In case you haven’t heard, there is a new kid on the block in the luxury river cruise space. Riverside Luxury River Cruises made a soft debut to the travel advisor scene over the last few weeks putting their owner, Gregor Gerlach, center stage to talk about his latest hospitality industry project.
The Gerlach Family is well known in the European Market for setting luxury standards with their resort hotels in the Canary Islands and Maldives. The private family business started with one hotel on Grand Canary in 1974 and has grown to 11 resorts and city hotels in prime locations.
They pride themselves on their sustainability initiatives, unique hotel construction, and exclusive gastronomy concepts under a 4 and 5-star boutique-style umbrella, some of which are members of Leading Hotels of the World and Design Hotels.
In 2018, Gregor Gerlach was introduced to the concept of adding a luxury river cruise product to their portfolio by a private equity investor. Their research showed that a true luxury product was missing from the river cruise space. Crystal had only just started at that time, so they didn’t know enough about them to study what they offered. Gerlach had design concepts in mind for larger staterooms with higher passenger space ratios, more crew-to-passenger complement, and a larger kitchen to offer an extraordinary gastronomic experience at a more relaxed pace than what was currently offered by competitors. But they were unable to carry their dream to fruition at that time because they could not find a shipyard with availability to build the ships to their specifications. So, the project was temporarily placed on the back burner.
In January 2022, Crystal Cruises filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. This garnered the attention of Gregor Gerlach to see about purchasing those ships as he felt they met the design concept he had in mind to create a luxury boutique resort on the water. He immediately set out on a mission to purchase the moth-balled Crystal ships and was successful in getting the Mozart in October 2022. Since that ship was not mortgaged to banks, the sale was completed quickly. The purchase of the other four ships turned into a bidding war with an ocean cruise and a river cruise competitor, but Gregor Gerlach succeeded in obtaining the full fleet in early February.
A decision was made to focus on selling these cruises to the US market, since there was already a pool of past Crystal guests interested in the resurgence of the brand. Gerlach and his team asked for feedback from those past guests to see what they thought could enhance the Crystal product. The biggest complaint was that guests felt too hurried on the Crystal River itineraries. They felt too busy and wished they had more free time to enjoy the ship.
Gerlach took those comments to heart and incorporated them into the ship and itinerary design. Some of the modified features on the ships as they sail under the Riverside Luxury Cruises brand will be more attention to detail with things like thick, plush towels, pops of color to enhance the ship décor and a top deck Vista Grill Restaurant for alfresco dining.
And keeping true to the company’s sustainability practices, the original Crystal cruises bath towels were sent to their Seaside Hotels 4-star properties to be used there.
The itineraries will feature longer stays in ports to allow leisure time for guests to explore on their own and treat the ship as their waterfront resort. In warmer months, there will be more daytime cruising to take advantage of the passing scenery of the Wachau Valley for one. Gerlach said, “the idea behind the new itineraries is to provide a sense of balance for the guests and provide a great way to travel through Europe as opposed to around it.” Mozart will be sailing the Danube between Passau and Bratislava and the Iron Gate starting in April. Another river ship will join the fleet later this year and sail the Rhine/Main between Amsterdam and Basel and the Rhone and Saone between Burgundy and Provence. Two additional ships will join the fleet in 2024.
Staff on the ships will be comprised of 80% past Crystal crew. These crew already understand what is expected to deliver a luxury experience and they are hoping to see past guests return under the new company. The staff to guest ration is 65 staff for 55 staterooms.
While in the hotel space there are several all-inclusive hotels and cruises, Riverside River Cruises has a different philosophy. Gerlach says, “We are a service company, so the guest should decide if they want an all-inclusive with top shelf wines, beer, and liquor versus a Full Board Meal Plan with water, tea, and coffee only on the ship”. The cruise will be sold as a stand-alone product, including the luxury meal plan with an optional upgrade package to include a full open bar. As to shore excursions, there will be different plans and a la carte excursions available for purchase separately. Excursions will be offered in the following categories: Culture, Food and Wine, Active, Immersive Experience and History. Tours will have low minimum participation thresholds in order to allow for the varied choices.
Important to note is that even though Riverside will be sailing ex-Crystal’s hardware, they are themselves a financially stable company. The ships comprise only 10% of their assets and they have a 50% equity investment. It is crucial to convey that message for those who may still be weary of the Crystal name due to their past financial troubles.
Currently, Riverside Luxury River Cruises are being offered 45% off brochure price discounts for sailings in 2023, along with increased Travel Advisor Commissions of 21%. In addition, single occupancy rates will be offered on the Mozart year-round, and the other ships will be date dependent. They hope to get guests and advisors to experience the product as soon as possible in order to create a buzz through word-of-mouth advertising. They also offer a group program with 1 for 9 Tour Conductor credits and have some 2023 charter opportunities still available.
Gerlach has hired a new sales team with past river cruise and luxury backgrounds to reach travel advisors and educate them about the line, including CEO Jennifer Halboth. They are currently doing webinars and will eventually offer an on-line training program through their travel advisor portal. They are expected to sell 90% or more of their inventory through travel advisors who can explain the value and luxury differences that Riverside brings to the market versus direct-to-consumer sales.
Riverside Luxury River Cruises will be present at ASTA’s River Cruise Expo in Budapest March 15 to 18 this year and will be a great way for travel advisors to compare the different river cruise offerings side by side to see what will set Riverside apart from their competitors. Besides ship inspections at the Expo, they will be hosting advisors for lunches and dinners in addition to a post Expo cruise fam.
Travel Advisors should register for the travel advisor portal at https://riverside-cruises.com/en/ta. Once registered, they will receive the latest news and updates from the Regional US Sales Team. Riverside will also be offering fams to luxury sales advisors for $999.00 per week on several sailings in 2023.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gerlach at the New York City Travel Advisor Rollout event on January 25th and followed up with a one on one interview with him a few days later.