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AmaWaterways cautious but hopeful as European river cruise season starts

AmaWaterways' Brenda Kyllo, left, and Kristin Karst
Due to begin its European season March 6 with three sold-out charters on AmaMagna, AmaWaterways was feeling hopeful about 2022 before the Russia-Ukraine situation added uncertainty.

The company hasn't changed its Eastern European itinerary so far but is closely monitoring developments.

'We have a 20-year proven track record of safely adapting our cruises to ensure that unexpected events have a minimal impact on the guest experience so that those wishing to still cruise can do so, safely,' AmaWaterways said in a statement.

Most of the fleet expected to operate

The line's European vessels start getting underway in March and early April, and EVP/Co-founder Kristin Karst said pretty much the entire European fleet is expected to operate regular itineraries this year.

AmaMagna's third charter is the American Society of Travel Advisors' President's Cruise hosted by Zane Kerby, following the ASTA Global River Cruise Expo in Budapest March 16-19.

Before Russia's assault on Ukraine, the prior four weeks had been 'extremely positive,' Karst said, with both bookings for 2022 sailings using future cruise credits plus new bookings from ocean cruisers seeking smaller vessels.

She cited 'huge pent-up demand,' but was cautious on 2022, hoping things stabilize. 2023 is expected to be 'very strong,' and the 2024 schedule will be available soon, with group charter requests already coming in.

Vessels are booking 'from the top down. Everyone wants a balcony cabin or, if possible, a suite because [people feel they've] earned it,' Karst said.

More air bookings

Another trend is booking air with the cruise. AmaWaterways doubled its air reservations team to handle a 'tremendous' increase in air bookings. In past, maybe one-third of bookings were with air. Now, it's half.

This springs from the convenience of 'one-stop shopping' with AmaWaterways after two years of challenges for travel advisors and consumers with flight changes and cancellations. Karst said advisors can access Ama agents 'much faster than calling the airlines and being on hold for hours.'

Longer sailings

People are interested in longer sailings, too. Ama currently offers three seven river trips, with the summer one sold out, a few cabins left in the spring and space available for the fall departure.

Cruise combinations are possible, too. In France, for example, Ama explores three rivers with voyages that embark/disembark on the same day of the week. So a traveler could sail the Rhone to Lyon, take the TGV from there to Paris and embark on a Seine cruise, sail round-trip then join a Paris to Bordeaux trip.

New Nile vessel

In Egypt, AmaDahlia has been plying the Nile since its early September inaugural and has been 'very, very successful,' sold out in the past months and booking very well.

The region that lags is the Mekong. Vietnam and Cambodia are not ready to open yet, but AmaWaterways anticipates starting there in October.

Protocols remain in place

Omicron is 'not in the past,' according to Karst. AmaWaterways continues its proven protocols, including a vaccination requirement. When it comes to boosters, the company bows to national regulations — some places, like France — mandate them.

Masks are still required when moving around the vessels but not when seated in a lounge or restaurant. Even if such a regulation is relaxed in future, 'Everyone should do what they feel comfortable with,' Karst said. Some travelers prefer to keep them on, and crew will always wear them.

European protocols are starting to become standardized, according to Brenda Kyllo, VP strategic alliances for AmaWaterways, with the EU adopting a 'pretty harmonized approach.'

With health matters getting a little more predictable and travel advisors clued in, Webinar Wednesdays questions are now dominated by product matters, with the trade wanting to know things like whether Ama can still deliver the same service as before and if certain travel managers are coming back.

Loyal workforce

Last year, of the North American-based river operators, only Ama and Viking ran cruises in December and through New Year's Eve. This not only fulfilled people's Christmas markets dreams but provided jobs for crew, cruise managersand local guides.

That created 'a lot of loyalty,' Karst said, 'which we now benefit from. These people are sticking with us.' That gives Ama a leg up at a time when it's challenging to source new, qualified workers.

Trust more important than ever

People also want reassurance, with Crystal Cruises' demise raising questions about financial stability.

'Trust is more important now than ever,' Karst said, adding: 'We are sleeping well. We were always very disciplined. We've paid off our ships.' To economize in the pandemic, 'We did our own marketing, creating everything ourselves.' This includes producing more than 100 videos for Ama's YouTube channel.

4,000 virtual events

Regular engagement with the travel advisor community has paid off. Ama held a whopping 4,000-plus virtual events the past couple years, with advisors inviting their clients to monthly Sip and Sail gatherings, and virtual cruise events involving business development managers.