Seatrade Cruise News is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Riverside Luxury Cruises aims to 'pick up where Crystal left off'

The former Crystal Mozart is to begin sailing as Riverside Mozart on the Danube in April. Before that, in March, it will house travel advisors at the ASTA River Cruise Expo in Budapest
Though the five Crystal river vessels have gone to a German owner, Riverside Luxury Cruises expects to draw most of its customers from North America, Jennifer Halboth, CEO for the Americas, told Seatrade Cruise News.

This will be an English-speaking experience — albeit one that mingles nationalities — with an eventual ratio of about 75/25 or 80/20 North Americans to Europeans.

'Crystal was very well-known in the US,' Halboth said, and Americans were driving river cruising's growth pre-pandemic.

That said, Europeans are likely to comprise a larger share initially given the extremely short sales window before Riverside begins operating Riverside Mozart on the Danube, Riverside Ravel on the Rhône and Saône and Riverside Debussy on the Rhine this spring

Two other vessels won't start until 2024.

Sales leaders in Europe, UK and North America

Andrea Kunze, director of sales and marketing, Europe, is based in Hamburg and joined from TUI Cruises. As earlier reported, seasoned river veteran Stuart Perl is managing director, UK. And Halboth heads up the Americas after 19 years with Globus, which includes Avalon Waterways.

About mixing nationalities, Halboth said luxury clientele are cosmopolitan and river cruising can provide a flexible experience, with Americans likely to opt for the excursions package and Germans not, instead using the vessels like floating hotels.

Seeking to emulate Crystal

From a product standpoint, 'We're going to pick up where Crystal left off,' Halboth asserted, with Riverside seeking to emulate the luxury service, food and style including butlers attending all suites.

'There's not much we need to do with the ships,' she added, since they are new, but owner Gregor Gerlach plans small touches like upgrading the towels and bathrobes. Dining is where Riverside hopes to surpass.

'Crystal did a great job. We want to be exceptional in the culinary area,' Halboth said, noting that Gerlach — a hotelier whose family controls the Seaside Collection and has restaurant experience — is doubling the prior food budget.

Crystal veterans

For Mozart's launch, Riverside bagged Crystal veterans Sonja Gruber as hotel director, Johannes Bär as executive chef, Cristian Mondaca as restaurant manager and Bélá Burjan as captain.

So far the company's hired four restaurant managers who worked for Crystal (though only three vessels will be operating this first season) and three of its four hotel directors are from Crystal.

'Getting key people in key roles can help with that continuity,' Halboth said. Further recruiting is under way.

Hotel staff will be employed directly by Riverside; River Advice is handling nautical positions. 

ASTA River Cruise Expo debut in March

With Riverside Mozart to start service in April, and two other vessels to closely follow, the crunch is on. (Halboth said itineraries for the remaining two, Riverside Bach and Riverside Mahler, in 2024 are to be determined, and the line also may begin next year's season with just three vessels.)

An important promotional opportunity is the upcoming ASTA River Cruise Expo, March 15-18 in Budapest. Travel advisors will have the chance to stay aboard Riverside Mozart for the expo and/or cruise four nights post-conference to Vienna.

'It's not easy to get a brand-new river cruise brand off the ground in a competitive market, and a market where all the cruise lines do a really good job. It's an exceptional way to travel,' Halboth said. Giving retailers the opportunity to experience the luxury nuances is critical.

'Aggressive' fares and 21% commission

Riverside will launch at 45% lower fares than Crystal's 2019 brochure rates because 'We're a new brand. We're late to selling ... The pricing is to say take a chance on us.'

For example, Mozart's first cruise, a five-night round-trip Vienna on April 4, is priced starting at $2,310 per suite. The 'premium all-inclusive' rate, bundling in transfers, a beverage pakage and excursions, starts at around $3,000 per suite.

The website, a work in progress, will be changing to the more standard per person pricing, and Perl is taking the lead to develop the English-language version which, for now, is a translation of the German site.

The Versonix Seaware reservations system provides travel advisors a recognized booking platform.

'Pricing will pace up'

'We're not trying to undercut the luxury market,' Halboth added. 'We're respecting our role in it right now: that we're new. Pricing will pace up over the next two sailing seasons. We're going to be at that luxury price point.'

2023 commission will be a generous 21%, and base pay going forward will be 18%. Plus, there will be enticing familiarization rates.

'My focus is travel advisors,' Halboth said. 'Any consumer advertising we do will support the brand and the advisor.' An ad in Travel + Leisure, for example, lends credibility and drives awareness. Trade channels are also Perl's focus in the UK.

US sales team

Halboth has three stateside sales directors: Michelle Rodriguez Suarez (Eastern US), formerly with Atlas Ocean Voyages; Crystal veteran Carolyn Szekeras (Central and South US; and Kelly Browne (Western US), who joined from Virtuoso. Future hires may include a dedicated meetings and incentives person.

She pledged her team will be flexible, nimble and personalized in their dealings with the trade.

Halboth reported enthusiasm from travel advisors about the Crystal vessels' return and having a luxury product on the rivers.

As a new brand with limited inventory, Riverside isn't currently in a position to partner with consortia, so 'we are going to focus on the host agencies and frontline advisors.'

Halboth recently participated in a day of 25 15-minute virtual sessions with advisors affiliated with the host agency Montecito Village Travel.