on a bike, I mean, and ride into town or do whatever or just walk into town; I’ve done both.
Marilyn Conroy: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought up the bicycles because we have 12 complimentary bicycles on board. And what we do is, our itineraries always give with the shore excursions a very, very good overview of each city. It’s a nice tour, but we like to give our clients a certain amount of freedom to go out and explore on their own. That’s why they have these bicycles, they’re pretty popular.
Marilyn Conroy: Or just walk into town, sit in a cafe and admire the passers by, drinking some wine. And by the way, if you wanted to bring a bottle of wine or so back to the vessel, you can do that with pleasure. We just don’t like you to drink it in the dining room. So, please drink it in your cabins or up on deck.
Britton: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good place to get wine, but yeah, don’t bring it into the dining room. I agree with that, that’s not very polite.
Marilyn Conroy: No, that’s exactly right.
Britton: Is there a certain itinerary that you’re really looking forward to? I mean, I know that you have the two new ones, but what’s your favorite one to do? I know it’s so hard.
Marilyn Conroy: Well, no. My personal favorite is Provence, because I think that gives you the best of both worlds. You’ve got the wineries, you’ve got the castles, they’ve got the history; like Avignon is famous, of course, to the Palace of the Popes. So you’ve got a lot of history and culture there. But then you also do quite a few call wineries and of course, the magnificent lavender fields, if you go in the springtime when they’re in full bloom. But what I also like about this particular trip is because it’s so easy to do a pre or a post in Paris, which is my favorite city. So you go to Paris, do whatever you do for Paris, and then you’d take the TGV right down to Lyon and embark the vessel.
Marilyn Conroy: Now, we sail Lyon to Avignon. The reason why we don’t do a roundtrip, Lyon, is because if you go to Avignon, that saves your time and you’re able to sail right the way up into the city of Beaune, as opposed to having to take a bus. So we try and avoid buses as much as possible on our itineraries. But that’s my personal favorite.
Britton: And I know that is music to some people’s ears. A lot of people don’t want to spend time on a bus.
Marilyn Conroy: No. I mean, exactly. Exactly.
Britton: Is there anything else that you want to touch on for 2020?
Marilyn Conroy: I would like to just touch on about our basic philosophy, if you like?
Marilyn Conroy: The product for Riviera is, it’s top of the premium line. It’s not a luxury product. I don’t like that word luxury, because it means different things to different people, but it’s the top of the premium line. Our cabins are significantly larger than the majority of our competitors and our price is extremely competitive, as I said. So, we are being discovered. I used to say we’re the hidden gem in Europe. Well, we’re no longer so hidden. So we are getting a lot of support, thank you, from our North American clientele.
Marilyn Conroy: And basically, Riviera is a tremendous value for money. I can’t really say more than that, can I? Oh, and the crew, by the way, is European. English is a must-spoken language. The vessels are crewed and manned by Scylla of Switzerland, which is one of the preeminent boat builders. Our vessels themselves come from Scylla, but Scylla is also responsible for the food, for the training of the staff. So you’ll find that the staff on board is European, but as I said, they all speak English. So you get a real cosmopolitan feel on board.
Britton: And I’ve stepped onto one of your ships for a second, crossing over, and I’ve never been able to do a Riviera cruise, but the ships are beautiful.
Marilyn Conroy: Yes, they are.
Britton: And it took my breath away a little bit, I will be honest. And so, I feel like that’s the experience through and through, though. That’s what it seems like to me.
Marilyn Conroy: Well, and you know what? I think if you’re an experienced river cruise guest, you would appreciate that. But even first-timers, I mean, I get such wonderful reviews, it’s really gratifying. Because you see, our vessels are all relatively new. Scylla, we lease them from Scylla, so it’s like a car, when your lease is up, you hand it back. So that’s why we’re able to have a really young fleet. None of our vessels are older than six years, none of them.
Britton: Which is incredible when you’re looking at people who have had vessels that are… I mean, some of them over 20 years old.
Marilyn Conroy: Oh yeah, for sure. And you know, river cruises are… you can refurbish them of course, but they’re still in the old style. That’s why it’s nice to be able to just give them back.
Britton: Yeah, just hand over the keys. I don’t know that that’s how boats work, but something like that.
Marilyn Conroy: No, I’m not sure either, to be truthful.
Britton: Well, thank you so much. I do want to tell everyone, make sure you know those wave season deals, W-A-I-V-E, that we talked about at the beginning, you have until the end of March to take advantage of those. So, I would recommend getting on it as early as possible. As Marilyn said, the earlier you book, the better it’s going to be for you.
Britton: And thank you, Marilyn, for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Marilyn Conroy: No, I appreciate you. Thank you very much, indeed.