Most cruisers know the big European river cruise company names: Viking, Avalon, Tauck. One name, though, sees very little business from Americans despite the fact it is the largest river cruise carrier in Europe and the second-largest in the world, carrying 200,000 passengers in 2014 alone.
That's CroisiEurope (800/768-7232, www.croisieuroperivercruises.com), which now has 43 boats plying European waters (including a few charters on the Mekong in Asia) but which until recently, mostly ignored American customers. It was doing so well in France, reaching out wasn't a priority. It didn't even have an English-language website selling its vacations to North Americans.
That lack of a U.S., English-language site sent the implicit message that anglophones would feel left out if they became guests. This was a French company that sent the message that it only catered to French tourists. The cultural obstacles potentially extended in other ways: Would Americans like the type of food that's served? Would they be able to sing along to the songs the entertainers play in the lounge?
In 2012, that changed. In February 2012, the founder of the brand, the man who started this business in 1976 and raised it into a holiday powerhouse for French vacationers, passed away. By the end of the next year, the next generation of this family-owned business stepped forward to take the endeavor to a new level—one that includes Americans. They opened a U.S.-based call center and launched a website in English. The change came just in time, too: This year, especially, its competitors have stepped up their own marketing games in the U.S. with grander boats and better amenities.
CroisiEurope invited Frommer's aboard several of its vessels to show a cross-section of its fleet and explain what it's doing to make sure American tourists feel included. Now, the company says, about 20% of CroisiEurope's guests are English-speaking, and that percentage is rising quickly. Most of those are not North Americans, but they are fluent guests (Swedish, Norwegian) who can conduct their entire vacation in English.
One of the keys to catering to American tourists, say CroisiEurope reps, is the fact it can eaily adapt the day-to-day management of its river cruise boats, many of which top out around 100 passengers, and many of which are even smaller than that. Knowing in advance how many North Americans have booked onto each voyage, reps told me, helps them tailor the offerings on each trip to American tastes. One crew member on the Seine Princess told me Americans differ from European clientele in small ways, mostly having to do with different tastes. The company claims it can adapt to those tastes by making simple changes, such as serving more beef than lamb to cater to the American palate, or making sure the lounge entertainers mix up their song list so that there's something for every nationality aboard. It's in smaller things, too: Americans, by and large, perceive warm temperatures differently than Northern Europeans. "Americans love air conditioning," the crew member told me. "I make sure the air conditioning is always working."
Small group size also means that the itinerary itself is adaptable. If guests on canal barges are so inclined, they can bike on land all day while the boat catches up with them. On larger vessels, excursions can be arranged at whim, and boring-sounding ones can be jettisoned for some other activity.
There are some aspects of river cruising that some Americans will find require some getting used to—nearly nonexistent Wi-Fi signals, poorly located power outlets, and very tight cabins on the smaller boats—but by and large, these are fundamental to boat travel itself. The food, however, was remarkably delicious. That's another side benefit of a relatively small boat: Chefs can take more care.
Also key to attracting Americans is pricing. CroisiEurope has intentionally positioned itself on the lower end of river cruising fares. The company's newest, top-of-the-line ship costs about $2,500 in 2016 for an all-inclusive week, including excursions.
The high cost of river cruises relative to land-based vacations is one of the things that makes the genre more popular with passengers of retirement age, and those economics are hard to change. Inland river boats can't employ—some might use the word exploit—below-market offshore labor the way the major seagoing cruise ships do. Local employment laws prevent on-board crew from working long hours and they're required to be given plenty of time off. Naturally, this raises labor costs to the point where river cruising will never be a budget travel pursuit.
That said, my experience of CroisiEurope boats is that you don't feel particularly like you're on lower end of the market. Its newer vessels are more hotel-like than ship-like, and, depending on the one you book, the upper-deck staterooms often have floor-to-ceiling windows so you can watch the great towns of Europe glide by without even getting out of bed. Its cruises are also more authentically all-inclusive than a traditional ocean cruise. High-level food is included, and so is a healthy slate of wines, beers, aperitifs, sodas, and even spirits such as whiskey, gin, and vodka.
To keep ahead of its competitors and please appraising North American guests, the company is pumping a fortune into adding new boats and upgrading older ones—like the world's largest cruise players, it designs and builds its own fleet. in April of 2015, it inaugurated the 96-passenger MS Loire Princesse, which has a draft of just 80cm (a little over 31 inches). The boat's unique side-paddlewheel structure, commissioned and built by the company, is designed to open the shallow waters of the Loire Valley—and views of those legendary castles and UNESCO sites—to river cruises for the first time.
In 2016, the company begins including all excursions as part of the core price so guests don't have to keep adding on more expenses. It also adds the MS Elbe Princesse, another boat with paddlewheel old-is-new-again technology, which opens up year-round travel between Berlin and Prague. The company will also contribute to its sub-fleet of smaller "barges" so that canal trips between Briare and Nevers in Central France are possible.
Some vessels even have single cabins—the newly renovated MS Camargue, for example, has several solo staterooms among its 104-passenger capacity.
CroisiEurope's schedule of itineraries also includes the mainstays of river travel—the Rhine, the Rhône and the Saône, the Seine, and the Douro in Portugal are among its most popular.
A few years ago, CroisiEurope's clientele was mostly French. Now, thanks to its marketing efforts and its emphasis on flexible arrangements, non-French passengers now make up 55% of its guest list, and the number is rising. Half the people who sail with CroisiEurope, the company says, come back for another trip later. If the company's stewards can convince North Americans that it is finally eager to welcome them for an authentically French, friendly experience, perhaps CroisiEurope may not be a marginal name in America for much longer.
Image: The Seine Princess berthed in Paris, March 2015 (photo credit: Jason Cochran)