Demand for river cruise set to ‘explode’, says Uniworld boss

The president and chief executive of Uniworld, Ellen Bettridge, has said she believes the river cruise sector will “explode” over the next two years as it continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bettridge said the trade has a “really big opportunity” to promote river cruise to clients seeking smaller ships and convert ocean cruisers to the sector in the wake of the crisis.

Speaking to Aspire, she said: “I think it [river cruise] is going to explode. I think we are in for a really exciting couple of years. Business on the books for 2023 is phenomenal. We're seeing a lot of charters and group inquiries as well as bookings. We've got 24 new charters already for 2024.

“We have a really big opportunity coming out of this to continue that message of ‘why a river cruise?’ and how we get more people converted from ocean to river.

“River is so small; we might average ships with 120 passengers. When you think about ocean, you have 6,000 passengers, so it's that opportunity to get all those people who've ocean cruised and introduce them to river. That’s going to be a big focus for us."

Bettridge said the line is “close” to operating at the same levels as 2019, with cruises in Portugal, Italy and Egypt selling “incredibly well”.

Clients are “ready to spend money”, she said, and wish to spend longer on board, with the line’s suites selling out first.  

Some cruisers are reportedly booking much further out than before, while others are booking increasingly short-term. Bettridge said there had also been a rise in travellers booking their next cruise while onboard, with a cruise manager on the line’s SS Catherine recently booking 10 future cruises during one sailing.

“We usually do one or two a cruise,” Bettridge said. 

The line has also seen a rise in new-to-cruise and new-to-Uniworld customers.

“It's really interesting right now that we are seeing a lot of people who have never experienced river cruise, who are saying ‘let me try this smaller, boutique river cruise line, and enjoy this floating boutique hotel versus the big [ships],” Bettridge said.

“They like the idea of it being closer to land and closer to home. From here [the UK], you can get so many places in Europe within two hours, and I think people really like that idea, it makes the vacation that much easier.”

The UK recently overtook Australia as the line’s second largest source market - a development Bettridge expects to be sustained. 

“We are very pleased with the start of the year and specifically the UK market,” she said.

“They are on fire. I’m so proud of my team over here. [The UK] is now our second largest source market and they continue to grow and do an amazing job. 

“I really do put it down to the leadership of [UK managing director] Chris Townson. During this time, we didn't stop, we absolutely continued to support our partners and stay in front of them and make sure they had what they needed. And I think that made a big difference.”

She added: “Travel agents are critical to our success.”

The line recently unveiled a 43-night land-and-cruise programme specifically for the UK market in response to high demand for the line’s first Rivers of the World itinerary, which was sold just to Americans and Australians.

Bettridge said Uniworld was seeing “excitement for more innovative cruises” like its 10-day Mystery Cruise, the first of which was launched last year and sold out within four hours.

A total of 170 people each paid a $500 deposit to be on the Mystery Cruise waitlist, and the line has since unveiled a further two surprise itineraries for September and October 2022.

“I think it's great to have something that people are pining after or waiting to come out,” she said.

“I don't see us ever doing more than three a year. It's a lot of work for my team because everything that happens on and off the ship is new and different, so even if you've done that river or you've been on that ship, this is going to be a completely new experience.”

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