For group leaders considering a European river cruise, this well-established British company offers a fresh new option, working exclusively with the travel trade
More and more group travel organizers looking to sell cruise vacations on the great rivers of Europe are learning about a company that may not have been at the top of their radar.
U.K.-based Riviera River Cruises, with over 38 years of experience, has been marketing in North America for only five years (including the pandemic lull) and is aggressively seeking to carve out a niche in the group market. The company accepts bookings exclusively from travel advisors (group leaders included).
Twenty itineraries offered by Riviera’s fleet of 11 five-star ships spotlight the Rhine, Moselle, Danube, Main, Rhone, Seine, Saone and Douro rivers, plus the Dutch waterways. The floating boutique hotels carry anywhere from 126 to 176 passengers.
Through February 2023, Riviera River Cruises is promoting a 1-for-8 special—book seven paid passengers and the eighth sails free. Normally, it’s the 11th free with 10 bookings.
Marilyn Conroy, executive vice president-sales and marketing in North America, says the line works closely with travel agents and group leaders to custom-design programs. “We bend over backwards for groups,” she states emphatically.
To help promote the cruise, the Riviera sales staff produces customized flyers and will arrange a cruise night (personal or virtual) or webinar to generate traveler interest. Onboard, the crew can set up a private cocktail party, and the alternative restaurant can serve as a private meeting space. Special functions ashore could include a private walking tour or wine tasting, and the group in some cases gets its own bus. Conroy says the line recently arranged special shore excursions for an American religious group and made custom arrangements for a Jewish heritage cruise organized by a travel agency.
Conroy says the line recently welcomed 80 members of a yacht club, but the average group numbers 20 to 30 persons. (A group that’s too large, she acknowledged, can disrupt the cruise for other guests.) Riviera has hosted alumni, church and other affinity groups, Conroy says, “but most of our groups are formed by travel agents who have contacted past passengers to make up the group.” Group leaders of organizations, she added, often use a travel agent to book the cruise, but they also can work directly with the line.
As for how far in advance to book, Conroy remarks, “You can book a month ahead or book a year or two from now, but the average group booking is done six to nine months in advance.”
To give organizers time to form their groups, the cruise line will hold blocked space for eight weeks without requiring a deposit.
Riviera’s cruises are marketed only in English-speaking countries, and English is the only language spoken onboard. Passenger make-up is primarily British. The average age is 59.
In comparing the company to other river cruise lines, Conroy positions Riviera at “the top of the premium category” adding that “we are very, very competitively priced, on par with Viking and significantly less than Ama.” Rates include a daily guided shore excursion.
Because Riviera does not market at the retail level but only to the travel trade, the savings in marketing dollars is passed on to the consumer in the form of a lower ticket price, Conroy explained.
The cruise line backs up its trips with an unusual satisfaction pledge. A “wow factor” in Conroy’s words, it’s called the Happiness Guarantee. “We’re so sure that they’ll love our product,” she says, that if passengers are not happy by the second day of the cruise, the line will pay all costs for travel back home and issue a full refund.
Riviera’s fleet of vessels is young and they’re “always in tip-top condition,” Conroy asserts. Rather than owning the boats, the line charters them from Scylla of Switzerland (as does Tauck), and, as when a rental car that begins to show its age, they are replaced when the time comes. On a typical longship, 85 percent of the cabins have French balconies.
Plenty of availability for 2023
As vessels themselves differ little from line to line—they’re of similar size and layout—product differentiation among cruise companies is demonstrated by how the itineraries are crafted, Conroy points out. For example, rather than do the traditional Rhine River cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, Riviera begins its trips begin in Cologne. This eliminates the non-scenic industrial stretch to the north and allows for two nights and a full day in Basel with an excursion to Lucerne and the Swiss Alps.
The Blue Danube itinerary, visiting cities like Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, is the line’s most popular trip and ideal for first-time river cruisers. Other hot-ticket items are Douro River cruises that explore Portugal and Spain (including a full-day excursion to Salamanca), and the roundtrip Seine River cruise from Paris to the beaches of Normandy with two nights in a hotel near the Eiffel Tower. New is the 11-day Rhone Valley cruise, an exploration of southern France roundtrip from Lyon, with stops in places such as Avignon, Arles and Burgundy wine country. December cruises visit the Christmas markets in ports of call. To extend the vacation, the line offers a variety of city hotel packages and escorted land tours.
While a few summer departures for the Danube have sold out, there is still plenty of availability for 2023, Conroy says.
For more information on group travel with Riviera River Cruises, contact Marilyn Conroy, Marilyn.Conroy@rivierarivercruises.com, or Bruce Metzendorf, Bruce.Metzendorf@rivierarivercruises.com.