TORONTO — Putting your trust in a travel agent, particularly during this time, is the smart thing to do, says Michelle Palma.
Uniworld’s VP of Field Sales, who took part in Travelweek’s first-ever virtual conference yesterday as an esteemed keynote speaker, believes that now, more than ever, travellers are appreciating the knowledge and expertise of a travel agent. With so much information available online today, and so much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, travellers are turning to their advisors for the latest policies and updates, and for reassurance during this difficult time.
“Clients are putting their trust and faith in their travel advisor to steer them in the right direction,” she says. “We are a strong and resilient industry and I know we will emerge from this stronger together and more aligned across all segments.”
Due to technical issues, Palma was unable to speak live during yesterday’s event. We followed up with her today for a special Q&A:
Q: It has been said that river cruising may bounce back faster than ocean liners due to the fact that river cruise ships accommodate less people, and therefore there’s less risk of contracting the virus. Would you agree?
A: I think we can all agree that river cruising has been the fastest growing segment of the travel industry for just over 10 years now and its very encouraging to hear that our segment is expected to rebound in the near future. We have been holding virtual meetings with many of our top national accounts and frontline advisors over the past several weeks. They have been engaging with customers and have done informal surveys on future travel intentions. What’s come from these surveys is a high level of interest in river cruising
In terms of actual sales, we are already seeing an increase in demand for both 2021 and 2022. Bookings are up quite significantly YOY for 2021 with much of that growth being driven organically from new bookings. Naturally one would assume this was a result of the rebooks from 2020 but in fact the majority are coming from new FIT and group reservations.
I believe the demand is being driven by a few key factors. River ships are smaller and more intimate which of course results in far fewer guests onboard. The average river ship has a capacity of only 120-170 guests, which many consumers have a newfound appreciation for these days.
Excursion sizes are much smaller, averaging 25 or less pre-COVID which means they will decrease even further going forward which appeals to many consumers. I’ve never met a traveller who didn’t appreciate experiencing a world-renowned museum or historical site within a small group environment.
And while the ships are smaller, the river cruise industry as a whole has done a fantastic job of enhancing the public areas onboard our ships to include more expansive lounges and multiple alternative dining venues, which will enable guests to social distance and still enjoy a wide array of onboard activities.
Q: In recent weeks, we’ve seen various groups and global organizations release tourism guidelines to ensure travellers’ safety. With Uniworld operating mainly in Europe and Asia, can you tell us who you’re working with to determine whether a destination is safe enough to dock at and visit?
A: When the governments open their country for business, we will always follow their guidelines as our minimum standard. Then we will take into consideration the extra rules and regulations put in place by the local ports of call. And finally, we will enact our own procedures which will be even more stringent to ensure the health and safety of our guests is always at the forefront of everything we do
It’s been very interesting to see how different countries have managed the pandemic. Vietnam is a great example – did you know they have a population of 97 million people and have not had a single loss of life due to COVID? They were very proactive in shutting down their borders early and were very open about where the hot spots were so that people could avoid travelling to those areas all together or at least take extra precautions. So when you hear news like this, it’s encouraging to know that we could possibly start sailing on the Mekong sooner than expected.
Q: Obviously guests will want to feel safe while in destination. But what about onboard? With health and hygiene top of mind among all travellers nowadays, can you tell us what changes we can expect to see onboard Uniworld’s ships?
A: The health and safety of our guests is paramount at Uniworld and I’m very proud to say that we were the first river cruise line to announce our enhanced health and sanitation protocols fleetwide. We recognized the importance of implementing these measures to provide our guests with the peace of mind they need to book with confidence knowing that we will take every measure possible to ensure their upmost safety while sailing with us.
From the moment they arrive, until the day they depart we have them covered. Our enhanced protocols fall into a wide range of initiatives including:
- All guests must complete a full health screening prior to boarding
- All included airport transfer vehicles will be disinfected prior to guests’ arrival
- Every single crew member has received health and hygiene training by an external consulting firm which includes training on how to look for and identify any symptoms
- All staterooms and suites are thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis
- All air conditioning filters are cleaned and disinfected on each embarkation day before guests enter their stateroom
- All railings, chairs and handles in all public areas are disinfected multiple times throughout each day
- Gloves, masks and sanitizer will be readily available for all guests throughout the cruise
- Disembarkation luggage is kept separate from embarkation luggage and are wiped down to prevent cross contamination
When it comes to onboard dining, all meals will now be served by waitstaff with no self-service or buffet options. Plus, two seating times are now being offered to limit the number of guests at any one time in the various dining venues onboard.
Of course, we will also be ensuring the upmost of safety standards for our daily excursions as well. The occupancy levels on each excursion coach have been reduced to ensure social distancing. All excursion vehicles are cleaned and disinfected before every departure and return. And the number of guests assigned to each guide on the daily excursions will be reduced.
All of these enhancements are posted on our website to make them easily accessible to consumers and our trade partners.
We have also added a new module to our Uniworld University online program, which features these enhanced protocols because we realize how important it is for travel advisors to be able to articulate this to their clients. Clients need to know it’s going to be safe to sail with us and they want the peace of mind right now.
Q: Travellers will certainly be reassured to hear all that when they finally do cruise again. But cruising this summer may be a bit of a stretch. As for 2021 cruises, you’ve already mentioned that bookings are bouncing back in a big way. But what about in the medium term? Is the Europe fall season salvageable at this point?
A: We are very optimistic about the fall season and our ability to operate on the majority of the rivers in Europe. Our goal is to deliver a safe and enjoyable holiday experience and as each of the European countries begin to reopen, we will be working closely with the governments and port operators to ensure we can deliver on this commitment.
We absolutely see opportunities for river cruising in the medium term. Our ships are ready to sail once we know it is safe to do so. It’s been very encouraging to see many countries starting to reopen. And in fact, there is a German river cruise operator who has begun sailing this week from Passau to Dusseldorf, which is very exciting to see. Suffice it to say we are all waiting eagerly for this to be a success as it will lay the groundwork for us all to gradually return to the rivers.