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AmaWaterways President and Co-Founder Rudi Schreiner is optimistic that the river cruise industry will rebound once the coronavirus outbreak dissipates.
"Once everything is over people often forget quickly," he told TravelPulse. "There will be pent-up demand, but the question now is when does it start up again?"
AmaWaterways has suspended river cruise operations until May 31 but is protecting travel agent commissions on canceled departures and paying 10 percent again when the agents' clients rebook using future cruise credits (valued at 115 percent of the initial payments). That commitment is valued, especially since this is one of the direst situations in memory for travel.
"This is for sure one of the most severe situations we've ever had," Schreiner said. "It is worse than 9/11 and worse than some of the terrorist attacks."
For river cruising, this situation is worse than 9/11 because that attack occurred in September when most of the river cruise season was over - not at the beginning of the season like it is now.
"So, 9/11 was huge but didn't affect European river cruising as strongly," he said. "The most intense time for us personally was the first two weeks of March this year. Ships were ready, crews were onboard, provisions were ready" and then the virus spread across parts of Europe. The season was suspended.
"Once that was done, you at least had a clear picture ahead of you," Schreiner said.
That doesn't mean work is over for the time being. Schreiner is working out of his home in Westlake Village, Calif., and "right now we are busy on daily conference calls with the management team, individual calls with departments and so on. It's very busy, and it's getting organized, sorting through the whole thing. If we don't cruise this entire season, we'll make it through."
That's because Schreiner said AmaWaterways' 25 ships are all paid off and funding in place will carry the company through.
"My worst-case scenario over the last 6-7 years, when our fleet became bigger, was because of such extreme low water we cannot cruise for a season," he said. "In 2018, we had low water through the whole season. If it would get to an extreme level and we couldn't cruise for a season, that's why I always wanted to be as debt-free as possible. For many, many years, every penny we made went back into the company and our last 12 ships were completely paid in cash. Now everything is paid off."
The company also is focused on its staff members. "We're trying to maintain pretty much all our staff in our offices in Calabasas (Calif.), Dallas, Basel (Switzerland), and London," Schreiner said. But European nations often operate differently. In Switzerland, for example, the government wants people to continue working and will pay 80 percent of the workers' salaries, he explained.
When river cruise does rebound, it likely won't get the same kind of fear that ocean companies are likely to face - such as being quarantined or turned away from countries. River ships are always close to land and don't sail in international waters, so can't be turned away from a country.
"On the river, you're always within a country, you're not coming from international waters," he said. "It's a different environment. Small-ship cruising will continue, and expedition cruising will continue. Ocean cruising may take longer, but I think it will also come back."
Theresa Norton, editor in chief of AGENTatHOME Magazine, covers the cruise industry for TravelPulse.com.
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