As some river and expedition cruising begins to come back in Europe, Seatrade Cruise Talks hosted a webinar July 16 on “Restarting Europe’s River and Luxury Cruises: Lessons Learnt.” Moderated by Seatrade’s Frederik Erdmann, it featured panelists Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, Monic van der Heyden, commercial manager for the Port of Amsterdam, and Emilio Freeman, vice-president of Itineraries and Destinations for Sea Dream Yacht Club.
Freeman kicked things off by reviewing how Sea Dream worked through what he described as “four difficult months.” As they looked at options, they decided to reposition their two vessels from the Caribbean to Europe and the Mediterranean. “We sailed them across the Atlantic to Lisbon, and stayed there for several weeks.”
During that time, Sea Dream’s owner felt their best opportunity was Norway — the 19-year-old, privately held company is headquartered in Oslo — so they relocated one of their ships there. At the same time, Freeman noted they retrained the crew, not only for sailing in Norwegian waters but also for social distancing and the new protocols for dealing with COVID-19.
“May turned into June and within a span of weeks we decided to open up and sail in Norway along the Norwegian coast.” Normally, Freeman said, selecting destinations and itineraries is a two-year process – dealing with tour operators, port authorities, etc. “We had a maximum of four weeks to put that together.”
Despite some “hiccups,” they had their first voyage start on June 20. The potential was such they quickly moved their second ship to Oslo a week later. “We’ve even had the problem a lot of cruise lines want to have – we’ve been oversold on several voyages.”
AmaWaterways’ Schreiner talked about how the cruise line was prepared for possible contingencies, whether it be related to terrorism, political unrest or low water, an issue they dealt with in 2018. He noted a major impact from the European ban on U.S. travelers, since “95 per cent of our guests come from North American.” Still, he is hopeful they will salvage a partial season this year.
Schreiner said they do have one ship in operation — the AmaKristina, serving German guests with five-night cruises. Bookings for it are strong and he expects it to continue until late October. “It’s exciting for everybody that there is at least one ship out there cruising.”
Ms. van der Hayden worked with European cruise agencies to help draft new guidelines “to ensure a healthy and safe environment” for passengers, with a focus on hygiene and social distancing.
Freeman said their guests aren’t required to wear masks onboard since “no one in Norway is wearing masks,” but they do follow social distancing and have hand sanitizer in abundance. “We are very careful about disinfecting the luggage before it comes onboard,” said Freeman. Another change: Guests have to schedule gym appointments, and attendance in the gym is limited. As a small ship “yachting company” versus a cruise line, with a maximum capacity of 112 guests, Freeman said it’s been easier to make the changes associated with COVID-19.
By contrast, Schreiner said their one ship is operating at around 50 percent capacity, and guests have to wear face masks when moving around the ship as well as practice social distancing. “We have installed Plexiglas shields in the reception and lounge areas,” he said. All meals are served and the buffets have been discontinued.
Entertainment also took a hit. Given how COVID-19 is spread, Schreiner said they no longer have singing — “you cannot put a mask in front of a singer.” After two cruises, Schreiner said the reaction from the guests has been very positive with no issues from wearing masks.
One difference Freeman noted was that on Sea Dream, many activities are outdoors, including dining. While they have an indoor dining room, all meals are designed to be available on their three outdoor decks, where guests don’t have to be concerned with re-circulating air in an enclosed space. “Guests can even choose to sleep outside under the stars if they choose.” Freeman was asked if the colder weather in Norway affected passengers going outside as much. “Not at all,” he said.
Schreiner added that since just about all the activities are outside on a river cruise, guests don’t spend that much time indoors.
One of the challenges Sea Dream had with restarting in Norway was making a stop in Denmark. “We learned that in Denmark, we would not be allowed to disembark any guests,” Freeman said. There was a rule that anyone coming from Norway had to stay in Denmark for five nights, an obvious issue when you’ll only be in port for a short time. After multiple calls, they did finally get permission to disembark.
Ms. van der Hayden noted among the port changes, double docking is now prohibited, at least until Oct. 1, in Amsterdam. They are also employing stewards to assist people getting to and from the boats and enforce social distancing.
When it comes to shore excursions, Freeman said their clientele is more independent and active. As a result, they are making more use of their “water toys” — jet skis, kayaks, etc. — as well as bicycles at various stops.
Going forward, Freeman stressed that what they experienced so far in Norway is something of an aberration and returning to the Caribbean or other parts of the world is likely to present a fresh new set of challenges.
Longer term, Schreiner talked about how COVID-19 might impact the design of future ships, resulting in possible changes in dining as well as guest capacity. “In the long run, it will be fine,” said Schreiner. “Demand for river cruising is very, very strong and it will continue once we get through COVID-19.”
Freeman indicated Sea Dream will operate in Norway until late September before moving their vessels back to Lisbon. One will go into dry dock while the other offers voyages in the Mediterranean. In December, they return to the Caribbean.
As for the future, he sees a resurgence of interest in small boat cruising and visiting more natural destinations. “There’s a wealth of opportunity with expedition ships going to Antarctica, Iceland or Greenland. As a small ship operator, we are in a fairly unique niche and well-positioned to be successful.” As a result, Freeman thinks they can get back to where they were in a year.
For the complete webinar, go here: https://register.gotowebinar.com/recording/855706327730225665
Cover photo: Yachting in Monte Carlo, courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club