Leading a company is no mean feat in itself, but what happens when your co-founder is also your spouse? Tom Parry finds out from AmaWaterways’ Kristin Karst and Rudi Schreiner.
Some co-directors may act like married couples from time to time, but the duo leading AmaWaterways have the wedding photographs to back it up.
Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst met in California almost 19 years ago before eventually becoming a couple and launching the river cruise line together in 2002. They married in 2011.
“You just can’t say no to her. She said to me: ‘You better hire me, or…’” Schreiner widens his eyes in faux terror, recalling interviewing Karst for a role at Viking Cruises. “So you see, I had no choice but to hire her,” he adds, grinning at his wife.
“Rudi always likes to start these stories, but I like to have the last word,” retorts Karst.
I’m sat with the pair at The Henrietta Hotel in central London, aptly surrounded by fine wines and good food – a staple of AmaWaterways.
It may sound corny, but there really does seem to be love in the air – a fitting theme for a cruise line whose prefix “Ama” is derived from the Latin word for “love”. Karst and Schreiner also often refer to their staff and crew as their “Ama family”.
But an air of professionalism supersedes all of that – imperative, surely, for the company to have grown to a fleet of 23 ships, introducing a host of industry firsts along the way.
Schreiner – seen as a pioneer of the river cruise sector having launched operations for Uniworld and Viking over a three-decade career – is the one who “builds the ships”, while Karst, who previously held senior management roles within corporate travel at American Express, “fills them”.
Is it difficult to make tough business decisions with your husband/wife? I wonder aloud.
“We can be very stubborn when it comes to making big decisions,” admits Karst.
“You have to have the same values but different fields of expertise. It’s not always easy, but I do believe we have made something so beautiful that little arguments shouldn’t get in the way.”
With Vienna-born Schreiner growing up on the Danube, and Dresden native Karst taking her first boat trip on the Elbe aged just three, the pair have a genuine, deep affection for river travel.
“It’s in our blood,” Karst says. “My grandparents would take me [on the river] any time of year… my brother is 60 in June and he’s chartered a boat and is bringing everyone together to celebrate.”
Schreiner adds: “The Danube was a huge part of life. Fishing, swimming, snorkelling… we had huge catfish. You would snorkel down and they would be right in your face,” he recalls.
And AmaWaterways seems to be becoming an even bigger fish on the European waterways. Later this month, the Danube will welcome AmaMagna – twice the width of a traditional river vessel.
“You get to a point where you’re doing the same thing, especially in Europe, so you need something new – that’s where the AmaMagna came in,” Schreiner explains. “We have finally got to the point where we can dedicate a ship to a single river.”
The much-talked-about 24th addition to the fleet will see AmaWaterways offering space and features to rival some ocean ships.
“You have to keep up that excitement for yourself and the team,” says Karst. “So they’re proud to be part of this innovative river cruise line.”
Conversation soon turns to the first ships the pair first worked with.
In 1973, 21-year-old architecture student Schreiner and his friends planned a summer holiday driving to Afghanistan. The trio actually went even further – to Nepal – securing a grant from the Austrian Ministry of Education to study the Limbu people and even serialised their adventures in national newspaper the Kronen Zeitung.
“We were on the front page – the three of us sitting on a Volkswagen van in the Himalayas – they printed over a million issues,” he smiles.
Two years later, the group headed to Peru to study the Achuar tribe – negotiating the Amazon river onboard a homemade raft.
“This was my first ship,” he chuckles.
“We call it the start of river cruising,” Karst chips in with a laugh.
“I don’t,” clarifies Schreiner. “Just the people in marketing – they love that story!”
After a stint as an architect, Schreiner worked as a tour guide for American students in Europe, moving to the US and marrying his first wife in 1979.
“You have to keep up that excitement for yourself and the team, so they’re proud to be part of this innovative river cruise line”
Over the pond, he ran his own tour company – Student Tours International – from 1982-1990 before selling it off. Later, the Gulf War led to the closure of Schreiner’s second company Amadeus Tours International – note the name.
Schreiner later developed new products for Uniworld founder Serba Ilich. After he read an article in 1992 about the new Rhine-Main-Danube- Canal, Schreiner began work on itinerary planning and ship chartering contracts. The research led to expansion of the river market and saw Schreiner put together Uniworld’s first programmes a year later.
By 1997, looking for shipbuilders for Uniworld, Schreiner started working with Luftner Cruises, which would prove a fruitful venture.
“We signed a five-year contract and they built the ship, which I named Amadeus. Five years later, when we started our own company, Luftner built the Amadeus Symphony for us, so we named our line Amadeus Waterways.”
During this time, Karst had launched American Express in Dresden before managing its special groups division in Zurich. In 1999, she moved to California with her daughter and then-husband.
The following year would change everything for both her and Schreiner.
From Uniworld, Schreiner joined Viking as president in March 2000 to launch its operations. “I was employee number one, I still like that,” he muses.
Karst recalls: “I heard Rudi was opening Viking’s office and it just sounded so exciting. “I called and got an interview, and the rest is history.”
Schreiner explains: “It was more than a year before we became a couple. We spent a lot of time together.”
Karst adds: “There was a lot of passion talking about the river cruise business. You have all these dreams about what you can do, and you feel you can make them happen together.”
And that is what they did. Alongside business partner and friend Jimmy Murphy, founder of US tour operator Brendan Worldwide Vacations, they launched Amadeus Waterways – AmaWaterways’ first brand name – at midnight on 1 July 2002.
“My non-compete agreement with Viking expired on 30 June and, at midnight, I incorporated our company online,” Schreiner reveals.
Karst still remembers them sharing a desk, with her “cold calling” for business and handling sales and reservations during the day before creating marketing material in the evening.
Support from Brendan Worldwide Vacations and a strong focus on home-based agents in the US saw Amadeus Waterways grow.
“They [agents] appreciated us, and today we still have a lot of loyalty,” Karst states proudly.
“You have all these dreams about what you can do, and you feel you can make them happen together”
“It was the trust that we developed.”
In 2004, the down payment for the line’s first vessel followed an agreement between Schreiner and the Mantegazza family, owners of Globus.
“They wanted to buy us but I didn’t want to sell – we hammered out a deal in two days and they took a 30% stake in us, and us in Avalon Waterways [which was launched in 2004],” Schreiner tells me. “I helped them as a consultant.”
Globus sold its shares back to Schreiner and Karst two years later, allowing them to create their first custom-built ship, AmaDagio. In the same year Amadeus Waterways became AmaWaterways – following a dispute over its name.
Over the next decade AmaWaterways continued to innovate, becoming the first to put complimentary bikes onboard, now a popular feature for river lines.
In 2016, the line opened a UK office in Guildford, a move Karst says was “extremely important” to build its brand in the UK as it had done in the US.
With three ships launching this year – AmaDouro was christened in April and AmaMoura will follow AmaMagna – the couple claim the opportunities for AmaWaterways are endless.
“We are looking at all rivers but in some countries it Can be unpredictable. In Europe, it’s about enhancements – what can we do better?”
It seems Karst and Schreiner are as much in love with river cruising today as they were as children, and that has to be a recipe for success.
Schreiner took Karst on an African river cruise on their honeymoon. They loved the ship so much they added it to the AmaWaterways programme.
Both Karst and Schreiner are drawn to local art during their travels. They buy paintings and carvings which they display in their home and office.
Karst loves to travel with her daughter, Isabel: “Our trips together give me the unique opportunity to see the world through a young adult’s eyes.”
One of Karst’s favourite places on AmaWaterways’ ships are the sun decks.
2019 marks 17 years in the river cruise business for AmaWaterways, and will see the launch of three new ships.
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