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SINCE RIVER CRUISE COMPANY Uniworld set up office in Singapore four years ago, business across Asia has surged at an impressive rate. Sales in Singapore jumped 25 per cent year-on-year. Sales in Malaysia are 10 times what it was a year ago. Other flourishing markets include Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Uniworld CEO and President Ellen Bettridge is betting there’s room for much more growth.
Across the region, many mature travellers are buying into the idea of a floating luxury hotel gently making its way down a major river such as the Rhine, Danube, Yangtze, Ganges and Nile; making stops along the way so its passengers can disembark and take in the sights and sounds of the towns and cities.
The 17 Uniworld ships are high-end luxury craft, with handcrafted furniture and custom-made fabrics and fixtures. Some even boast paintings by artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Degas on their walls. There are two to four restaurants on each ship, in-suite butler service, and gourmet offerings often sourced not far from where the ship is docked.
In an age of fast cars and private jets, what do you think accounts for the burgeoning appeal of river cruises?
It is an opportunity to really take it easy. It's about getting on board your beautiful floating hotel, unpacking just once, and having everything taken care of for you for the next seven, 10 or 25 days. And because you're on this really small ship – there’s an average of only 130 passengers – you’re just pampered. Our crew to passenger ratio is one to three. So they learn your name, know what you like by Day Two, whether you prefer sparkling or still water, and so on. When you wake up in the morning, you decide if you want to take part in our many excursions or go off on your own. We can arrange for just about anything – say, if you’d like to go to the museum early in the morning before the crowds arrive, our guides will be able to get you into that museum first. If you choose to divert from our usual offerings, we can cater to that as well. We make it very easy for you.
Your business in Asia is flourishing. What’s your typical Asian passenger profile?
Regardless of nationality, our average passenger is 55 plus. They’re usually a couple, well-educated, generally nearing retirement if not retired. They’re very active and love to take part in our excursions. Our Asian clients fit that profile in every way, except that they like to travel in big groups. They usually come with some friends or family. They also tend to book very late, instead of a year in advance like some of our other clients. So they’ll call and they’ll be surprised that we’re booked out. Our Asian clients are also very social; they want to be with everyone else on the ship and they’re not shy. They engage with the other passengers and make friends. They also don’t hesitate to ask the chef to cook an Asian dish even though it might not be on the menu. And we welcome that – we even welcome it if you bring specific sauces or pastes that you want incorporated into your food. We want you to feel completely at home. Our chef might even ask, after you’ve had a few days of, say, French food, if you’d like a bowl of noodles or fried rice. Otherwise, they can experience our gourmet dishes made from ingredients and produce that are sourced from the local markets and farms.
Among the over 30 itineraries you offer, which are your Asian clients partial to?
Our Asian clients typically opt for the European itineraries. Everyone is so in love with the Danube that when people think about a traditional river cruise itinerary in Europe, they’re thinking about drifting along the Danube and stopping at cities such as Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and other enchanting places. Also popular is our “Castles Along The Rhine” itinerary which lets you marvel at castles along the route. We're also seeing a rise in popularity for our “Tulips And Windmills” itinerary, which is an opportunity to have the quintessential Dutch experience of seeing the cities and countryside filled with tulips. That only happens for a short period of two months when the tulips are in full bloom, so those spaces fill up quickly. I have to say too that our Egypt cruise is rebounding to unprecedented levels due to what I think is pent-up demand. Previously, because of possibly Arab Spring, people felt they couldn’t go there. Then last year, we started to see a rise in bookings, and now this year’s numbers are just solid. I think a lot of people put Egypt on their bucket list because they want to see what civilisation was once like.
What would you say to a millennial who thinks river cruises are for her parents’ generation?
I’d say that she should consider our other offering, U by Uniworld... We wanted to create this new brand and go into this new market. So we took two ships out of our fleet, completely redid them and came up with the concept and put it out there. U by Uniworld is geared towards a younger person. The ships are completely funky and painted all-black on the outside. There’s a silent disco and an Ibiza-inspired rooftop terrace, and USB charging ports everywhere. Nothing gets started in the morning till about 9am because that’s when brunch starts and goes on until about 11pm or 12pm. We stay overnight in a lot of big hip cities like Berlin and Amsterdam so you can hit the nightspots and stay out – so long as you return before the ship leaves port.