In an interview with Leisure Group Travel, Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, discusses the line’s new ships and the growth of river cruising in Europe and beyond.
This spring I was fortunate to sail on a week-long trip aboard the inaugural sailing of the Avalon Impression. The Impression was christened in a dual ceremony with the line’s other, slightly smaller newbuild, Poetry II.
A little perspective. I sailed on the inaugural voyage of the first Avalon ship 10 years ago and while I have fond memories of that journey, the Globus team (parent of Avalon) has created a product that rivals anything plying Europe’s rivers.
What difference does a decade make? Well, the footprint of the ships isn’t dissimilar – there’s only so big you can make these vessels. Where they have stepped up their game is with the ship’s soft goods.
The staterooms are nothing short of amazing. Thoughtful design with floor-to-ceiling windows, French balconies providing sweeping views of the countryside, well-appointed bathrooms that include a very unlikely large-sized shower – you wouldn’t think you’re on a ship.
The two lounges, dining room, fitness center and beauty salon are top drawer. Tasteful appointments, eye-pleasing color schemes and special touches like fresh-cut flowers provide a soothing ambiance that complements the surrounding scenery.
And once you get off the ship, the prowess of Globus really shines. Local guides bring history to life with brisk walking tours of European masterpiece cities and villages, while coach drivers and transportation outshines anything I’ve seen in the lower 48.
Group leaders who experienced the inaugural cruise had similar reviews.
Caral Carlson from the Solivita Travel Club said, “I cannot say enough about the superb service we received. Everything on the ship from the public areas to the staterooms was top-notch. We have been on other river ships and by far the Avalon product was our favorite. As soon as we returned home, we started planning for a group of friends and family.”
Therese Calovini from St. John de LaSalle Travel Club said, “I have been on approximately 15 ‘big-ship’ cruises. They are very pleasurable and you get to experience many different ports of call. I think, dollar-wise, the riverboat is a much smarter deal.”
“Our room was nicer than a four-star hotel; the view was beautiful, the service was wonderful, the bar area was bright and welcoming, the food….never had better! I was so impressed that I am having an Avalon/Globus presentation for a ‘Taste of the Danube’ cruise for 2015. I am sure my travelers will be as excited as I was to see the new ships and what a way to taste the Danube from Vienna to Budapest.”
While onboard, I had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick Clark, who heads up Avalon Waterways. Patrick was our gracious host and master of ceremonies for the inaugural festivities. The following interview captures his perspective on the burgeoning river cruise market, the Avalon difference and what lies ahead for the river cruising market.
Leisure Group Travel: The river cruise industry has come a long way in the last 10 years since you’ve launched. Why do you think that is?
Patrick Clark: A combination of things. One, the big-ship cruisers, 21 million a year, according to CLIA. A number of them have discovered small-ship cruising and river cruising in particular. And they have welcomed the change from the big-ship atmosphere to the small-ship intimacy. That’s number one. Number two: demographics. You look at the whole baby boomer generation in all the English-speaking markets – it’s huge. A lot of them are coming to the end of their work careers or already in retirement. And they have discovered that seeing Europe on a river cruise offers conveniences but with the opportunity to still get the enrichment, the culture, the people. They’re on a ship with 150 people, they’re getting to know the ambience, are with like-minded travelers and it’s inclusive. They know pretty well before they leave what their vacation is going to cost. Add in the proximity of the attractions on shore and all together, I think it’s particularly appealing to those demographics.
LGT: Do you think that river cruising is taking away from motorcoach travel? Or like big-ship cruising has created a traveler for river cruising, are you cultivating new motorcoach travelers?
PC: When the whole cruising phenomenon launched, it really took a lot of coach travelers … we’re convinced of it. By the same token, there’s now a generation coming along rediscovering the benefits of coach travel. And there’s certainly speculation that we might have another little mini-boom in coach travel. So, while that’s yet to play out, like a lot of travel styles that come into favor, slide out and come back into favor, I think we can attract people back to coach touring.
LGT: There are some pundits that believe that traditional cruising has reached that peak. Are you one of them?
PC: If you have 21 million people cruising every year, that’s not going to continue to grow forever. People want different experiences. You look at all the ships and, when people cruise the Mediterranean on a big ship, they’re just touching it. That whets the appetite for more Italy experiences or more France experiences. And I think that’s where the coach and river cruising has benefit because now they can explore more.
LGT: It’s estimated that almost a third of all cruisers on the major cruise lines come onboard as part of a pre-formed group. How does that parallel to what a brand like Avalon experiences?
PC: It’s not quite that high, but it’s certainly between 20 and 25 percent when you consider all the group business going on, and sometimes that can be a whole big charter. But overall if you look at the total number of passengers, certainly for Avalon and I would expect that we’re similar to other river cruise companies—it’s a significant chunk of business.
LGT: You launched two new ships this March. Based on how business is progressing, is that the expected pace moving forward? Do you feel as though you can bring two to three per year to market and maintain load factors?
PC: If you look at the size of the fleet and the growth of river cruising, if you’re not introducing at least one-and-a-half new ships a year on average, you’re going to fall behind. So, two to three ships gives you a little bit more capacity, allows for growth beyond just the standard rate and allows you to get a little market share. You really need to do that to keep pace.
LGT: How do you distinguish yourself in the river cruise marketplace where most ships are about the same size and visit the same ports of call?
PC: For us, itineraries are still the first and most important reason that customers choose a river cruise. Then they start looking at, what is the ship like? What’s included? Excursions are important, the Avalon lectures, enrichment, food and service.
Where we are also unique and distinguished is our hardware. All those others have gone with external balconies and I get that. But it doesn’t work so well on river cruises. A) You don’t have sea days. B) You’ve got space limitations. So our view is if you put that balcony on, that’s basically 30-plus feet of room space you can’t use. Our Panorama Suites are some of the largest in river cruising featuring unique open-air balconies with giant wall-to-wall windows that provide spectacular views. Eighty percent of all the cabins on the ship are like that. You go on other ships and you get one category, or two or three or four or five different categories, different sizes, so if you have a group and you want them all to have the common size, you’ve got to work a little harder at it.
LGT: Do you see Avalon expanding more into Asia and exploring different areas around the world?
PC: As you grow your Europe business and you have more and more customers, they want other opportunities. Yes, there are plenty of times you can go back to France, you can go to the lower Danube, you can do tulip time, but eventually you look for other destinations. So we’re going to put a new ship – our first Suite Ship in Southeast Asia – on the Mekong which will start in January 2015. We are also unveiling a Suite Ship and all-new itinerary on the Irrawaddy River. Both new Southeast Asia vessels are small – built for just 36 passengers – but feature our signature, spacious staterooms (245 square feet) and open-air balconies.
LGT: Why that size, Patrick, compared to your European fleet?
PC: You can argue the economics of it, that you’ve got more beds to amortize your costs better, but we felt that the intimate feel works better in this market. We learned with our first ship, people said “we chose you because of your size.” It’s charming. But the advantage in the Mekong with that size ship is we’re one of the only ones that sail into Saigon Harbor. There’s a big bridge outside of Saigon that all the other ships that are larger can’t sail under, but with Avalon you go right into Saigon Harbor.
LGT: Any new plans for South America at this point?
PC: We’re on the Amazon with a partner and it’s going well. It’s small numbers because we don’t have a lot of space, but I think eventually, particularly the Peru side of the Amazon, we will see future expansion.
LGT: What’s your most popular itinerary?
PC: France this year was hot. We’re seeing it already for next year. Paris, Normandy, and Burgundy and Provence. Close second is the Rhine. That is a great first cruise for so many people. Well known—Amsterdam, Zurich, four countries, big cities, small cities, a real flavor of the river. Then it’s the Danube.
We’ve found a strong appeal in theme cruise departures. We have 20 scheduled, including food and wine, art, and we’re introducing opera this year. We’ve got things like jazz cruises; we’ve got Jewish heritage; golf and beer cruises.
I’ve group agents who all of a sudden say, “You know, I’ve got an alumni group down the road and they’re really into wine. I think they would love France.” Or, you know, “I’ve got a bunch of golfers. You know, I belong to the local country club and now we’ve got a golf pro.” So, it’s lent themselves to growing and organizing unique group departures.
LGT: River cruising is a hot sector of the travel industry, but not all groups have jumped onboard. Make the case for why more groups should be booking river cruising.
PC: You’ve got this really nice small venue … it offers groups great opportunities to have time together and still share European experiences. It has a lot of the inclusions already added in. So it’s a great “here’s your price, we’ve got everything covered” vacation. You’re going to be together on the ship, you’ll have chances to dine together. We’ll have our own coach when we go on excursions. So it gives you the sense of almost a private group. I think there are benefits that you won’t get on Oasis of the Seas simply because of the size factor. There you’re going to get on and off with lots of people.
LGT: There’s a trend in the industry overall of people booking closer to departure. That doesn’t appear to be the case with river cruising.
PC: In fact, it’s certainly not. Our occupancy is in the 90s already for 2014, the whole season across the fleet. Typically people wait to book, maybe the fourth quarter the year prior or they wait until the season, expecting to go the same year. If they are looking to cruise on Avalon, they’re going to be disappointed. So, we launched 2015 product in the end of January because of that.
LGT: You have had a very distinguished career in this industry. Did you foresee this growth coming down the line? Regardless, it’s got to be exciting for you to be in this part of it.
PC: It is. I had a career with Uniworld before joining Avalon, so I go back a ways with river cruising. I would say I don’t think we saw how rapidly it grew. I think we realized way back when they started building nicer ships where people could stay on and have the creature comforts that it would be a nice alternative to traditional touring and cruising. But the growth has been so rapid, faster than a lot of us anticipated.
And it’s for the reason we talked earlier – it’s demographic-driven. People found out it’s not a bad way to go. Big-ship cruisers have introduced people to the cruising concept and so that’s all helped fuel this. So, it’s a nice niche to be in.