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River cruise sector: factors fuelling fleet growth

Thu 18 Apr 2019 by Rebecca Moore

River cruise sector: factors fuelling fleet growth
AmaSiena will join AmaWaterways' fleet in 2020 to meet growing consumer demand

The river cruise market is growing rapidly. River cruise operator bosses explain why they are extending their fleets and what is driving growth

According to a CLIA report released in December 2018, river cruising is the second-largest trend within the cruise sector.

AmaWaterways chief marketing officer Janet Bava said “There is a growing trend and interest in river cruising from the consumer side.”

She was speaking at a Seatrade Cruise Global roundtable on river cruise which included senior executives at some of the largest river cruise operators, and focused on the growth of the sector and their strategies in developing their fleets and markets.

American Queen Steamboat Company chairman and chief executive John Waggoner said “The river cruising industry is going through an unprecedented expansion.” The company started when Mr Waggoner bought American Queen when it came on the market eight years ago. The ship was built in 1995. He added “We bought another boat and doubled the size of the company in 48 months, going from three boats to seven boats and it is really unprecedented. In 12 years, we have grown 23% and the last five years almost 33% – the demand is there, as soon as we build one boat we fill it.”

American Cruise Lines president Charles Robertson added “It has been an evolutionary process. We have built and designed a lot of boats and we have a unique perspective as we have seen how passenger expectations have evolved. It has been quite dramatic to meet those expectations. We have three under construction right now. It the last 10 years, [the market] has been very dynamic, the market has grown tremendously.”

AmaWaterways announced it will add its new river cruise boat, AmaSiena to its European fleet on 1 July 2020. Ms Bava said “There is a lot of growth on the horizon, a lot of rivers to take and our amazing new ship.” The 156-passenger ship will have 178 staterooms, the majority with twin balconies.

US operator Tauck is also building a new ship. Hull construction for Andorinha, the company's new Douro riverboat, has been completed at the Vahali Shipyard in Serbia, and the hull was recently transported by tug to Hardinxveld, the Netherlands, where final outfitting will occur.

The ship will have a crew of 36, will measure 80 m in length with a beam of 12 m. Guests will be accommodated in 42 cabins, including 12 28-m2 suites on the upper Diamond Deck and 20 21-m2 staterooms primarily on the vessel's Ruby or mid-level deck. The remaining accommodations – six 19-m2 cabins and four 14-m2 cabins – will be on the lower or Emerald Deck.

Tauck reconfigured Sapphire as part of a fleet initiative to extend the size of the cabins, but reduce passenger headcount

Tauck owns nine river cruise vessels in Europe – four 135-m ships and five 110-m vessels.

Reducing the number of people on its river cruise vessels and increasing the size of cabins is an important part of Tauck’s strategy, and to this end it has embarked on a river cruise fleet refit programme. In a two-year initiative to reconfigure more than 50% of the company’s European river boat fleet, the most dramatic enhancement aboard each ship will take place on the Ruby deck (the middle deck), where 30 cabins of 46 m2 in the original configuration will be replaced with 20 cabins each measuring 69 m2.

Aboard each reconfigured vessel, 69% of all cabins will be 69 m2 or larger – which Tauck claims will be the highest percentage of such cabins on any 110-m river boat in Europe. In addition, overall capacity will be reduced from 118 passengers to 98, with the number of cabins on each vessel dropping from 59 to 49.

Tauck’s reconfigured Sapphire and Emerald have undergone the refit and were launched back onto the market in April 2017.

In contrast to ocean cruising, all roundtable river operator executives emphasised that a small guest count was important. Indeed, Tauck is intentionally limiting Andorinha's capacity to just 84 guests.

Crystal River Cruises vice president and managing director Walter Littlejohn said “We approach our river cruises in the same way that we approach our ocean cruises – having a grand sense of spaciousness on board the largest size boat we can use on rivers in Europe but half as many guests as one would normally see on the same size hull – it is about going smaller. For our brand as we have new ocean liners, we are taking the same concept and expanding it. We have a new 20,000-tonne expedition ship that will only carry 200 guests.”

While Mr Robertson said “Look at what we are building today compared to 20-30 years ago: staterooms are almost twice the size, private verandas are getting bigger all the time, the ship platforms are getting bigger but we have 200 guests – we feel that this is our sweet spot.”

He highlighted how design trends had changed in river cruising. “We have much more modern vessels, with glass atriums that go up six decks.” The company also has traditionally styled Victorian river cruise vessels. “Some people are very passionate about Victorian riverboats but there is also a lot of passion for the new ones. We are blessed that we have the opportunity to design and build vessels pretty quickly. We are a family-owned business so not accountable to anyone but ourselves so we can make decisions very quickly and respond to consumer interest.”

He highlighted the growing trend of building ships that are as environmentally friendly as possible. “The ships we are building today have 5% of the environmental impact compared to ones we were building 10 years ago, and compared to 25 years ago it is less than 1%, so the ships are now 100 times [more environmentally friendly]. People are starting to recognise that in larger numbers and we showcase that.”

Examining the customer market for the river cruise sector, Mr Robertson said “The demographic is higher net worth, higher income. There is a much more pronounced interest in environment.”

Mr Littlejohn said “We get affluent customers who demand global standards of luxury. These people travel across the globe. We found a way to take that expertise from our ocean ships and put it on our river ships.”

He added “Ocean cruise and river cruise are not in competition with our cruise guests combining river and ocean cruise in one vacation.”

There is no doubt the river cruise sector is expanding – with plenty of capacity to grow. Mr Waggoner filled the audience in on some CLIA figures: Last year of 18M that cruise worldwide, 14M came from North America. Of these 70,000 went on a river cruise and 56,000 took a US river cruise.

He summed up that out of that last figure, “we only need 30,000 for our company to be sold out”.  

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