While the COVID-19 pandemic has put travel on pause for the time being, brands are putting protocols in place for the industry's return.
Here, Janet Bava, chief marketing officer at AmaWaterways, explains the company's strategy throughout the coronavirus crisis, how the brand will restore consumer confidence and what travel advisors can do to keep their customers informed and engaged.
PAX: What has been AmaWaterways’ strategy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Janet Bava (JB): From a marketing standpoint, we needed to pivot, change and adapt to times quickly, all while deploying our employees to safely work from home. Our strategy has always been to support of travel advisors, who form the foundation of AmaWaterways. We needed to amplify this, even if it meant doing zero brand awareness campaigns or paid media. We have always prided ourselves on the educational and marketing support we offered our travel partners but during this unprecedented time, we challenged our teams to become even more agile, responsive and flexible in order to provide the travel advisors with the special digital content and tools they needed to stay engaged with their clients and keep them dreaming about their next vacation. Sentiments and emotions have changed over the period of confinement, and we have been there to accompany our guests and travel advisors.
For example, for guests whose vacations were affected by our suspended sailings, we are protecting both the advisors and their clients by automatically issuing enhanced Future Cruise Credit, equal to 115% of the value of their AmaWaterways purchase services and paying the travel advisors commission now and again when their clients travel with the FCC. These enhanced FCC’s encourage our guests to postpone, rather than cancel, their river cruise plans and allow us to protect travel advisor’s commissions. It’s interesting to see that many guests who did initially request cash refunds have reconsidered and opted instead for the 115% FCC.
PAX: Beyond travel restrictions, how else has COVID-19 challenged the river cruising industry?
JB: One of the biggest challenges has been the complexity of the situation and how rapidly it has evolved, bringing uncertainty at the beginning of our sailing season. Once widespread travel restrictions were announced, our leaders had to make the difficult decision to suspend operations. From that point onward, we were all hands on deck, pouring all our time into supporting our valued travel advisor partners and guests whose vacations were affected by the situation totally outside of everyone’s control. We have kept our teams intact and are unbelievably fortunate to work for a company whose co-owners are so experienced and calm and have always pursued a conservative growth plan, building new ships without requiring any debt. Their confidence has given us the motivation to work harder than ever during these times. The fact that we have been empowered and connected with our leaders every day has made all the difference. We are well-positioned to resume operations as soon as it is safe, and we are excited to have two new ships being delivered in 2021 – one for the Nile and the other to replace AmaKristina on the Rhine as she moves over to the Rhone in France.
Change can be unsettling, but one thing is certain, it is inevitable and those who accept it, pivot and adapt will come out much stronger. I am confident that whatever challenge comes our way, AmaWaterways has proven that are teams can adapt and come through stronger than ever! No matter how the times change, the reasons people travel stay the same. They want to connect with others, have immersive experiences and discover different cultures which they can only do by seeing the world – and what better way to see the world than by sailing its rivers?
PAX: What is AmaWaterways doing to restore consumer confidence?
JB: For almost 20 years, guests & travel advisors have trusted us to deliver the best river cruise experience. Family owned and operated, AmaWaterways is a very trusted luxury brand. Our co-owners, Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Gary Murphy have been front and center, addressing every challenge that has come our way, remaining totally honest with our travel partners and guests in the face of very uncertain and evolving circumstances. We are listening carefully to our travel partners that have been so supportive and adapted along with us on this uncertain journey. I believe our travel partners and guests have not lost confidence in the intimate river cruise experience they know and love from AmaWaterways.
Travel advisors and their clients can rest assured knowing that the health and safety of our guests and crew is of the utmost importance, always. We have very high standards of hygiene onboard our ships, and we are working closely with the local governments and respected health authorities as well as our experienced destination partners to ensure that all our screening, onboard sanitation procedures and excursions will be operated in strict accordance with the most up-to-date recommended guidelines. The complete range of protocols are still being determined but we are 100% confident that once international travel restrictions are lifted, we will have all the necessary support in place to assure the safety and security of our guests and crew.
PAX: Ships, in general, were cast in a negative light when the pandemic hit. How will AmaWaterways break the “stigma?"
JB: The large ocean-going cruise ship did receive an unfair share of media attention during the initial outbreak period, however our river ships are intimate vessels accommodating only 156 guests on average and cruising national waters so they are closer to a boutique hotel than an ocean cruiser. Additionally, our itineraries include a choice of up to 20 small group shore excursions and exclusive experiences per week, providing plenty of options for guests of all activity levels to enjoy time off their “floating boutique hotel.” The wide variety of options ensures each experience is comfortable and without crowds. On the river, our ships are always within a country and not coming from international waters, so if medical attention is required for anything, we are able to dock within a few kilometers from the nearest hospital.
As someone who knows the ocean cruise world well, I am positive that they will execute onboard protocols that give guests peace of mind! They know their operations well, and while they have always operated with guest safety in mind, it will be heightened to give them the best experience possible.
PAX: What demographic will return to river cruising first, in your opinion?
JB: Current research shows that travellers are eager to get back out in the world and share travel experiences with friends and family members that they have not interacted with over this extended isolation period. Multigenerational family and small group travel will be a key business driver for travel advisors and river cruising provides the perfect solution for people who will want to travel together but in a more intimate setting and trusted environment.
A recent survey by Silver Travel Advisor reported that an encouraging 81 percent of older travellers are ready to travel again. With 55 percent of older travellers either rebooked on a river cruise or looking forward to return, we believe this market is ready to travel again when the timing is right.
For those travel partners who are interested in growing their family and group bookings, I’d encourage them to visit the Webinar Wednesday page on the AmaWaterways Travel Advisor Portal. Our weekly Webinar Wednesday series has had such positive feedback from travel advisor partners. In the past few months, we have held numerous sessions – each meeting maximum capacity -- explaining policies and procedures, showcasing real-life business development examples from successful travel advisors and professionals, and sharing best practices of how to retain and grow group business. Those who’d like to learn from AmaWaterways’ executives on those topics and many others, can watch the recorded sessions on the website and tune in live as we continue our weekly educational sessions.
PAX: To what extent does the AmaWaterways experience help matters?
JB: Personal connection is one of our core values at AmaWaterways, and the connection our crew and sales teams have built with our loyal guests over the years has certainly helped encourage us during this challenging time.
Our dedicated Facebook group for loyal guests is very active as people share their treasured memories and discuss future plans to sail with us again – some go to quite the lengths to recreate their favourite AmaWaterways river cruise at home. What warms all our hearts is the praise they give to our devoted cruise managers and on board crew as they reminisce on their past vacations, remembering the “surprise and delight” moments that define the AmaWaterways experience. We all travel in search of personal connections with the people and places we visit and that is so strong on board our ships among the guests and our crew members. It’s been very encouraging to see our guests stay connected with us while we patiently wait to return to the rivers.
We’ve also hosted 38 Town Hall meetings with our consortia partners, plus our BDMs and our sales team have scheduled 398 webinars and virtual events with travel advisors and their clients.
PAX: Will some rivers return before others?
JB: That is certainly possible, yes. Our co-founders have been leading the way in river cruising since the very beginning and have strong relationships with local infrastructures in Europe, so they have their fingers on the pulse of this fluid situation. European countries have varying opinions on when to reopen their economies – including tourism – similar to how different states in the U.S. have varying views. The entry process and specific restrictions on North Americans will be different from region to region. Once the Netherlands, Austria and Germany reopen their borders, we anticipate the Danube and the Rhine rivers will start to welcome local river cruise operators, and hopefully we’ll see those regions open to international guests later this summer or early fall.
Whatever comes our way, our experienced sales and operations teams are fully prepared with creative contingency plans to work with whatever it takes to offer a safe and enjoyable experience to our guests. We will modify our itineraries as needed and will only operate if we know we can deliver the exceptional experience that AmaWaterways is known for.
PAX: How will post-pandemic restrictions/recovery in European countries influence itineraries?
JB: The wonderful thing about having the “godfather” of river cruising at the helm means we will be able to curate itineraries in regions for our guests based on those that are open. If things proceed in this way, soon we will see more regions open. If the itineraries need to be modified our team of experts, led by Rudi, Kristin and Jon, will ensure it will exceed expectations and deliver the AmaWaterways experiences our guests love. Right now, it’s too soon to finalize any specific itinerary changes. Each EU country is developing their own re-opening plans but we’re keeping very close contact with all our partners – airlines, hotels, tour guides, coach operators – and will work together to ensure our guests’ travel arrangements are as seamless and safe as possible.
PAX: Is AmaWaterways confident that it will return to the rivers in 2020? What’s 2021 looking like, booking wise?
JB: The moment we can resume safe operations and our guests are able to travel, we will be sailing – perhaps not with our complete fleet, but our hope is that it will be on some of the rivers this fall. We are seeing an increase in sales for 2021, especially our new itineraries and pre- and post-cruise land extensions. We even opened our reservations for 2022 deployment six months earlier than usual in response to early demand for 2022 sailings.
PAX: What’s the best way for travel advisors to keep their AmaWaterways clients informed/engaged during this pause?
JB: There are lots of creative, zero-cost ways travel advisors can stay connected with their clients. This is a HUGE advantage that they have right now. They need to be using these channels to earn new clients based on the content they push out, connect with their existing clients and inspire the world to travel. With this in mind, we’ve released a series of complimentary digital toolkits specially for our travel advisors to use without having to put too much work on the content and brand storytelling slide.
Most recently, we launched an innovative virtual Marketing Suitcase in partnership with Sandra McLemore, a travel business growth strategist with Travel Marketing & Media. We wanted to provide guidance for travel advisors to find creative, visual ways to engage with clients and show the magic of river cruising. With our Marketing Suitcase, advisors have immediate access to expert tips from one of AmaWaterways’ co-founder, Kristin Karst, as well as an abundance of content, including customizable blog posts and a month’s worth of pre-paired social media posts. They are learning not only about the product and what makes us different but also techniques for marketing their services and our products to their client base through social media, email, database, etc.
Besides the Webinar Wednesdays and virtual cruise nights, we are also hosting virtual “Sip & Sail” events for travel advisors and their clients. Last week’s event was co-hosted by Kristin Karst and Samantha Brown, tv host and Godmother of AmaMagna. We had over 1200 people attend the event live, and more than 7,000 have viewed the recorded session already.
This Thursday, May 21, travel advisors can invite their clients to a unique and interactive firsthand look into the epicurean journey that is our Celebration of Wine River Cruises. Kristin will be joined by several guests including wine educator, award-winning author, and television host, Leslie Sbrocco who will serve as the virtual Wine Host, guiding guests through wine tastings and sharing of memorable experiences and culinary delights waiting to be discovered along the Celebration of Wine River Cruise on the Danube River. This is a fantastic opportunity to engage clients and pique their interest in an AmaWaterways river cruise.
PAX: Does AmaWaterways have any new or returning incentives for Canadian advisors for when the booking season amps up again?
JB: We’re seeing an increase in bookings for 2021 sailings and more demand for 2022 cruises, so now seems to be a wonderful time to book a river cruise vacation for a client! We also received positive feedback from the travel advisor community on our special complimentary cruise offer for medical professionals. The frontline heroes who are saving lives every day are an inspiration to all of us, and we hope this gives them something to look forward to.
We recently announced our Early Booking Rewards, offering special savings on all 2021 Europe, Asia and Egypt cruises booked by June 30th and on all 2022 sailings booked by September 30th, 2020. Guests will receive 5 percent cruise savings on balcony staterooms and suites, plus up to CA$1,800 savings per stateroom on select sailing and a bonus for Canadian residents only is the complimentary pre-paid gratuities on all early bookings for 2021 and 2022 Europe, Asia and Egypt cruises.
Canadians are such intrepid travellers so our new Nile river cruises combined with Israel or Jorden will be very attractive to Canadians. We also know that Canadians love to take the extra time to truly explore a country so we have lined up all our French itineraries on the Garonne river in Bordeaux, along the Seine to Normandy, and along the Rhone and Soane rivers in Burgundy and Provence to start on a Thursday. This, along with a 10% savings on the second or third cruise will make it even easier for our guests to combine rivers to create a truly immersive 2- or 3-week vacation.
We are confident that 2021 sailing season will come together very nicely and are optimistic that 2022 will turn out to be one of our strongest travel seasons. We cannot wait to get back on the rivers and create unforgettable memories for our guests again.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today!