Spice caught up with Uniworld general manager John Molinaro to talk the latest river cruising craze.
How has the river cruising market changed over the past few years?
We’re seeing a real shift in the demographics. River cruising has become an increasingly popular travel option and we’re seeing this not only in the range of ages of guests onboard but the different cruise durations they are choosing. No doubt this will continue to rise, with more and more passengers appreciating the benefits of docking right in the heart of town and only having to unpack once.
How often do you get conference and incentive groups booking out a ship?
It’s not unusual. We’re seeing more and more interest and bookings as word gets out on the benefits of river cruising with Uniworld. We are the world’s only authentic boutique river cruise line with luxury ships and the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry. We’ve got the awards to back this having just won Best Luxury River Cruise Line in the 2014 Cruise International Awards, hosted by Cruise International magazine in the UK and the Readers’ Choice Award for best ‘Culinary Cruise Line’ in the 2014 Saveur Culinary Travel Awards.
What sort of events have you held for these groups on board?
If groups have the whole ship there’s really no limit – the planners get a lot of control over the itinerary whether it’s cruise only or a land and cruise packages. When groups charter a ship we will design an incentive/conference that is without parallel. We work with group planners to cater to their needs whether it’s a morning yoga class on the deck, arranging meeting and breakout spaces, group cooking classes onboard or special al fresco cocktail functions and meals – all is possible.
How do you make the journey relevant to the conference or incentive theme or program?
We work with incentive planners to customise the itinerary as much as possible – one example would be via shore excursions that are relevant to the group’s interests such as a visit to the BMW factory or a guided bike ride along the Danube River. The core of our business is ‘No request too large, no detail too small’ and this extends to working with incentive and conference groups. We have a range of group policies that our reservation team can talk through with group planners.
Is there anything special you can do for conference or incentive groups in terms of attracting local experts, chefs, speakers, winemakers, etc? Do you have good relationships in destination that you’re happy to extend to planners and their groups?
Absolutely! Uniworld has incredibly strong relationships. It’s these relationships that have enabled us to secure exclusive activities such as a winery tour and wine-pairing lunch at Chateaux d’Arche in Bordeaux, getting exclusive evening entry to St Mark’s Basilica after the crowds leave in Venice and a performance by the granddaughter of Maria and Baron von Trapp at the Mirabellgarten. All meals are prepared onboard by our expert chefs though it’s common to see them at the local markets stocking up on the freshest local produce so we’ve also very strong culinary connections.
Would planners have to book out the ship? If so, what is the capacity and duration of the shortest/longest trip?
Not necessarily, although booking out the ship provides nearly complete control over the activities and itinerary. While the sky is the limit for chartered ships, our scheduled departures run on 16 rivers in 21 countries throughout Europe, Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Egypt and range from 8 to 29 days. Most of our itineraries run from March until April although our Christmas Markets itineraries in November and December are very popular. We have an average of 130 guests per ship though on some ships that number may increase to around 220.
Can you charter a ship?
Absolutely, this is becoming increasingly popular and we’ve had some very positive feedback from past groups.
What are the key trends you’re seeing come through in the river cruising market?
River cruising is the largest growing segment in the cruise industry so naturally there’s been much development. As demand grows we’re seeing more ships on more rivers. This has been a bumper year for Uniworld in France, with a new Super Ship – the S.S. Catherine, and a new itinerary in Bordeaux.
Are you adding any new destinations/ports in the next year?
Although new rivers and regions continue to open up, we’re still seeing strong demand for the traditional cruising routes along the Rhine, Moselle, Main and Danube Rivers so are adding four new itineraries and a new ship – the S.S. Maria Theresa to the region in the 2015 season. We’re very excited to be adding India to our suite of destinations commencing in 2016 – we expect this luxury all-suite ship sailing the Ganges River to be incredibly popular with the incentive market. Next September we will also re-commence sailings in Egypt along The Nile with our beautifully refurbished River Tosca.