Tourism & hospitality

The generation gain

As the average age of a cruise passenger continues to fall, several operators are looking towards millennials as the next big cruise demographic. But, with uptake still relatively slow, how big an emphasis should the industry really be placing on attracting younger passengers and what changes are required to snag GenY? Abi Millar talks to Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge to find out.

In late 2016, the upscale river cruise company Uniworld made a surprising announcement. It was set to launch U by Uniworld, the world’s first cruise line for millennials.

As the press release explained, this would mean offering “immersive, authentic and adventurous experiences for the next generation of river cruisers along the Instagram and Snapchat-worthy rivers of Europe and amazing cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and Budapest”.

Originally, the brand said it was targeting 18-40 year-olds, but that age bracket was later shifted upward to 21-45. By the time of the inaugural sailings in April 2018, the upper limit had been scrapped altogether, with Uniworld citing high ‘demand from both consumers and trade’.

“[U] has learned that the experience is less about a number, and more about attracting a new generation of adult travellers to river cruising,” said the company in a statement.

Given the brand’s new all-inclusive policy, it would be easy to imagine its ships overrun with baby boomers, cementing their ‘young at heart’ credentials by bopping along to the silent disco or posing at the onboard Polaroid selfie station.

However, in practical terms it appears that little has changed. The brand’s marketing is still heavily focused on younger travellers, with its website and Instagram feed featuring attractive 20- and 30-somethings against a backdrop of European landmarks.

Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld, says the mission is the same as it always was: to rethink the river cruise experience for a younger clientele.

“We believe that river cruising itself is so hot right now, but we’ve got to attract another generation to this and let them see what it’s all about because they don’t think its for them,” she tells World Cruise Industry Review. “We’ve got to figure out how we get them to identify with this incredible vacation opportunity.”

Bettridge, who has been at the helm of Uniworld since 2016, speaks with an infectious enthusiasm – she describes her job as “probably the coolest in the entire world”. And as she details what U by Uniworld has to offer, it’s easy to see why a cash-poor, experience-hungry generation of travellers might be tempted to spend upwards of $2000 on a cruise.

“We’re very excited that we are leading this path and taking this risk because we believe in it,” she says. “So we’re making history in the river cruise space, and it’s exciting. We’re not going to sit still; we’re going to continue to evolve.”

The task Uniworld has set itself is far from straightforward. Mention cruising to the average millennial, and they’re unlikely to picture the holiday of a lifetime. Bland themed buffets, dreary itineraries and elderly passengers may be some of the images that come to mind.

This is not to say those images are accurate. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the average age of a cruisegoer now stands at a relatively youthful 46, and cruise lines have worked hard in recent years to position themselves as activity-oriented. But for a generation that thrives on Lonely Planet type experiences – interrailing around Europe, backpacking around South East Asia – the stereotypes may prove hard to dislodge.

U by Uniworld, then, has taken a different tack, pitching a cruise less as an end in itself, and more as a vehicle for experiences.

“Millennials want to explore destinations and be with the locals – they want the local culture, the local cuisine – and we really did design our itineraries with that in mind,” says Bettridge. “We stay longer in ports, giving people an opportunity to truly explore the places they’re in.”

In Amsterdam, she says, guests embarked on a food-tasting tour; in Rüdesheim am Rhein they learnt how to make cheese.

“They love it because it’s hands on, they’re getting in there, they’re part of it,” she says. “That’s what millennials want – they want to be part of the action and to truly immerse themselves in the destination.”

Travelling without moving

U by Uniworld’s two ships, The A and The B, offer a selection of eight-day itineraries (The Seine Experience, Rolling on the Rhine, Germany’s Finest and The Danube Flow) along with two five-day holiday itineraries (Dashing through the Danube and A Merry Little Christmas Cruise). These include various overnight stops, along with two- or three-night stays in major cities.

As Bettridge sees it, the ships themselves function as “beautiful little floating boutique hotels”, allowing you to visit multiple cities with no need to keep packing and unpacking your suitcase.

“Your little hotel takes you everywhere and every day you go onto something new,” she says.

It’s an attractive proposition, and a good selling point for river cruising more generally. Nonetheless, the fact remains that millennials value their freedom. Might they not find cruising, with its set itineraries, restrictive?

Bettridge thinks not, remarking that the brand ethos is all about choice. “It’s their vacation and it’s up to them what they want to do and where they want to do it. We’re just giving them options,” she says.

Unlike a typical cruise, in which activities might kick off at 8 in the morning before winding down for the evening, U by Uniworld works on the basis that guests will want a lie-in. It doesn’t start its programming till 10 or 11am, and, importantly, offers night tours. There is also a fleet of bikes on board, allowing guests to explore destinations on their own.

For those who don’t want to disembark, the ships themselves have a wide roster of on-board activities. These include evening lounge parties, top deck yoga sessions, mixology classes and painting lessons complete with wine.

“With other river ships, their top decks are generally dark at nighttime, but ours is lit up,” says Bettridge. “We have banquettes and big round chairs everywhere, and people are just hanging round outside having a ball.”

From a design perspective, the ships are nothing if not Instagram-friendly. Beginning life as the River Baroness and the River Ambassador, the A and the B have been completely revamped, with matte black exteriors and a monochrome colour scheme throughout. That said, they do retain some of the more extravagant touches of the originals, including luxury Savoir beds and marble bathrooms.

On top of that, they pride themselves on being tech-oriented and eco-conscious. The daily programme and menus are sent electronically, and there is reliable on-board WiFi. They also cater to all dietary requirements, placing a particularly a strong emphasis on healthy eating.

“We offer something like a communal dining experience – we bring out a dish of vegetables and a dish of fish and place it on the table for people to help themselves,” says Bettridge. “This has helped people to connect because there’s no better way of getting to know someone then by breaking bread with them.”

In the future, she says, the brand will focus on tying its itineraries around festivals and festivities. Over the coming months, the Danube Flow sailing will stop at the Sziget Festival in Budapest, and two of its German sailings will stop at Oktoberfest.

“Next year we will look at things like King’s Day – a Dutch public holiday – and make sure we’re right in the middle of Amsterdam when that’s happening,” she says. “The B was in Paris with the World Cup winners and it was an absolute blast on board. So we’re going to focus on where are the festivals and how can we put our customer right into the heart of those.”

Getting off the ground

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the feedback so far has been excellent. On review platform Feefo, the current rating stands at 4.8 out of 5, based on nearly 3,000 reviews. Recent examples sound nothing short of hyperbolic: ‘best service received anywhere in my lifetime’; ‘trip of a lifetime’; ‘we felt so pampered and indulged! As though we were the only guests on board!’

In this regard, U by Uniworld is a clear success story, and one that other river cruise operators may soon attempt to emulate. Amadeus River Cruises for one has said it plans to launch a millennial-oriented ship in 2019.

Of course, it is worth remembering that each U by Uniworld cruise only hosts 120 passengers, which means no matter how much guests enjoy themselves, they aren’t necessarily indicative of a widespread industry trend. When asked whether she thinks the sector needs to work harder to attract millennials, Bettridge is diplomatic, pointing out that “everyone has their own business model so it’ll be however they want to approach it.”

The insurmountable fact remains that cruising is expensive. While U by Uniworld’s cruises are cheaper than average, they are still unlikely to attract the kind of people who would otherwise stay in an Airbnb or hostel.

However, it would be fair to say that cruising for millennials (at least for somewhat moneyed millennials) is far from a lost cause. For operators who get it right, this demographic may indeed offer significant untapped opportunities.

“From the passengers on board, it’s been fantastic, and they’re getting out there and telling their friends,” says Bettridge. “We’re continuing to listen to them and learn from them and find out what’s next, bringing this product into the future.”

This article appears in the 2018 vol 2 edition of World Cruise Industry Review

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