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New brands, destinations and markets show river cruising's dynamism

PHOTO: ANNE KALOSH CRUISE_STCGlobal_river_cruise_panel.jpg
From left, Transcend Cruises' Matthew Shollar, American Queen Voyages' Cindy D'Aoust, Riverside Luxury Cruises' Jennifer Halboth, AmaWaterways' Janet Bava and session moderator Gabriele Bassi, chief editor, Cruising Journal
With two new brands, new leaders, new destinations and markets, river cruising's dynamism was on display at a Seatrade Cruise Global session.

Start-up Riverside Luxury Cruises, which acquired the former Crystal River Cruises fleet, will begin sailing on the Danube this month and the Rhone in June with an eye to '[owning] the affluent river cruise market,' in the words of Jennifer Halboth, CEO for the Americas.

As announced at the session, one of its vessels, the former Crystal Mahler, will be chartered by the new B2B operator Transcend Cruises for an early start, in August, with Transcend co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer Matthew Shollar setting his sights on a newbuild in 2025.

American Queen Voyages has a new leader in President Cindy D'Aoust who, in her first months, has been highlighting destination storytelling and partnerships with America's Test Kitchen and Journey Beyond

And the venerable AmaWaterways is branching out into a new destination, Colombia's Magdalena River, in 2024, noted Janet Bava, chief marketing officer. This supplements Ama's presence across Europe, on Africa's Nile and Chobe, and Asia's Mekong.

New markets

River cruising is still battling the perception that it's just for seniors, Halboth said. 'The trend is traveling together. It may be a family, or couples who were in each other's bubble during the pandemic.

'We believe luxury travelers are underrepresented in the river space,' she added. 'We're going to pick up where Crystal took off and take it higher ... I want us to own the affluent river cruise market.' Her target: The family of five who spends a week skiing at Beaver Creek.

As on the oceans, multigenerational travel is on the rise, and this introduces younger people to the segment. D'Aoust, who hosted a President's Cruise on her company's inaugural season sailing, talked about meeting a group of 18 onboard: grandparents, parents and children, two of them pregnant moms.

'Who chose the cruise? The youngest,' after seeing a YouTube video, D'Aoust said. So traditional publications like AARP's magazine (for people over 50) aren't the only place to reach customers, she added.

One port on the cruise offered ATV adventures, alligator encounters and Cajun traditions. 'The guys did their own brunch: Doritos and beers on the [vessel's] rocking chairs,' D'Aoust quipped. 'They were building their own experience. Their mom did a different experience, their grandma did something else.

'There is literally something for everyone,' D'Aoust said. 'The greatest thing about river cruising is the flexibility to make the experience your own ... We just build more activities and people come.'

'We all offer a variety of experiences,' Bava agreed, adding that Gen Xers are taking to river cruising with their families. 'We are trying to overcome perceptions. We can attract younger travelers who want to learn about history and culture and immerse themselves in destinations.

'River cruising is a great entry product for people who haven't cruised,' she added.

And Transcend is focused entirely on the corporate, incentive, meetings and groups business with customizable charters, drawing those who'd typically plan events at land venues.

'We see Transcend as opening the market to people who may never have considered cruising at all,' Shollar said. Once they've sailed in a group with Transcend, they're open to cruising, which benefits other brands.

New destinations and itinerary lengths

AmaWaterways keeps adding choices. In 2024, the line will field 24 vessels on itineraries that visit multiple countries or immerse travelers in a single destination like France or Colombia. People are seeking longer trips because airfare is so costly, Bava said. 'Seven River' journeys of 46 nights are now an option.

In branching out to South America, Ama will have two new vessels on Colombia's Magdalena River with voyages between Cartagena and Barranquila with optional extensions to Medellín. And next year a second Nile vessel, AmaLilia, will join 2022's AmaDahlia to meet demand there.

'River cruising a new industry and there's still a lot of opportunity,' Bava said.

ANNE KALOSHCRUISE_river_cruise_panel_Bava.jpg

River cruising introduces people to lesser known destinations that they fall in love with, Janet Bava said

She added that it introduces people to lesser known destinations: 'Nobody has Rudesheim in their bucket list but they go and fall in love [with it]. Or Bratislava.'

'Because we're a private event venue, all our itineraries start with our guests' wishes,' Shollar said. He pointed to the popularity of Holland and Belgium but most lines just go at tulip time. Catering to groups, Transcend can visit places they desire, even 'off season' when there are fewer crowds, and/or can use less frequented landing sites but still deliver the shore experiences people desire.

'There are literally hundreds and hundreds of docks along these rivers and all kinds of fun things to explore,' Shollar said.

Riverside will be introducing more daytime sailings and staggering arrival times at ports. Imagine sitting at the pop-up bar on Riverside Mozart's top deck, gliding through a beautiful region on a summer day, Halboth said. Some shorter three-, four- and five-night sampler cruises are planned that travel advisors can pair with land programs.

The Lower Danube has much to offer, she added, with areas that are very different from Western Europe and Belgrade, for example is 'a fabulous city.'

At American Queen Voyages, the choices now go beyond rivers to itineraries on the Great Lakes, the coasts and expedition-style travel in Alaska. Longer trips are popular among upscale consumers, D'Aoust said, and with air travel still challenging, there is much for Americans to discover 'in their own backyard.'

Authentic experiences

The panelists said river cruising fully revolves around the destinations.

'People want authentic experiences' in food, entertainment and activities, according to D'Aoust. Her line has always focused on the culture of the regions it visits, with local entertainers, menus of regional specialties and Riverlorians onboard delving into the history. So there's jazz on Lower Mississippi cruises, and wine tastings in the Pacific Northwest. A new partnership with America's Test Kitchen will highlight local culinary traditions.

Three family-owned bakeries in ports from New Orleans to Memphis deliver fresh baked goods early in the morning, with American Queen Voyages telling their stories onboard. In one town, instead of hiring professional entertainment, the line invited high school band to perform and paid them with money for uniforms.

Shollar noted that hotel brands now getting into cruising are building small vessels so they can deliver 'the intimacy and shared experience we all provide.

'... When you're on a ship 5,000-passenger ship, it's a feat of engineering, it's a great product, but it's not something that lends itself to creating new relationships and new perspectives.'

Shollar said river cruisers step ashore in the heart of town and are 'embedded in the destination.' While ocean cruises offer port overnights here and there, river cruising is 'all overnight.'

As Bava observed: 'We all became wine aficionados during COVID.' Sailing in Europe gives the opportunity to sample and learn about wines, whether Vienna rieslings or rosés in the south of France. 'The destination comes alive on the ship,' she said. 'More and more people are coming onboard to learn about the wines.'


When it comes to sustainability, Bava noted river vessels carry an average of 150 passengers, creating less of an impact. And ports like Amsterdam offer green awards for lines that demonstrate the best efforts rewarded with priority docking locations.

'We can create itineraries that avoid choke points,' Shollar said, and design routes that travel shorter distances, using less fuel.

D'Aoust said American Queen seeks suppliers with environmentally friendly alternatives so products with harmful chemicals used in housekeeping and deck cleaning don't get into the rivers.

Riverside prioritizes local procurement, which benefits communities visited, Halboth said, and Bava noted that by eliminating buffets in favor of waiter service for all meals, AmaWaterways both cut down on food waste and raised the luxury standard because 'We all go on vacation not to serve our own food.'