Hotel barging on the rise, says European Waterways, plus it’s commissionable
Derek Banks, Managing Director, European Waterways

Hotel barging on the rise, says European Waterways, plus it’s commissionable

TORONTO — When you consider the many travel trends born from this pandemic, hotel barging seems to check off all the boxes.

For one thing, it’s ‘bubble’ friendly. Entire social bubbles can charter a boat to themselves, ensuring an intimate and safe experience onboard.

Also, it’s flexible. With fewer passengers in a group, there are more opportunities to customize itineraries with additional or alternative shore excursions and special requests.

And finally, there are less crowds with hotel barging. With boats docking in smaller, lesser-known towns and destinations, passengers won’t have to contend with the throngs of tourists that places like Paris and Lyon are known for.

All this add up to what will likely be a record year for European Waterways, which has been offering luxury hotel barge holidays for over 40 years. Managing Director Derek Banks tells Travelweek that the company already has 3,000 bookings for 2022, up from the 2,600 it saw in all of 2019, its best-ever year on record. Looking even better still is 2023, which Banks says is seeing a 40% year-on-year increase over pre-pandemic times.

Admittedly, the majority of 2022 bookings are a result of those rolled over from 2020, when the company’s total passenger count was a miniscule 54 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. However, Banks notes that only about 2% of those booked in 2020 had requested a refund, and that 20% of this year’s bookings come from new business, a testament to the growing appeal of luxury barging.

Hotel barging on the rise, says European Waterways, plus it’s commissionable

Anjodi on the Canal du Midi

“We’ll be starting operations towards the end of March in Holland, and the way it’s looking, France will kick in around mid-April. Scotland is also very busy, it’s 100% full for this year,” says Banks. “There is a real desire for what we’ve got to sell and I think people are recognizing the appeal of small group travel. They don’t want to jump on a big cruise ship right now.”

While some of the company’s vessels have a capacity for 20 passengers, the majority of its 16-barge fleet can accommodate a maximum 12 onboard. Banks says 50% of all its clients book charters, and “that statistic is increasing now for pandemic reasons, because friends and families recognize it as a safer option.” Those who don’t charter an entire barge will often find themselves sailing with a small group of like-minded travellers.

“As a Skipper and the owner, I’ve seen hundreds of groups come together and form friendships, which is so rare. They’re onboard enjoying the same experiences, the same food and the same service,” says Banks.

In addition to sailing standard itineraries in eight countries in Europe, including France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and more, European Waterways offers special themed cruises that cater to families, golf and wine enthusiasts and soft adventure. And unlike other barging companies that are exclusively self-drive, with passengers manning the vessels themselves, European Waterways is full service all the way, with a Captain, housekeeper, tour guide and chef onboard, not to mention Mercedes minibuses awaiting on shore to transport guests to local excursions. Cabins are all en suite with air conditioning and all the comforts of home.

“In 40 years, we haven’t fundamentally changed what we’ve been doing. This level of service, with a 2:1 passenger-to-crew ratio, allows us to really look after our guests. After a day or two, we can remember how someone wants his gin and tonic stirred,” says Banks.

European Waterways is currently considered the largest barging company in Europe, with plans for continued expansion. Earlier this month, it announced the acquisition of two new canal barges, Enchanté and Finesse, both of which are double-decker vessels that carry up to eight passengers and a crew of five. Each falling under the company’s Ultra Deluxe category, Enchanté will sail the Canal du Midi while Finesse will explore the Canal du Centre and the Canal de Bourgogne in Southern Burgundy.

Hotel barging on the rise, says European Waterways, plus it’s commissionable

Cabin on the Finesse | Credit: Marie George

Banks says that in addition to new vessels, the company will be refining its itineraries this year to include more of what he calls “insider experiences.” Think along the lines of shopping in local markets, visits to spectacular castles and ancient ruins, cycling along towpaths, winery tours and more. And since itineraries only cruise for about 4-5 hours each day, guests have plenty of time to fully immerse themselves in the local communities they visit.

And what’s more, all of it is commissionable at 10% for travel agents.

“I know that from years of experience, travel agents are so useful, especially in Canada,” says Banks. “And we make it very easy for travel agents to book with us. We are the only barging company that has online booking capabilities, and agents can download factsheets and photos and presentations all from our website.”

Though Canada currently comprises just 10% of European Waterway’s overall business, with half of that booked directly through travel agents, Banks says it’s absolutely considered a growth market. To expand its presence in Canada, the company has partnered with Calgary-based Trip Merchant and Maritime Travel. The potential for growth is there, says Banks, with agents playing an essential role.

“I encourage all travel agents in Canada to engage with our reservation team, which knows a lot about the entire hotel barge industry,” says Banks. Once agents start to engage with us, they’ll realize that we’re a company that understands what we’re doing. And we give great service, from building the boats through to serving the food on tables.”

European Waterways requires all passengers and crew to be fully vaccinated. For more information go to www.europeanwaterways.com.