TORONTO — Even when a niche becomes a runaway success, there are hurdles.
Take cruise charters. You can block the space, you can market the product – but what if it doesn’t sell? It’s a daunting prospect and one that keeps many agents from pursuing their group booking dreams.
Thankfully it’s never happened to travel advisor Faith Sproule. But after years of chartering river cruises, she’s savvy enough to take things slow and steady, and to follow her own best practices.
We first wrote about Sproule’s river cruise charters back in 2018, when she was busy selling a March 2019 ‘Alan Doyle on the Danube’ cruise, headlined by the Great Big Sea singer-songwriter. That sailing went off without a hitch.
Now four years and one pandemic later, Sproule – owner of Dartmouth, NS-based Niche Travel Group – is still at it, and still working with Doyle and his Alan Doyle Trio team for more charter sailings. When we caught up with Sproule recently, bookings were “coming in by the boatload – literally.” She’s just back from an Oct. 24 – 31 sailing with AmaWaterways with musicians Doyle and Matt Andersen. And looking ahead to 2023, she’s booking a part charter with the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, and another full charter with Doyle in France.
On this latest October 2022 sailing, passengers took part in an auction and raised $28,000 for the Dollar a Day Foundation (https://adollaraday.ca/), the charity that Doyle and two friends started to assist Canadian grassroots organizations that help people with mental health and addiction problems. “That was the 10th time I cried happy tears on that cruise,” says Sproule.
Proof that niche travel can be not just lucrative, but fulfilling too.
Read on for Sproule’s advice on putting together and marketing cruise charters, and the rewards (and potential pitfalls) …
Travelweek: Has it been difficult to drum up interest in these charters at this point in the pandemic, or quite the opposite?
Sproule: “The October 2022 sailing was rebooked twice (2020 and 2021) due to COVID, as such we have been on a waitlist for well over a year. I expect the 2023 sailing to move quite quickly with our large waitlist and friends and family of existing guests. Over 80% of our 2019 guests rebooked so if we have that continued success the 2023 sailing should fill within a month.”
Travelweek: You’ve had other successful charters in the past. They sound like a great revenue source. What are the challenges, and the benefits?
Sproule: “The benefits would be revenue, if it works. The challenges are many. There’s no revenue at all unless you sail almost full. That means that you could do work for 18 months and still end up sailing with 10 – 15 empty cabins and have made zero revenue, you could even be at a loss. Even guests who pay the deposit may cancel at final payment and you find yourself stuck with 30 cabins to sell.
“My biggest tip is that if you pick the wrong supplier as your partner and they are not willing to work with you to navigate the challenges of charter groups, you could end up with a catastrophic financial loss. Choose your partners wisely. I cannot say enough about AmaWaterways and their exceptional level of service and assistance. They give us so much flexibility to customize the sailing to suit our niche needs. They have a charter department to deal with these groups specifically and are great to work with. We also had a great experience with Emerald Waterways for smaller groups of 20 to 30 cabins.”
Travelweek: How do you get the ball rolling with marketing a new charter, and is there a lot of word-of-mouth once things get going?
Sproule: “We have had great success with social media marketing and use of our weekly newsletter. We also make sure to have a great relationship with our musician partners on these charters as they are the draw and have the contacts to advertise these sailings properly. You could spend thousands in advertising with very little return so I suggest all agents be very selective where they spend their hard-earned marketing dollars.”
Travelweek: What do river cruise companies do that’s really helpful for agents putting together charters, and what could they do to make the experience even better?
Sproule: “AmaWaterways offers excellent prices for full ship and part charters and their teams here in Canada and California go above and beyond to help their preferred agency partners. They provide excellent agent rates to get you on your ships to better understand the product to help you sell. And I’ve found that unlike other companies, they will work with you if challenges arise.
“Emerald Waterways’ Groups is also very accommodating and they are great at getting agents on board to experience their product.
“I have heard excellent things about Uniworld as well. We want to try ocean sailing in 2024/2025 and I have been in contact with a few premium and luxury ocean cruise lines.”