Not your grandma’s vacation: River cruises turn to active travel and technology to recruit next generation of passengers
By Ellen Uzelac
Nov 26, 2019 | 6:00 AM
When food blogger Chandler Baird booked a Europe river cruise for her babymoon, the 27-year-old had only one worry: “Everyone I talked to said we were going to be around a ton of old people.”
Fair enough. River cruises generally attract older, often retired passengers. They are this market’s core, its A-listers. But that’s starting to shift a bit as companies court younger adults with sleek new ship designs, active itineraries (rock climbing, anyone?) and cool technology. Want to change the mood lighting in your cabin or access a digital tour guide during a stroll in Budapest? There are apps for that.
Uniworld’s U River Cruises brand has made the boldest push in the industry, introducing two ships, The A and The B, that are designed to attract younger guests. (Uniworld initially put age limits on U ship passengers but quickly backed off that policy, opening the voyages to all adults.) Baird and her husband Dan, a 31-year-old dermatology resident, cruised the Main and Danube rivers on The A in Germany last summer.
Was it really all that different? Way.
The A, jet black with neon accent lights, looks more Batmobile than bateau. There’s no dress code, no evening port briefings, and no early morning shore excursions because the bar is up and running until, as Frank Sinatra famously sang it, the wee small hours of the morning. But don’t expect to hear Sinatra in this lounge. Do expect Lil Nas X. There’s no turndown service and no formal breakfast because most passengers sleep in after a night of tequila karaoke or silent disco. There’s also no paper on board. In this “paperless community” everything — menus, daily programming alerts, touring suggestions — is shared via WhatsApp.
“These are our customers of the future, right?” says Uniworld President and CEO Ellen Bettridge. “These are millennials who love to travel and they’re looking for the coolest thing out there to do. I want to show them there’s a way you can see Europe that’s really easy. You could be 40, you could be 50 and this could be perfect for you too. Age doesn’t really matter; it’s how you feel.”
It’s also what you can afford. The average per diem, per passenger cost for a U cruise is $315. On Uniworld’s other ships, it’s $550.
Modern river cruising on the continent got its start in 1992 with the opening of Germany’s Main-Danube Canal. But it was Viking’s ubiquitous TV sponsorship of “Downton Abbey,” the most watched drama in PBS history, that put European river cruising on the map. Today, roughly 350 cruise ships sail Europe’s rivers. Market leader Viking alone launched seven new ships in Europe this year.
“In the beginning, most of the cruise lines offered the same things; the experience, from one line to the next, was pretty similar,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic. “That’s changed. We’ve really seen river cruise lines carve out a niche for themselves and differentiate. One line might focus on food, another on destination, another on wellness as part of the package. It’s exciting.”
In a bid to attract new passengers, Scenic partnered with cycling-focused Trek Travel three years ago to offer luxury biking opportunities on dedicated cruise departures. Next year, passengers will be able to enjoy daily 12- to 60-mile rides on more than a dozen cruises.
Likewise, AmaWaterways has robust partnerships with Adventures by Disney and Backroads that are designed to bring families with children onboard. In 2020 and 2021, Backroads will add new departures for active families with children as young as 4 and as old as 30-something. The cruises are segmented according to the age of the child. Some of the upcoming Backroads cruises will take place on the buzziest ship in Europe right now: the AmaMagna, which launched in May. The ship, which sails the Danube, is twice the width of a traditional river cruise ship and features al fresco dining, a zen wellness studio, wine bar, movie theater, water sports platform and pop-up bar on the sun deck.
Cruise specialist Christina Schlegel, who owns Bluetail Travel in Arlington, Virginia, says younger adults, particularly Gen Xers, are forcing the cruise lines to rethink their offerings.
“Everything needs to be more active,” Schlegel said. When I get clients calling about a river cruise, they want to know: Are there enough bikes on board? What’s the spa and fitness center like? Do they offer yoga? Are there lighter fare dining options? And they are putting much more importance on the freedom to vacation their way.”
They don’t want a rigid schedule, for example, and they don’t want to be part of a pack.
“They want lots of options and more cultural immersion,” added Schlegel. “The vision of a river cruise is old people who are used to traveling in traditional ways and only seeing the iconic highlights of a destination, old people who aren’t very active and are relying on city bus tours and following the tour guide with the umbrella in a large pack. They don’t want that.”
Or, as cruise journalist Jason Leppert succinctly frames it: “The new luxury for passengers is choice.”
Cruisers of all ages also want internet connectivity. Consider: AmaWaterways reports it spends more money on Wi-Fi than it does on fuel.
“There’s this arms race of innovation,” says Greg Ross-Munro, CEO of Sourcetoad, which builds software for ships.
As the barrier to entry gets lower and the technology gets better, more river ships will offer things like streaming music and the ability to order room service or book a shore excursion by way of interactive TV. The rollout of 5G cellular network technology in Europe will also ramp up internet speed, Ross-Munro said.
“My favorite feature that you will see everywhere soon is using your mobile device as a second screen — so you can sit outside on the balcony, watching a live football game, while your cabin mate, lying in bed, watches a movie on the main TV,” he added. “At home, people expect to make a restaurant reservation on Open Table, watch Netflix on TV, and use Trip Advisor for recommendations. You are going to get that same type of app experience on river ships in the next six months to a year. It’s not what passengers want; it’s what they expect.”
Walter Littlejohn, vice president and managing director of Crystal River Cruises, said the line would have “new innovations” to announce soon, adding: “The digital experience is very much a part of modern travel. For some, fully immersing themselves in the moment and getting away from devices is part of vacation, and for others, the joy is sharing the experiences with friends and family around the globe.”
Chandler and Dan Baird, who live in Lubbock, Texas, posted lots of photos from their cruise in Germany — and they’re already looking forward to the next one.
“You show up, everything’s planned for you, yet it’s not regimented,” Chandler Baird said. “We love that we cruise at night and wake up the next morning in a new city, in the heart of the destination. And you know what? There are passengers of all ages. This is how we want to travel forever.”