How is COVID-19 impacting river cruise operators?

LATTE hears from Tauck and Uniworld on the current state of play

The river cruise segment of the industry seems to have been a relatively silent casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, with the much larger ocean operators taking the brunt of the media spotlight in the past three months.

LATTE asked a collection of luxury river cruise operators how their businesses are coping during the crisis. Here, we share feedback from Tauck‘s newly appointed Country Manager for Australia, David Clark, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collections‘ Head of Sales, Alice Ager.

Uniworld has paused its global operation until 30 June, and Tauck a few weeks longer, through to 15 July 2020. We asked if their respective operations in Europe would be ready to recommence per schedule once the postponements are lifted and travel restrictions wound back.

ms Sapphire, Tauck

“We are continually reviewing all of the information available to us and working with our supplier partners and destinations to ensure we can deliver the level of experience, comfort and safety our guests expect from Tauck,” Clark explained to LATTE. “We are hopeful that we will be travelling again soon, but it is incredibly important to ensure that we get it right.”

Uniworld’s Ager said: “All of our nautical teams and hospitality staff are on standby to return to work as soon as global government and border restrictions are lifted. We are taking a month by month approach to our suspensions and are hopeful to return to regular operations as soon as we can.”

Understandably, the pandemic has had a significant impact on all river cruise operators as this current period normally represents the beginning of the peak European season for the segment.

Clark explains: “Tauck is in the fortunate position to have weathered past crises such as the Great Depression, World War II and 9/11, so we have some institutional knowledge of how to manage through a crisis. We have always chosen as a business to remain debt-free and asset-light. This allows us to be nimble in a downturn and poised to return to operations quickly when the recovery comes.”

Tauck is optimistic that European river cruising may return later this summer and into autumn.

As most guests take a wait and see approach, occupancies remain strong, but the reality is that we are uncertain of what we will be able to operate and when. We are so appreciative of the support of our guests and advisor partners and the trust they have put in us. The fact that people are still wanting to travel means that we will all see a very strong recovery.”

Despite gloomy conditions, both companies have seen impacted guests move their 2020 sailings to next year, rather than cancelling outright.

2021 is looking very strong and one thing is certain, there will be plenty of pent up demand when we are all able to sail again,” Clark added.

Uniworld has seen the majority of guests impacted by suspensions this year switch to a 2021 departure.

Ager said Uniworld’s 2020 business has been “majorly affected” by the international travel restrictions in place as a result of COVID-19.

What are you most optimistic will stem from the coronavirus pandemic?

I feel there is a renewed sense of optimism for our planet with silver linings of incredible views of Mount Everest in India and visible fish swimming in the clear water canals of Venice – both of which are important destinations in our Uniworld program. Australians are avid travellers, and we are confident that Australians will be amongst the first to start travelling again when our borders reopen with river cruising still the perfect way to see the sights of Europe, Egypt, Asia & now Peru.

After every crisis, Tauck has come back stronger than before. We are confident that our business and our industry will recover and that the desire of people to see the world will continue to grow. What we are most optimistic about is the spirit of togetherness, hope and caring that we have seen emerge around the world. When we see the best in people come out, when we see a sense of community take hold, we know that all will be ok.

However, we are taking new bookings for 2021 and it’s looking to be a stellar year with the Mekong, Egypt and Portugal proving particularly popular with our guests.”

“We are price protecting all rebookings, which has, so far, proven to be a successful approach.”

Once operational again, both Uniworld and Tauck will adopt new industry standard health and safety procedures for cleaning and sanitation protocols.

“The fact is, it will be the efforts of all river cruise lines, together with our travel industry organisations such as CLIA, the European Tour Operators Association, and the United States Tour Operators Association, to come up with a baseline of standards that can be adhered to by all,” Clark said.

S.S. Beatrice, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Currently, the brands are amplifying a marketing message of “togetherness, hope and trust” (Tauck) and “#wewilltravelagain” (Uniworld).

“During this period we will continue to inspire our guests and encourage them to dream and, when the time is right, to book their next luxury river cruise, because we will travel again,” Ager said.

Clark commented: “We want to convey a sense of calm and optimism but also reassure people that Tauck has weathered similar storms and we are built to last. Our guests haven’t stopped dreaming about travel and, when the time is right, the next phase of marketing will be focused on reactivation.”

“The quicker we can put our guests at ease the quicker we can get them immersed in the destinations, the cultures and the experiences that they have been waiting their entire lives for,” he added.

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