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River cruises took an enormous beating during the pandemic as many of them — both in the United States and Europe — were cancelled. But as river cruise companies have announced plans to resume sailing in Europe this summer, such excursions are becoming a popular option for travelers.
And one of the major beneficiaries of the surge in interest in river cruises is travel advisors. Although travel advisors still face major hurdles in getting their clients back on ships, they’re using the benefits of river cruises to overcome travelers’ concerns after a year of bad press about the safety of ocean cruises. Advisors are pointing out that river cruise ships have fewer people on board, and the itineraries allow cruisers the freedom to deboard more often.
The numbers certainly back up many travel advisors’ belief in a pent-up demand for river cruises. “Our bookings are 400 percent of this time last year and within 20 percent of pre-pandemic booking levels,” said Annette Stellhorn, an advisor at Accent on Travel, a Delaware-based travel agency specializing in cruises.
Laurel Brunvoll has also seen a surge first hand as the founder and owner of Maryland-based travel agency Unforgettable Trips. “[We’ve] seen a 100 percent increase in requests and actual bookings for 2021 river cruises,” she said. Furthermore, 70 percent of her company’s future client reservations are for river cruises.
obstacles travel advisors are facing
Those who have been able to record increased bookings recently had to overcome a negative perception about cruises to do so. While prior to the pandemic, travel advisors generally saw a potential river cruise boom, “The entire cruising sector got a huge ‘black eye’ from the Princess fiasco and the reports of ships being turned away from ports last spring. That perception of ‘floating petri dishes‘ carried over to river cruising’,” said Diana Hechler, president of New York-based travel agency D. Tours Travel.
“Even though travel advisors know that there’s a huge difference between deep water cruising and river cruising and river cruises, if you’ve never cruised at all, you probably wouldn’t make a distinction between them.”
However, Hechler has found an openness among some of her clients to try river cruises due the freedom it provides travelers. “Knowing that the boats are tied up at the town dock every day with complete freedom to explore independently as much as they wish is a security blanket for for these travelers,” she said.
“Many of my clients love independent travel in Europe and that segment is more leery of giant cruise ships in general. Often, these travelers will say that they have no interest in traditional cruising, but that they’d like to do a river cruise.”
If travel advisors detect growing interest in river cruises, they would do well to follow the lead of Sherrie Funk, the president of Tennessee-based travel agency Just Cruisin’ Plus. Funk and her husband created a series of webinars they later posted on the company’s website and YouTube page that explained, among other things, the differences between ocean and river cruises.
As river cruises typically use smaller ships than ocean cruises, that’s a major point travel advisors could use to sell passengers on river cruises. “We’re seeing people now who definitely want a smaller ship,” Funk said. “That’s a big thing. Even on ocean cruises, we’re seeing that.”
But the ongoing pandemic has obviously made certain aspects of selling river cruises quite challenging for travel advisors, such as Hechler. “I think people are still very skittish about travel. Very skittish,” she said. “Since I specialize in international vacations, the border closings and the sometimes onerous entry restrictions have been devastating over the past year.”
Despite an increase in bookings for river cruises, she also sees a murky road ahead in regards to getting large numbers of travelers back onboard due to concerns about restrictions. So much so that she chose to postpone a river cruise for an alumni group from her alma mater.
“I deliberately chose spring of 2022, rather than the fall of 2021, because the border openings in Europe have been so uncertain,” Hechler said.
While figures from river cruises operating in the U.S. signify an enormous rebound during the travel recovery — the American Queen Steamboat Company’s June to October sailings of U.S. rivers are 90 percent booked — most travel advisors in the country sell overseas excursions.
“As a professional travel advisor, we sell the world beyond their immediate local area,” Accent on Travel’s Stellhorn said. “The vast majority of vacations we arrange include taking a flight to the destination, whether it be a river cruise in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa or Asia.”
When to book and go on river cruises
Despite the hesitancy among some travelers to go on river cruises due to their concerns about destinations being open, Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of cruise-focused travel planning company Cruise Specialists, is actually encouraging her guests to travel as soon as possible.
“We’re encouraging [customers] to travel now because it’s excellent evaluation, the destinations and ports are uncrowded, and there’s a little bit of lower occupancy onboard the ships,” she said. “And the staffing is still at the same level so the service level’s gonna be exceptional.”
Of course, concerns about the pandemic are never far from the minds of many people. But Scrivanich maintains her company has taken detailed steps to ensure the safety of her clients. “All of the cruise lines have multi-faceted protocols. [Guests’] safety is gonna be very well cared for,” she said.
Once travel advisors convince their customers that their river cruise excursions are as safe as possible, another question remains: When to book? Scrivanich believes now is the time.
“For those who don’t want to immediately travel and wanna travel in 2022, we’re encouraging those people to make those reservations because there’s such pent-up demand that availability and pricing will become an issue,” she said.
However, Marcus Leskovar, the executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, has seen a lot of his customers willing to wait before booking. “People are okay booking last minute, relatively last minute,” he said. “We consider last minute if you book something still for this summer or fall going to Europe. We see a lot of that due to the pent-up demand.”
Leskovar said recent changes Amadeus River Cruises has made to its policies has spuured a jump in bookings. “Usually, our deposits are non-refundable. If you don’t go, you just lose the booking,” he said.
“Now we have a policy that will guarantee your deposit. So that means if you decide not to go for whatever reason or you can’t go, similar to the airlines, your deposit is not forfeited. But you can move that to an alternative cruise or a different date.”
The fact that travel advisors can confidently talk about dates of trips is another sign the travel recovery is upon us.