Skift Take

Will a no-Boomers-allowed policy, youth-focused design, and tailored shore excursions be enough to convince millennials that river cruising is the way to experience Europe? The CEO of U by Uniworld thinks so — and she only has to win over 120 passengers at a time.

Are millennial travelers about to discover a way to explore Europe that their parents and grandparents already embrace?

Ellen Bettridge hopes so.

The president and CEO of the luxury Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is  launching a new brand for younger passengers, U by Uniworld. While the original line  draws customers who average about 50 to 65, its new offshoot is for travelers between 21 to 45 — and that age range is not a suggestion.

“They have to be so separate and so different to ensure that we cater to this audience,” Bettridge said. “We’re going to be super strict. You have to be between 21 and 45.”

She added: “That is what’s going to make this brand; I’m creating a place that’s just for them.”

That approach takes a cue from sister company Contiki, a tour operator for travelers 18 to 35. Both are owned by The Travel Corporation, a privately held leisure company.

U by Uniworld will start sailing in April of 2018 with two ships, the A and B — formerly the Ambassador and Baroness — taken from Uniworld’s fleet.

They will be redesigned, renovated, and reimagined for the younger audience at a cost the company is not disclosing. The ships will include silent discos, DJs, lounges, and restaurants onboard, but the destinations will be the focus. The B will cruise along the Seine River in France, while the A will sail on the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers.

U by Uniworld just started taking bookings in late April and sales and marketing efforts are still ramping up, Bettridge said. She expects to attract new college graduates, grad students, honeymooners, maybe some Silicon Valley types.

“My dream is that in a year from now we’re so successful that we need to have a C and a D,” Bettridge said. “And then from that, my boss says to me, ‘You got that, so now you’ve got to build some more.'”

Unlike ocean cruise ships that hold thousands of passengers, the A and B should be relatively easier to fill.

“It’s two ships. They’re 120 passengers each,” Bettridge said. “I need to bring in about 7,000 passengers in a year. It’s not a lot of people.”

Skift spoke to Bettridge in early May about the idea behind the brand, stereotypes about river cruising, and how the experience should be different for younger passengers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Skift: Before deciding to go in this U by Uniworld direction, had there been concentrated efforts to reach that demographic on Uniworld? Or was the idea really like if we want to get them, then we need to have a product specifically for them?

Ellen Bettridge: We need to have a product for them. To be honest with you, we love the demographic that we have. They have time. They have money. And they really appreciate everything that we do from the cuisine to the décor to the service. And they love it. So why try to be something that you’re not?

So we said, ‘But if we want to actually evolve as a brand…You know what? It’s time to reinvent ourselves….’ I hate the word millennial. I’m trying to come up with the right word for them. But to me it’s adventurous travelers, adventurous young travelers. So people who want to see the world and maybe see it in a different way. And they’ve never thought of river cruising because they think of that for old people.

So how do I help create a product that’s just for them? The good news is that I have a 22-year-old daughter. I have lots of her friends. I’ve got an office full of marketing people who love to give me all their ideas.

So we all get together, and we say, ‘You know, if we’re going to do this, this is what it could look like.’ And we can’t just do one ship. If we’re gonna do it, let’s go for it. So we’re going to take two ships out of our fleet. We’re gonna completely re-design everything from the way they look to the hours that they sail to the food that’s served and to the entertainment. Absolutely everything has changed.

Skift: Was it a hard sell to the people who are in charge at The Travel Corporation?

Bettridge: Not at all. So excited about it. Are you kidding me? Because they love this challenge. Remember, we own Contiki as a company, so we own a brand already that caters to 18-to-35-year-olds. They know how successful that is. And we also all believe that there’s a huge gap for people between 21 and 45 to go on vacation. When you stop to think about where you want to go on vacation, the number one thing that I learned from the focus groups and different people I spoke to is that they want to be somewhere where there’s people that are just like them. And that they know they can meet other people, and that they can have fun.

Plus they still want the culture. They still want to go to cool restaurants. They still want to go to great clubs. They still want to do what the locals do. So how do you create all of that for someone?

And we actually have the perfect thing. We’ve got a floating hotel that you’re going to get on. You’re going to unpack once, and you’re going to go down the river. You’re going to start off in some of these really cool cities like Amsterdam or Paris, and you’re going to  spend two nights there. You’re going to sail on to visit your next incredible little port where you’re going to then explore and check it out in places you probably never would have gone.

But we’re going to park that ship right in the middle of the city. All you’ve got to do is get off and walk and go off into places. So whether you want to go off on yourself, you want to go and do a really cool excursion with us, which we’re going to offer 13 a day that are going to be included. Or, if you want to do something called U Time Excursions, which are like a little more high-end excursions, and they’re just like really exotic, cool things that you can go off, and we’ll help create and curate for you.

Skift: Do you expect there to be any Contiki crossover, or are they helping you as you’re kind of planning this?

Bettridge:  I think it might be Contiki graduates….Your average Contiki trip is a little less expensive. I should say a lot less expensive. Our trips are starting at $1,699 for a week.

Skift: You’ve been there for seven months, so why now make this decision? Why is right now the right time to have introduced the concept for this brand and start selling it?

Bettridge: So we [were] launching the ship on March 27th called the Joie de Vivre on the Seine. We already had this other ship, the Baroness, which is the one that’s going to become the B.

We put a new ship there. So you’ve got the old ship there. And sometimes you say, ‘Wait a minute. Do I leave them both here, or is this maybe an opportunity to actually do something different with one of them?’ So therefore the new ship gets all the attention one way, and this other ship’s gonna get all the attention another way. So it was really about how do we continue to diversify our business, find new customers? And I want to get someone as a customer maybe in their early 30s, who then becomes my customer again later in life in their 50s.

Skift: Why do you think people have the concept of river cruising as an old person thing to do?

Bettridge: I think it just kind of got that way once it started. If you look at river cruising as it is today, the average demographic is what mine is. It’s a lot older for some of the other guys. I think we’re actually really lucky. Someone actually told me our demographics are actually a lot lower.

Skift: Somebody told me that their aspirational market was Boomers because they have people who are in their 70s and 80s, and they were really hoping to get those younger Boomers.

Bettridge: Our trips are really active: people on their bicycles. They’re going kayaking. You’ve got TRX. We’ve got yoga. So they’re incredibly active.

So I think that maybe is why we keep a younger demographic. I’m very happy with this brand. Leave it there. Now let me figure out how do I get a whole other set of customers. So this is about how we get new customers, and how we deliver something new for our brand in the future.

Skift: But how do you make the experience different enough from your traditional brand so you’re not cannibalizing or making it too similar? And how do you tweak it for millennials without just pandering? Because people say all kind of garbage about millennials.

Bettridge: I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard it all….So a couple of things: We decided we really have to actually change everything. So it is changing from the outside of the ship going in. So from the outside of the ship, we paint it black. You get inside, everything’s going to be black and white. That’s just kind of the décor. And it’s just going be a very different décor than what we have today. Every one of our ships, by the way, is unique….Every ship is different, and they’re all designed for the destination. So these ships are gonna be more just very simple, but very cool looking.

And then it’s about how do we stay overnight in these ports? How do we create night life there? How do we create things for them to do? And by the way, I know that you don’t really want me to tell you what to do. So therefore, I’m going to just put up a whole host of different things that you can do. You, then, are going to choose.

So I’m not going to say, ‘At 9 o’clock you do this.’ I’m going to say, ‘Hey, between 8 and 11, here’s the stuff going on….’ Or, ‘By the way, if you don’t want to do that, maybe I’ll hand you a subway ticket and a map of Paris and say, hey, go off for the day and have a great time.’ That may be what you choose to do. So it’s all about what you want to do.

Onboard we’re going to have something called our U hosts. They’re going to be two people onboard who are your millennials, who are going to be there to just kind of make sure you know what’s happening.

But everything is going to be pushed to you on your phone. You’re going to know what’s going on. We’ll have big TVs up around with your social media posts going on, people talking to each other. But it’s really more about it’s your experience and your time.

So I think that’s how we’re really making it different. Unlike the Uniworld cruise today,[where] everything’s very scheduled and very planned and very organized.

Skift: How are you programming shore excursions and activities on land to really fit that audience?

Bettridge: So definitely more active. Just a lot more active things. Wherever we can find any active stuff, we’re throwing it in there. It’s also, like I said, about creating the time on your own to go off and do your own thing. Bus tickets, subway ticket, maps, go off and do things. Creating a scavenger hunt in the Louvre, rollerskating through Paris at midnight. So it’s really about finding new and different things that we’d probably never do on our own. I’ll bet you, though, I end up taking some of those things and putting them on Uniworld.

And by the way, some of the stuff that’s on Uniworld, I’ll still offer to you, though. Because you still want to go to Versailles.

If you’re gonna be there, you want to go to Versailles. And you might want to go to the beaches in Normandy because your grandfather may have fought in that war, or your great-grandfather. So you may want to still do those things. You know what I mean? Because they’re part of history, and they’re part of culture. I don’t believe that millennials don’t want that. They still want that as well. They want it all. They want to be able to go off on their own. They want to get the culture. They’re foodies. We’ve got to make sure we got the food right.

And right now today, we cater to everybody. We cater to you whether you’re a vegan, whether you’re a vegetarian, whether you’re gluten-free. Whatever you want to do, we cater to you today, and we’re going to even do more so with these guys.

I’ve asked my chefs to get super creative….Have something that’s really outrageous that maybe they’ve never had before. Throw in frog legs. You know what I mean? Because they’re in France. Have frog legs. Or make sure we’ve got foie gras one night. Figure out how you can add in things that maybe they’ve never had a chance to taste.

Skift: We talked a little bit about the programming. Anything else about how they’ll look and feel different? You said black and white, simple. Will the public spaces be different?

Bettridge: They will. Yes. The dining room is not going to be set up like a traditional restaurant. It’ll be more communal tables, more little hidden spaces….And the lounge, kind of the same thing….So you’ve got USB ports there, maybe some little corners tucked away, maybe some big areas where people can all hang out together. So creating different spaces within the space.

Skift: It seems like some of the things that ocean cruises have done — they’re putting rock climbing walls and FlowRiders on their ships — are obviously not an option for river.

Bettridge: I wouldn’t even do it if I could. You know why? Because we’re in the heart of Europe. We’re in the heart of the cities. Do you really want to go on a rock climbing wall when you’re in the heart of a city? There’s no reason to. What we have is so much better.  You’re actually seeing the destination that you came there to see. You’re not spending your time in the ocean where there’s nothing else going on. So that’s the biggest difference. And some people love that time on the ocean.  I worked in the ocean business for years. It is a great way to travel, but I just think ours is just like that slow-moving hotel that’s taking you along and bringing you right into the middle of everything.

Skift: Why do you think it took this long for somebody to come up with this idea?

Bettridge: The river cruise business has been so successful. There’s really been no need. So if you’re making lots of money, and you’ve got lots of passengers, and everything is going great, why change it? We’re only changing it because we just keep building new ships. So now it’s just become an opportunity to try something new.


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Tags: millennials, river cruising

Photo credit: Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, is launching a new brand for millennials called U by Uniworld. Uniworld

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