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Why would Tauck, one of America's oldest, largest and most prestigious tour operators, go to tremendous expense and effort to reduce the capacity of its river cruise fleet?
The short answer is that the effort and expense is justified because the river cruise industry is so successful that the revenue it produces is easily enough to finance the improvement of the product to bring it in line with what Tauck now knows its customers want.
Customer satisfaction is the key to long-term success. So the expense and effort are easily justified by their long-term returns.
River cruising is the tour industry's golden goose, and yes, I said the tour industry, not the cruise industry. The burgeoning river cruise industry is an outgrowth of the tour industry, an extension of the culture of tour operators, and has little connection with the culture of the big oceangoing cruise lines. More on that later.
Tauck has determined that its customers want larger rooms, more luxury and a more exclusive experience. So the operator is determined to provide it, to move the evolution of its river cruising division in that direction.
Tauck CEO Dan Mahar said that Tauck's approach to river cruising from its initial entry into the segment was to limit the ships' capacity in order to provide "a more intimate, club-like atmosphere and more spacious cabins."
Tauck's president, Jennifer Tombaugh, told TravelPulse, "From the start, Tauck's fleet was designed to offer more suites and carry far fewer overall guests than comparative ships. For example, our Inspiration Class holds 130 guests maximum, where other riverboats of the same size hold 160-190 guests. The result: larger cabins and a more intimate onboard experience with far fewer guests in the dining room, lounge, spa or on our sun deck. The atmosphere becomes more 'club like' as our staff get to know the guests more easily as do the fellow passengers. Fewer guests also enable more personalized touring each day in each port."
Now it is heading further in that direction.
READ MORE: Vacation Agent Magazine looks at Tauck at 90
A Two-Tiered Fleet
Tauck's Jewel Class ships are its original entries into the market. When it launched its larger Inspiration Class ships, it had revised its conception of river cruising upward, toward a more luxurious, more exclusive experience.
The customer response to the Inspiration Class ships showed Tauck that the larger cabins were clearly the direction it wanted to take its river cruise product. So it is now bringing the Jewel Class ships in line with its Inspiration Class ships.
To accomplish that, Tauck has launched a massive restructuring of its Jewel Class river boats through which it will increase the size and reduce the number of cabins. The remodeling will also include upgrades of the ship's onboard restaurants.
The upgrading will apply to Tauck's 110-meter Jewel Class ships, of which it has five: Swiss Emerald, Swiss Sapphire, Swiss Jewel, Esprit and Treasures.
Tauck also owns four larger 135-meter river boats in its Inspiration Class.
Most of the changes will take place on the ship's middle deck, the Ruby deck. The cabins, which are really better described as on-board guest rooms, will be expanded in size from 150 square feet to 225 square feet. The number of cabins will be reduced by 10, from 59 to 49.
This will reduce the capacity of the ships from 118 passengers to 98, from 59 cabins to 49.
The remodeling will roll out in two phases. It will begin with Tauck's two France-based ships, Sapphire and Swiss Emerald, which will be re-launched in time for the 2017 season.
The other three ships in the class will be done in the second phase and made ready for the 2018 season.
The company will continue to staff its ships with one cruise director coordinating activities for the whole ship, and three "Tauck directors," each of whom will act as a tour director for a group of about 33 passengers when they go ashore.
READ MORE: Tauck Offers First-Timer's Guide to River Cruising
An Outgrowth of the Tour Experience
This gets to the very definition of what a river cruise is - it's an extension of the tour industry, not the ocean cruise industry. Even though they are obviously called "cruises" and they do travel on vessels on the water embodying the aquatic culture of ships, the river cruise is much more akin to land tours than today's ocean cruises.
River cruises are an entirely different business model and a different culture from the big ship ocean cruises on the market. They don't share the onboard culture of the ocean cruises, on which most of the attention is focused inward, on the ship's amenities and experiences.
River cruises are destination focused, like tours, not ship focused like ocean cruises. River cruises are like tours in which both the transportation and the accommodation are a function of the boat.
That means they have some of the most attractive features of ocean cruises, such as that passengers only have to unpack and repack one time, at the beginning and the end of the trip. On land tours, unfortunately guests have to pack up and leave every time they change hotels.
Tour operators have learned from client evaluations that unpacking and repacking is one of the least popular parts of any tour. They try to mitigate it in various ways, such as by longer stays at each hotel, or hub-and-spoke itineraries in which tour groups are stationed in a headquarters hotel and take day trips to points in the surrounding area.
But if you do want to travel from city to city, it's difficult to eliminate the necessity for packing and moving when traveling on land.
The river cruise provides the perfect solution to that problem. It is the picture of ease. You unpack at the beginning of the trip, when you board, and you can settle in until the end of the voyage. You can make the cabin your home. And the room itself travels across the landscape.
Unlike ocean cruises, on which you are out of sight of the land most of the time, river cruises never lose sight of the land. Since the rivers were the highways of civilization before cars and modern highways, and cities were built on rivers, river cruises take you right into the heart of cities.
The Rise of River Cruising
The modern conception of river cruising dates back to 1992 with the opening of the Main-Danube Canal, a 106-mile canal that connected the Main and Danube rivers and made it possible to travel by river from the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea to the Black Sea at Budapest.
River cruises were an offering in Europe before that, but in a very different form from what we see today. Some farsighted visionaries in the travel industry recognized that by adapting the product to American tastes, with more spacious, luxurious cabins and more American-style culinary provisions it could be a great way for Americans to travel in Europe.
And boy, were they right.
The industry grew at a simmer during the '90s, and then picked up steam, ignited and exploded after the turn of the 21st century. Tour operators one-by-one recognized the potential and dived into the market. It seemed that no matter how much capacity was on the market, there was enough demand to fill the ships. It was almost a sure-thing, a no-lose proposition.
Tauck watched the growth of the river cruise industry in the 1990s and made its own entry into the market in 2003, partnering with a European river cruise specialist and building its own ships to its own specifications. It launched its itineraries in 2004 and has continued to grow the business and its fleet steadily since.
"We don't want to be the biggest," said Tombaugh, "we just want to be the best at what we do. Our expertise is in revealing the secrets of any destination. With these new ships, we not only capitalize on our strengths, but we raise the bar. Our travelers reap the benefits."
The water is the medium of transportation. The sky is the limit.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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