Uniworld brings forward 2024 program launch

Exclusive wide-ranging discussion with President & CEO Ellen Bettridge

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is bringing forward the release of its 2024 program by two months compared to previous years, riding the tide of increased demand for luxury river cruising and capitalising on peak interest from early bookers.

In Sydney this week, Ellen Bettridge, President and CEO of Uniworld Cruises, told LATTE the 2024 program will be open to reservations in late September, rather than the typical release date of November/December. That program will include the 54-night Rivers of the World Cruise from Lima to Saigon, departing on 3 October 2024, flagged first by LATTE in April.

“Australian and NZ travellers like to plan ahead to ensure they get access to the top suites and French Balcony staterooms. So we now have a beautiful 2023/24 brochure to share.”

“To launch 2024 cruises, we are giving Australian and New Zealand guests first pick of every cabin, on every itinerary, before international guests are invited. We’re also offering Early Booking Savings of 10% so it really makes booking early appealing,” Bettridge said.

Ellen Bettridge, President and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises in Sydney presenting at a media breakfast

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Bettridge said Uniworld’s 2024 early release was being driven by demand “from everywhere”, specifically from Australia, the US and the UK – markets that “are asking for it now.”

“Australia and the UK are just killing it already,” she said of advanced sales for 2023, with demand strongest for larger suites and longer itineraries which are selling first.

“We’re going to have a good year and we’ll make some money this year,” Bettridge said with confidence.

Speaking of key markets, the visiting CEO said Uniworld’s mix of nationalities onboard its ships are from Canada, Germany, Mexico, South America (primarily Brazil), and Singapore, which creates a “unique demographic,” rather than operating as all American or all Australian departures.

Bettridge told LATTE that Uniworld’s European ships have operated at around 75% capacity this season, meaning there is still limited availability for the remaining departures this year. France and Portugal are clear favourites for Aussie cruisers, and the ‘European Jewels’ a favourite itinerary from this part of the world.

Sales for 2023 are up 38% higher than 2019 for Australian travellers, meaning the booking window has expanded, however Bettridge says there are still requests for short leads of just a few weeks in some cases.

Uniworld's 2023/24 brochure - launching soon
Suite 403, SS Antoinette

The recent low water levels on the Lower Rhine saw two Uniworld sailings cancelled outright earlier this month, with Bettridge saying she was not willing to move those impacted guests onto a land-based touring alternative.

Super Ship makeovers waylaid

In regard to Uniworld’s Super Ship fleet makeover, there remains a few vessels still to undergo the knife. Without mentioning ship names, Bettridge said some of the upgrade projects were waylaid by the pandemic, but the overhaul of another ship is “absolutely” in the planning for the next six months, and another will follow in the 2023/24 off-season.

“Unfortunately we got waylaid by a couple of years but it’s still definitely our priority and we do know that the Super Ships are more profitable.”

Eight of Uniworld’s 12 European-based ships have already received the ‘Super Ship’ upgrade, with only River Duchess, Empress, Princess and Queen still to be refreshed.

Uniworld S.S. La Venezia

Alice Ager’s promotion

Bettridge heaped praise on the promotion of Alice Ager from General Manager AU/NZ to Managing Director of the region, telling LATTE Ager had been “a trooper” throughout the pandemic.

“Alice has been so fantastic and this promotion is very well deserved, and probably a little late coming too. It was something we’ve been talking about for a while,” Bettridge said, adding that Ager had been tasked to revive the local market through and out the other side of the pandemic, and had achieved that goal.

Alice Ager, Managing Director, AU/NZ, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

“She did not let me down at all,” Bettridge said.

Ager has spent the past four and a half years with the Travel Corporation and possesses global experience selling luxury travel brands such as Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Uniworld.

“Alice has been an outstanding General Manager and is ready to take her leadership to the next level as Managing Director’, says Bettridge said.

Ager said: “This is a wonderful acknowledgment, and I am delighted to be leading our team through this critical re-build period. Thank you to Ellen and the TTC leadership under Brett Tollman, for giving me this amazing opportunity. I am excited to see this region reach its full potential with our trade partnerships after what we’ve all been through.”

Locally, Bettridge said the Uniworld team would increase to keep pace with demand. And with an estimated $8 billion dollars in COVID-related travel credits still to be utilised in the Australian market alone, a “huge percentage going to travel agents,” the travel advisor network is in the box seat, she believes, to capitalise on that opportunity.

“Travel agents definitely have a great position here in Australia compared to other markets.”

Restaurant, S.S. São Gabriel

Aqua Expeditions partnership

Bettridge said she was excited by the continued expansion of Uniworld’s partnership with Aqua Expeditions in the Amazon. In 2024, the yet-to-be-released Rivers of the World Cruise features both Aria Amazon and Aqua Nera, which will operate in tandem on the Amazon section of the 54-night itinerary. By chartering both vessels, Uniworld is able to sell the itinerary to a maximum capacity of 68 passengers.

Quizzed by LATTE if Uniworld’s partnership with the luxury small-ship operator could be expanded further and to different parts of the world, Bettridge confirmed she and Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO and Founder of Aqua Expeditions, had discussed ideas. Aqua Expeditions’ other vessels operate on the Mekong, as well as in Indonesia and now the Galapagos, the latter two regions accessed aboard the 15-berth Aqua Blu and the even smaller – and just launched – seven-suite Aqua Mare. Uniworld already has its own vessel on the Mekong.

“We’ve talked about it. He’s a great partner and a good friend, so we’ve talked about how we can work together and I think that at the moment we’ve got our hands full with trains and charters, new Super Ships and itineraries, so we’re pretty busy right now,” Bettridge noted.

New rivers to explore?

Elsewhere across Uniworld’s operation, Bettridge has ruled out American waterways, at least for the foreseeable future, and will watch with interest a competitor’s entry into river cruising on Columbia’s Magdalena River – namely AmaWaterways.

Aqua Nera, Aqua Expeditions' second ship on the Amazon

Bettridge was frank about operating Uniworld ships in the United States, a destination that is going through a renaissance with existing operators adding new ships and itineraries, and a new competitor in the high-end space with Viking about to launch on the Mississippi.

“Of course we’ve looked at it, but honestly, there’s several reasons not to,” she said, highlighting the difficulty in building a ship in the US and “challenges” with shipyards, but more so because “there’s not as much to look at and to explore compared to European rivers”. Bettridge also said the quality and mentality of staff and crew in Europe was “very different” to that of the United States.

Bettridge said that while Colombia’s primary waterway has potential, the lack of infrastructure on the river – which she has viewed firsthand – should be a concern, saying the region “is not ready for river cruising yet”.

Vaccination mandate relaxed

The Uniworld boss also confirmed that vaccinations will not be required of guests from 1 January 2023. While the opportunity to issue the new mandate could come earlier, Bettridge said she wanted to remain committed to those guests that may have booked with Uniworld in 2022 specifically because of its COVID vaccination requirement.

“I noticed how NCL and Regent opened up their no vaccine policy change and their phones are ringing off the hook.”

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