Asian companies with sophisticated taste are starting to discover river cruises in their backyard and in destinations afar, prompting operators to invest in a stronger marketing presence here.
By Karen Yue, Paige Lee Pei Qi, S Puvaneswary, Mimi Hudoyo, Julian Ryall, Prudence Lui and Rosa Ocampo
Major cruise companies have long touted the benefits of chartering a ship for corporate events â a captive audience that must remain onboard, myriad venues and entertainment options all under one roof to support all sort of events, from meetings and workshops to teambuilding activities and networking parties, and at an all-inclusive price.
But for some companies looking to engage a smaller number of delegates, chartering a massive cruise ship is not ideal and a partial hire loses that coveted touch of exclusivity.
This is where river cruises come in. Smaller in size, but still offering the same benefits of keeping all participants in one place where they can meet, bond and play while experiencing new sights along the way, river cruises are slowly but surely gaining the interest of event planners.
For three river cruise operators that spoke to TTGmice â Uniworld, Belmond and Pandaw, the more sophisticated business events markets of Europe and the US are taking the lead in corporate charters and the numbers are rising.
Belmond, a tourism company with river cruises in Myanmar and France, has reported an increase in corporate charters from different industries in various geographical markets.
Pandaw, which operates a fleet of 16 ships that sail along remote but attractive rivers and coastlines, has also seen more corporate bookings.
And Asia is catching up.
Guy Young, president of luxury river cruise specialist Uniworld, has seen significant growth in incentive bookings out of Asia, especially from Singapore.
To court clients in Asia, Uniworld has committed more resources in key markets. It is teaming up with travel agents in the region to hold regular presentations for corporate clients and is conducting training for travel consultants to educate them in the river cruise product.
Robin Yap, president, Asia of The Travel Corporation, which Uniworld is a part of, said: âIncentive events is the fastest growing segment in our push for growth in Asia. Traditional incentive (ideas) are getting very common and companies here are increasingly seeing the need to innovate in order to continue inspiring their top performers.â
With an equally keen eye on Asia, Gary Franklin, managing director, trains and cruises of Belmond, told TTGmice that a sales team has been established in Bangkok to work closely with DMCs in Myanmar where it sails as well as corporate clients in Hong Kong and Singapore. There is also a tours department in Yangon, which comprises a team of expert guides âwho are always looking out for new and different tailor-made experiences (for) our corporate clientsâ.
A versatile product
For Gracie V Geikie, director/principle consultant of Planet Borneo Group of Companies, river cruises hold âa special appeal and classâ and offers an environment that encourages interaction among delegates.
She said river cruises are suitable for strategic planning retreats, board meetings, brainstorm sessions, conferences, workshops and masterclasses that are combined with an incentive element.
Pandawâs spokesperson, Sven Zika, found that river cruises appealed most to clients that have a strong desire for a holiday experience while conducting business.
Yap believes that river cruises are suitable for various purposes because full charters give clients the flexibility to create anything that suits their needs.
Uniworld offers highly customisable options and unique shore experiences. Coming up soon are two corporate charters â a beer themed cruise on the Danube for a US client this autumn, with special visits to breweries, and a three-ship hire to Cologne for 300 staff and guests of a South American company.
Yap said: âUniworld is so successful with full charters because we have our own offices in Europe and we handle all aspects of cruise and shore operations ourselves, not through a third party.â
Belmond can also tailor a unique programme onboard and on shore, and leverages on its strong involvement in local community projects to bring a CSR angle to clientâs river cruise experience.
Said Franklin: âWe can arrange for companies to get involved in local community projects. Both our ships (in Asia â Belmond Road to Mandalay and Belmond Orcaella) have onboard doctors who are instrumental in planning these community projects, in particular, launching a clinic in 2010 for locals in Bagan to visit and be treated each time the ship is docked nearby.â
Pandaw is able to enhance itineraries by arranging âadditional events on the sun deck, lower-deck meeting room, on the sandbanks and in templesâ, said Zika.
While most corporate charters with Pandaw are for its shorter one- to four-night sailings between Mandalay and Bagan on the Ayeyarwady River and between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, Uniworldâs elaborate European sailings are being snapped up by corporate clients. Hot routes are seven-night sailings between Amsterdam and Basel, Passau and Budapest, and Avignon and Lyon, among others.
âThese cruises offer exciting and active shore excursions (that are balanced with time onboard), and corporate groups have many choices for special entertainment off the ship, such as concerts and visits to wineries and castles,â said Yap.
Day cruises work well for corporate events too. Geikie had a multi-level marketing client that held a product presentation and networking session for 80 people onboard a cruise down the Sarawak River. The four-hour event included dinner, entertainment and sight-seeing tour.
âIt broke the monotony of the three-day meeting and was a nice way to end the programme for the group,â she said.
K L Tan, general manager of Borneo Trails Tours & Travel, who has had requests from Asian and European clients for day cruises on the Klias River and Kinabatangan River in Sabah, said the activity allows delegates to see and learn about the native wildlife and local communities that live along river banks, and bring added value to a complete business itinerary.
Ryan Santos, meetings consultant with Rajah Travel Corp. in the Philippines, is presently promoting river cruises that last several hours and are part of a main itinerary. âThese include dinner cruises down Bangkokâs Chao Phraya River and down Tokyoâs Sumida River. We recently sent a group of 50 lawyers on a day cruise down Seine in Paris,â he said.
River cruises down Singapore River are hotting up too, said Linda Low, manager, strategic partnership and product marketing with Pacific World Singapore.
âThe Singapore River has a significant history and it bears witness to the progress of Singapore from a fishing village to a successful financial district. Our clients like to draw parallels between that story and the progress of their own business,â she said.
A tough sell for some
However, some event planners have found river cruises challenging to sell.
BCD Travelâs head of meetings and incentives, Karen Cheng, said security concerns have put corporate clients off river cruises. âMany companies have a policy that requires staff to travel in different groups,â she explained.
Some clients are also not biting, as they think there isnât much to do onboard river cruises.
âRiver cruises are not that popular in the Philippines because clients think (the ships) offer limited activities (and F&B) and sail down only a river in one destination unlike the big ocean liners,â shared Pinky Restrivera, assistant general manager of Adamâs Express Travel Corp, who added that the product is expensive too.
âFilipinos still prefer the experience in big ships over river cruises. But give it time and river cruises will be the choice for clients that have already experienced (an ocean cruise),â opined Jennifer Alivio, general manager of Sun and Moon Travel & Tours.
Rudiana, director of sales and marketing with WITA Tour Indonesia, said river cruises appeal to a âvery niche market which isnât growingâ for her company and clients arenât keen as âIndonesians get bored easilyâ.
MICE agents also pointed out that the lengthy duration of river cruises poses another obstacle in pushing the product to time-sensitive corporate groups, especially when the operator is unable to customise shorter sailings for private charters.
Andrew Koh, director of event management, Events Architects, who has done numerous events on river cruises, most of which were for 30 to 100 C-level executives, said river cruises today must also vie for corporate attention with âmany other options that provide equally fun and engaging ways to explore the cityâ.
Belmond Management has a global collection of 46 iconic hotels, trains andÂ river cruises in 22 countries. Its river cruise business covers France and Myanmar.
In France, the Belmond Afloat in France barge takes passengers through the countryâs canals and rivers, exploring areas such as Avignon, Lyon, BĂŠziers and Gissey-sur-Ouche. Journeys last seven days/six nights.
In Asia, Belmond is said to be the pioneer of luxury river cruises to Myanmar, through the launch of Belmond Road to Mandalay in 1996. The ship is equipped with a pool on the observation deck, the alfresco Bar & Grill Restaurant, The Bar, a spa and a boutique, as well as cabins and a suite.
Over the last 20 years, the company has explored the Ayeyarwady River and successfully developed a strong local presence with the local communities along the watercourse.
In 2013, it launched Belmond Orcaella, a vessel with a slimmer draft that enables it to reach lesser explored parts of Myanmar. Belmond Orcaella runs some longer and more immersive cruises along the Chindwin River to the foothills of the Himalayas. The ship offers cabins and suites for accommodation, a sun-deck area, lounge bar and swimming pool on the observation deck, a restaurant, a spa, a library and a boutique.
The cruise experience may be enhanced with a stay at the Belmond Governorâs Residence, a colonial building set in lush tropical gardens.
Belmond is able to tailor the itinerary and experience for every corporate hire, and clients are supported by Belmondâs tours department which comprises a team of expert guides based in Yangon. Belmondâs close connection with the local people has also enabled the company to help its clients get involved in community projects.
Recent corporate hires:
A client from the healthcare industry chartered both Belmond Road to Mandalay and Belmond Orcaella to travel together along the Ayeyarwady river, from Bagan to Mandalay on a four-night cruise. In addition to the standard four-night itinerary, Belmond arranged a full-day tour in Bagan, a visit to the village of Mingun in the pagoda-topped hills of Sagaing, and a tour of Mandalay.
SR Equatorial owns and manages the MV Equatorial which cruises along the Sarawak River. Built in 1990, the 36m by 6m ship can take up to 140 passengers and its facilities include an air-conditioned dining lounge in the lower deck.
A daily 90-minute sunset cruise leaves the Kuching Waterfront Pier at 17.30. Light refreshments are served onboard while a staff provides a commentary in English about the river and the historical buildings along the banks. Local dancers entertain guests with traditional performances unique to the state of Sarawak. The ship returns to pier at around 18.30, as the setting sun begins to slip behind Mount Serapi.
MV Equatorial is available for private charters along the Sarawak River. On request, SR Equatorial provides catering packages featuring local and western cuisine for high tea and dinner.
Recent corporate hires:
The Construction Industry Development Board Malaysia hosted a two-hour meeting and dinner onboard MV Equatorial for 70 people, while The Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia chartered the ship for 90 minutes, putting up a dinner cruise for 40 guests.
A product of Alila Hotels and Resorts, the 46m-long Alila Purnama is a luxurious handcrafted Phinisi ship with five suites to accommodate up to 10 guests, a library, a lounge, a bar, an indoor dining area and plenty of outdoor spaces to unwind and enjoy the views. It even has its own fully-licensed PADI dive centre onboard. Alila Purnama is supported by a 16-man crew and a spa therapist.
Its expeditions are concentrated around two regions within Indonesia â Komodo National Park and Raja Ampat islands â and last seven days/six nights.
Year-round private charters are available for jaunts lasting at least four days, and the itinerary can be tailored to clientâs needs. The ship is equipped with Wi-Fi and the facilities onboard can support business gatherings. The indoor lounge, for instance, can host meetings.
Recent corporate hires:
Alila Purnama hosted a 10-pax executive meeting over a five-day/four-night sailing in Komodo National Park. For recreation, the group took part in unlimited water activities and dives, shore excursions and enjoyed a group dinner under the stars on one of the many enchanting islands.
A company with roots dating back to 1865, Pandaw specialises in river cruises that explore remote and often difficult-to-navigate rivers and coastlines.
It has a fleet of 16 luxurious ships, all boasting the highest passenger-to-deck space ratio of any cruise ships. Built by traditional craftsmen and finished in brass and teak, the ships exude a strong colonial character and feature facilities such as a spacious promenade deck where passengers can socialise and enjoy the sights, beautiful staterooms, an air-conditioned dining room that is supported by a local master chef and an experienced culinary team and a library,Â among others. Beneath its elegant exterior, Pandawâs ships are hardy and capable of travelling to remote areas that are usually unreachable by other vessels.
Private charters are available and Pandaw can customise an itinerary for the client, working in group activities onboard and on shore. Pandawâs largest ship can take 60 guests for overnight cruises. Charter prices are subject to route, season and size of the ship.
Recent corporate hires:
Pandaw had corporate groups chartering its ships for two-night sailings from Mandalay to Bagan, with programmes including lectures in the meeting room, presentations on the sundeck, cocktails on the sand bank and private dinners on temple grounds.
Operated through The J Team DMC, Yakatabune Funasei has a fleet of seven traditional yakatabune boats which are low, flat-roofed vessels. They ply the Suminda River and the waterways around Tokyo Bay.
The largest vessel in the fleet can seat 120 people on tatami-mat floors for meals and entertainment, while the smallest is suitable for 20 guests.
The J Team DMC believes that exclusivity is key and is able to work with the client to produce a customised entertainment and dining menu. It can also help to secure boats in the busiest times of the year, such as during the cherry blossom season in spring and the fireworks festival in summer. A typical private hire will last around three hours and see the boat passing beneath low bridges that span the Sumida River before reaching the Asakusa district of Tokyo, famous for the Senso-ji Temple and the eye-catching headquarters of Asahi Beer.
Finally, the boat will anchor off Daiba, the waterfront district of Tokyo Bay, for guests to enjoy a meal and entertainment which can include performances by geishas or illusionists, enka singing, and the ever-popular karaoke.
Recent corporate hires:
An evening event for 70 sales employees of a global pharmaceutical company onboard the Kagoya Hime, the largest vessel in Yakatabune Funaseiâs fleet. Entertainment included table-side performances by a Japanese illutionist and karaoke.
Operating for over four decades, Uniworld offers a wide selection of river cruises that covers some of the most spectacular destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia onboard beautiful ships that have been hailed by fans as being attractions in their own right.
Uniworldâs scheduled sailings can run from seven nights to 26 days in Europe and 11 to 18 days in Asia, while its Egypt course lasts 12 days.
Its extensive fleet of ships include SS Catherine, the companyâs first Super Ship which features 64 lavish staterooms, nine suites, sun deck, spa, well-equipped fitness centre, restaurant, lounge with full-service bar and other facilities; and the SS Maria Theresa, a regal vessel with an opulent 18th-century dĂŠcor, 63 staterooms, 11 suites, restaurant, lounge, well-equipped wellness facilities and more. These two ships are said to be especially popular with corporate charters, as their facilities provide varied options for private gatherings.
From top: The Douro Valley in Portugal; the sleek SS Catherine
Uniworld ships can all be privately hired and itineraries can be customised. Besides offering an exquisite environment for business events, Uniworld boasts the highest staff-to-guest ratio, an immaculate service reputation and award-winning dining experiences. Corporate event planners will also appreciate Uniworldâs all-inclusive arrangement, which means drinks, including premium brands of spirits, beers and wines, as well as gratuities to shipâs staff, local guides and drivers are included in the fee throughout the trip.
Uniworld is also able to arrange special land programmes and themed events onboard for clients.
Recent corporate hires:
The most recent corporate hire was by a financial company based in South America. It chartered three ships to accommodate more than 300 employees and guests who will arrive in Cologne on the same day for an important event. To make all passengers feel at home, Uniworld arranged for Spanish-speaking cruise managers and local guides onboard the three ships, and provided communication materials, daily programme sheets and menus in Spanish.