The Foreign Office’s advice against cruising may have cast doubt over Rivera Travel’s return to the rivers this summer, but despite the setback, new trade chief Stuart Milan is certain of his plan for agents.
Having joined the river cruise and escorted tour operator in late February, he describes his first five months in the job as “a hit-the-ground-running scenario”.
As Riviera’s channel director, Milan overseas agency sales, its Burton-based call centre and international markets in Australia, Ireland and the US.
With a company restructure drawing to conclusion and refunding back to within 14 days – Milan admits the company was caught “a bit on the back foot” at the start of the crisis – Riviera’s efforts are now being focused on the future.
An important milestone came last week with the brand’s trade sales team coming back to work part-time and the appointment of a new assistant business development manager.
“I want to boost our exposure and sales through agents in a fairly considerably fashion over the next few years,” says Milan.“In the new structure we’ve put more resource into the front line of our trade sales team to show our intent going forward.
“We think we’ve potentially undervalued agents in the past but that’s not the case now and we’re really looking forward to getting back out there.”
Having originally sold through national newspaper offers, Rivera began working with the trade in 2012, although the company is “still very much an understated brand” among agents, Milan believes. “I want to make sure we become the go-to product for both tours and river cruises.”
To change things, Milan intends to invest in Riviera’s agent relationships and strengthen (appropriately, given in the circumstances) its digital training, creating more video content to compliment in-store meetings, which will inevitably be less frequent.
“It’s a great opportunity to stop, think and reassess what we’re doing and really push the boundaries in terms of digital thinking when it comes to training.
“The team are really eager and keen to see as many people as they can but they’re also of the understanding that we need to change our way of working.”
However, that is not to say the only way to experience Riviera’s product will be via a Zoom call.
With guest levels likely to be lower than in previous years, Milan believes it’s “prime time” to get agents onboard ships when FCO advice enables.
Riviera may even run agent-only fam cruises next summer, he predicts. When that return to cruising comes however, remains to be seen. The operator had been considering a September restart.
“We were in the process of working through a sensible approach to starting holidays again, sooner rather than later,” he explains in light of the FCO change.
“We will only operate if we can assure ourselves that our customers’ holiday experiences will be every bit as good as they expect it to be, which includes being safe and secure.
(TTG’s Face To Face was recorded prior to the FCO’s updated cruise advice).
“Our river cruises are actually designed to be a bit more spacious than some of our competitors, so cruises are naturally more suited to social distancing in public areas.”
Despite the uncertainty for the cruise sector, he reports positive demand for Europe’s rivers in 2021 from spring all the way through to the autumn. “It’s new business on the Danube, Rhone, Rhine and Douro - which is pleasing to see.”
As Riviera develops its future health and hygiene protocols, Milan says the trade will play a part in shaping that, after reaching out to “key agents” for their initial feedback.
“Do they think it’s the right approach and do they feel comfortable in selling it? We are going to have to go down a whole training programme with agents about what the customer experience is going to be like,” Milan says.
“Everything’s so fluid and [the situation] might be completely different in a few weeks’ time. We want to get the right information to agents at the right time once we know where and when we’re operating.”
It seems whatever the coming weeks and months may hold, Riviera’s focus on its trade partnerships will be unwavering. And there’s plenty of scope for growth as the industry looks to build back business.
Milan says agent sales for Rivera are currently “in the teens” but he hopes: “in two or three years time making it a third of our business.”
"The trade has supported us and they still do a significant amount of business. It’s now about how to we really start to help them push us further. That works both ways – they’re going to need more us and we’re going to need them, and I’m looking forward to going on that journey."