Past passengers spur continued growth for Uniworld

Program expansion into the Amazon and Alps driven by demand for new experiences

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection‘s repeat clients have helped drive bookings in 2020 for the luxury cruise company, says Global CEO Ellen Bettridge.

In Sydney last week, Bettridge identified Uniworld’s past passengers as one of its luxury cruise trends of recent years.

Speaking exclusively with LATTE, Bettridge cited an overwhelming demand by returning Uniworld guests for the recently launched Amazon sailings set to depart in the back end of this year. Uniworld has chartered Aqua Expeditions’ boutique vessel, Aria Amazon, for six departures across two itineraries in 2020: the 15-day Peruvian Amazon & Machu Picchu Exploration and the shorter 11-day Peruvian Rivers & Rainforest Discovery.

Aqua Expeditions' Aria Amazon which has been chartered by Uniworld for 2020 and 2021

The all-new offering was made available first to Uniworld’s past guests: members of the River Heritage Club.

We are seeing that past passengers want something new and different. The launch of Aria on the Amazon really did blow me away how fast it sold out. We brought our customers something new and they know that they can trust us. They are really excited about it,” Bettridge commented.

Guests onboard Uniworld's Super Ship Beatrice

Demand in 2020 has already seen Uniworld lock in 10 Aria Amazon departures for 2021, with additional dates also under consideration. If Aqua Expeditions had more dates available in 2020, Uniworld would have snapped those up for charters too, she said.

Quizzed by LATTE about other potential cruise charter operators, the CEO noted that the company already charters vessels in markets such as China. In South America, she said Aqua was an ideal match.

“Charters are about finding the right ship. The good thing about Aqua is that it really represents the Uniworld brand and represents who we are. So it has to be the right experience. I would never do anything to hurt the Uniworld brand or experience.

The indoor lounge and bar on board Aqua Expeditions' Aria Amazon

“If we could find the right experience, I would absolutely be open to it. I never say never,” she added.

Pressed about the potential to move beyond rivers and to chartering complementary small ships on open waters, such as those voyages on Aqua Expeditions’ recently launched Aqua Blu, Bettridge reiterated her remark of “never say never”.

“At this point it’s certainly not in our plan. We’ve got our hands full at the moment.”

“The last couple of years we’ve seen incredible growth. Once again it is our past passengers who have been incredibly loyal and continue to come back to us, which tells me that we are delivering a fantastic experience,” Bettridge added.

It’s that appetite for new products that has seen Uniworld launch a new partnership with the Golden Eagle Danube Express in 2021, offering a three-night luxury rail package, paired with the cruise company’s week-long Venice itinerary aboard the new Super Ship La Venezia. Guests join the land extension in Zurich, take the train for three nights to Venice and then board the river ship. Uniworld has secured six departures on the train for the package; Bettridge said she “would have done more but the train is full”.

“We’re hearing from our customers and our travel partners that they want new and different experiences, and we are delivering,” she said.

U River Cruises

On a different topic, Uniworld’s sister operation, U River Cruises (formerly U by Uniworld), Bettridge said she has been pleased with the way business is tracking. The brand was initially earmarked as a product focused on the youth and millennial market, but repositioned U River Cruises to target the ‘Active Cruising’ segment.

“We ended 2019 in a great position,” Bettridge said. “We only had the one ship operating – The A – but she did very well. All the dates did well. 2020 is already off to a good start.

“Year three of a new brand and I’ve very pleased with the progress we’re making. It takes time, and the momentum is there and we are getting great feedback,” Bettridge told LATTE.

She said that the company has taken feedback from customers and travel partners as to how to “change it up a bit” next year, and that will include providing guests with three meals a day, rather than brunch and dinner as currently offered. U River Cruises will also offer a Happy Hour every night on the ship, and introduced more additional included excursions.

“We’re making it a more inclusive experience,” she said.

Bettridge said the brand had struck a chord with the 35-year-old customer “who is not your traditional river cruiser”.

“So are we getting the 21 year olds? Not as much, but we are getting them. What is interesting is that they are coming on board with their parents who are in their 50s, and taking their 20-year old kids on vacation.”

Bettridge also said she didn’t expect the brand to appeal to the family market in the way that it has.

“I did not see that coming. I also never expected the honeymoon market that we’ve witnessed. It was a market that we weren’t really in before, and we are still learning and figuring it out, but I’m very optimistic about where the brand is going to go.”

Asked about the future growth of the brand in Europe and potentially new destinations beyond Europe, Bettridge said nothing was on the horizon for 2021, “but I’m optimistic that we’ll get something else in the future”.

Pressed if Southeast Asia would be a good match for U River Cruises, Bettridge concluded telling LATTE, “I think it absolutely could, and I think the brand would be absolutely fantastic on the Mekong”.

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