Last updated: 08:36 PM ET, Tue April 12 2016

Honing Your Focus

How to boost your river cruise business by promoting themed sailings.

Vacation Agent | Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Theresa Norton

Honing Your Focus

PHOTO: AmaWaterways passengers sample port at the Sandeman winery during a Douro Valley river cruise, and, opposite page, try their hands at painting during an art-themed river voyage.

One of the easiest ways to introduce more clients to the lucrative and wildly popular world of river cruising is to leverage the theme cruises many companies offer.

Even better, theme cruises also make natural hooks to build groups, a key to any successful travel business.

“Themed sailings continue to grow in popularity aboard river cruises because of the intimate setting the ships provide to a limited number of passengers who share the same interest,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

AmaWaterways and other river cruise lines are offering increasing numbers of themed cruises because of the enthusiastic response.

READ MORE: River Cruising Sets Sail for Millennials

“We have been offering themed cruises for many years and have increased the number of departures and themes in recent years in response to traveler demand,” says Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “On these trips, travelers can enjoy themed inclusions – from tastings and lectures to off-ship visits – from a European perspective. Learning more about the wines, foods, music or history of the regions they visit is interesting and fun.”

For example, AmaWaterways scheduled 40 wine-themed cruises for 2016 as well as six art cruises. Avalon offers a variety of cruises focusing on art, wine, beer, jazz and politics, to name a few. In the U.S., American Queen Steamboat Co. offers Big Band, Civil War, Elvis and even bourbon theme cruises. And American Cruise Lines’ lineup includes Mark Twain, Civil War, and Lewis & Clark themes, along with foodie cruises centered on New England lobster and Chesapeake Bay crab.

So how should you use these theme cruises to expand your business? You don’t need to look far. “Reach out to your own client base first, then get involved with community organizations,” recommends Susan Shultz, director of sales for American Cruise Lines. “Groups like wine enthusiasts, flower clubs, and local heritage societies love to travel, and theme cruises are a perfect way to attract them.”

Clark suggests creating a database of clients focused on areas of interest. “I would encourage agents to take a good look at opportunities in their city or surrounding area, such as wine clubs, wineries, advanced cooking classes, foodie stores, a local country club for our golf-themed cruises, university alumni for European history, regional symphonies and jazz clubs for music cruises, or even a local craft brewery for beer cruises,” he says. “Ask if they want to host a departure or promote themed cruises to their clientele.”

Repeat cruisers like theme cruises for something different, but these sailings are also intriguing to first-timers. “We have found that many travelers booking these types of cruises are former AmaWaterways passengers … but also younger travelers in search of a more active adventure or epicurean experience,” Karst says. “It’s important to really get to know your client on a personal level in order to recommend the perfect river cruise of a lifetime.”

Theme cruises also offer something extra on an already value-packed vacation. “Agents should strongly promote the added value of themed sailings, as they offer even more unique features,” Karst says. “Agents can also share with their clients the incredible promotional offers typically associated with themed cruises.”

Avalon’s Clark suggests that agents select a theme and highlight a departure on their website, in mailings and as a tag on email correspondence. They could also offer a tour guide benefit to a local celebrity or expert to help promote the cruise, hold a theme cruise consumer night, and volunteer to speak at organizations about the benefits of river cruising and the extra experiences offered on a theme cruise at no extra cost.

You should also consider using social media and your own website to promote theme group cruises. “Agents can effectively find clients who would want to book them by promoting on their blogs,” says Ted Sykes, president and COO of American Queen Steamboat Co. “They can also use the theme as a conversation starter to show that these cruises are different and unique, not the same-old, same-old. Higher-end, well-traveled guests are always on the lookout for something new and different, so these theme cruises appeal to them.”

To get the ball rolling, reach out to the river cruise company and its business development managers for advice, photos, marketing materials, videos and more. The rest is up to you.

A Sample of Themed River Cruises

Line: AmaWaterways

Theme: Wine, 40 departures

Details: Aug. 5 departure on “Paris & Normandy” itinerary

Extras: Sheldon Richards, owner and winemaker of Paloma Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif., and tastings, wine pairing dinners, lectures and a visit to the wine museum in Paris.

Line: American Cruise Lines

Theme: Mark Twain

Details: Upper Mississippi River itinerary between St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn. Departure dates are July 16, July 23, July 30, Aug. 27, Sept. 3, Sept. 24, Oct. 1 and Oct. 8.

Extras: Visits to Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher homes in Hannibal, Mo.

Line: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Theme: Bourbon

Details: July 10-18 from St. Louis to Cincinnati

Extras: Guests on board include Bill Samuels Jr., son of the Maker’s Mark founder, and other experts. Complimentary distillery tours to Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Willett Small Batch.

Line: Avalon Waterways

Theme: Beer

Details: Nov. 9-21 Danube cruise from Budapest to Prague

Extras: Onboard beer workshop and lecture, visit to oldest brewery in Vienna and pub crawl, and onboard food- and beer-tasting dinner.


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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the April 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.


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