For the first time in a number of years, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Line’s ships aren’t spending the beginning of the European river cruise season sailing the Rhine, the Danube, and the other iconic European rivers. Despite that, Uniworld is seeing positive signs not only for a recovery, but for a swift one, as clients are filling up 2021 bookings at a high rate.
“We are in a better position for 2021 right now, than we have been for the last six years. People are booking in advance and they do want to sail next year,” Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld, told Travel Market Report.
Currently, for 2021, Uniworld is up 67% over where it was at the same point for 2020. And while a lot of those rebookings are from the cancelled sailings over the last few months, 21% are still new bookings, and there are still a lot of FCC's not yet used from guests.
“I expect next year will be a fantastic year,” Bettridge said. “Our past passengers are so loyal. Some are booked in September and said they’re going, and I hope we are.”
Right now, as with other river cruise lines, Uniworld is still operating with a wait-and-see approach. It has yet to cancel any August sailings, and Bettridge told TMR that she is still hoping to have ships sailing in late August, but it all depends on when North Americans are able to get over to Europe. Uniworld does have some agencies it works with in Europe—including some with offices in France, Germany, and the U.K.—so it may be able to start sailing early, but a large amount of its schedule will still depend on North Americans.
Bettridge does think that smaller river cruise ships will have an advantage in returning to regular operations with social distancing in place.
“When you've got a small vessel of 130 passengers, it’s easier to be flexible. We are very fortunate, I think people really do want to sail with us,” she said.
Uniworld earlier this month released some information about the new protocols that it will sail with once it is able to return to some kind of regular schedule. Those protocols include requiring passengers to complete a health screening prior to embarkation; a cap on the number of guests allowed on one bus during excursions; making gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizer available to all guests; using contactless payment methods for onboard payments; and more.
It expects to change some of its dining procedures as well, including removing some self-service snacks and instead having them served to guests by the crew; and switching to reserved seating, with guests at the same table with the same people each night.
Uniworld’s crew, even before COVID-19, was required to go through professional health and hygiene HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) training and new social distancing and sanitization practices will be added, Bettridge said.
Ultimately, the goal is to sail while keeping both guests and crew safe. The new protocols, along with some others that haven’t been announced yet but are being developed with WTTC and CLIA, will help Uniworld do that.
“I want to be very focused on what can happen. I try to be a glass half full positive person. I think that when it turns, it’s going to turn fast. We are at the luxury end, clients have the time and the money and they are going to want to go.”
Advisors are essential to travel's recovery
Advisors are going to be paramount for the industry’s recovery, and Bettridge told TMR that Uniworld has made extra efforts to support its reservation team so that advisors will be able to make changes to their clients’ bookings without waiting on hold.
“I just want to say a huge thank you to our travel advisors, they are really working so hard right now. Together we have saved so many bookings,” she said.
Bettridge’s advice to Uniworld’s advisor partners is to start reaching out to clients who have been spending a lot of these last few weeks dreaming about future travel.
“I think about my financial advisor and he’s reached out to me four or five times – advisors need to be talking and upping their level. If they have the time, they should take advantage of that.”
Uniworld’s 2021 catalogue is available, and 2022 could be released in July, and advisors can send it to their river cruise clients before capacity is reached. “France is just filling up for next year, I would tell people if they want to go next year they better book now,” Bettridge said.
The key is staying in touch with clients, she said. Uniworld has spent the last few weeks staying in touch with their guests through video testimonials on their social media including its #WhenWeTravelAgain campaign and its #CookingWithEllen video series where Bettridge tries out some recipes from TTC’s Beatrice Tollman.
Uniworld has also made its Press Reader account, which allows guests onboard to access newspapers and magazines on smart devices, available to its guests who are at home right now.
“We know we can’t travel right now, so how do we inspire them to want to? That’s what we have been focused on.”