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Q&A: How Crystal River Cruises keeps luxury, innovation afloat

(Image credit: (Crystal Cruises))

This post is sponsored by Crystal Cruises.

The travel industry is constantly evolving, and the cruise industry — specifically, the river cruise industry — has been keeping up the pace with unique new features on ships and innovative ways of thinking about the experience as a whole. In this interview, Crystal River Cruises’ Vice President and Managing Director Walter Littlejohn discusses what travel professionals should know about the river cruise industry and how it’s keeping travelers of the future in mind today.

River cruises aren’t new, but they seem to be experiencing a resurgence as of late. What accounts for that?

The industry has continued to grow and that’s mainly because people are seeking more intimate and authentic experiences. Our ships only carry 106 guests versus other river companies that carry nearly 200 guests. River cruising allows guests to become immersed in the culture and history of each port. In most instances, the distance between destinations along rivers is shorter, allowing for more time spent in port rather than cruising. Additionally, most destinations are extremely walkable, with the city center easily accessible on foot, allowing guests to fully take advantage of that city’s highlights and experience it on their terms.

Walter Littlejohn

Are river cruises really different from one another or are the brands mainly offering the same product?

There are many similarities, of course. Many lines operate behind-the-scenes for shoreside logistics in similar ways and often work with the same partner. However, whereas most river cruise companies approach their experiences with a tour operator mindset and plan for the guests as a whole, which often means that all guests have very similar experiences, Crystal has a hotelier mindset, running 5-star hotels that happens to float. With our different approach and philosophy of offering guests as many choices as possible to appeal to their individual wishes, we deliver a truly personalized travel experience for our guests. We emphasize our onboard experience first, with the highest guest-to-crew ratios in the industry, affording extraordinary personal attention for each guest.

With our different approach and philosophy of offering guests as many choices as possible to appeal to their individual wishes, we deliver a truly personalized travel experience for our guests. We emphasize our onboard experience first, with the highest guest-to-crew ratios in the industry, affording extraordinary personal attention for each guest. Other onboard choices and personalized services including open seating and multiple dining options, and private butler service for every suite tailor the journey even further. Ashore, our Crystal Collection of more than 225 curated destination experiences — most of them complimentary — present an unmatched selection of choices for discovery. These have all been carefully crafted to showcase the cultural authenticity and natural wonder of each destination, ranging from Cultural Discoveries and Tantalizing Gastronomy to Personal Connections and Exhilarating Adventures, allowing guests to tailor their time ashore to personal interests. Because we are Crystal, we also focus on intimate and exclusive experiences, like complimentary Signature Events on each voyage providing access to renowned venues, with live performances by world-class musicians. With lots of choices and smaller group numbers, our guests are able to experience each destination on personal terms.

Are you seeing a shift in the river cruise consumer; who are they now compared to 5-10 years ago? Do you expect them to evolve in another 5-10 years, and do you have plans to accommodate these predicted shifts?

Our river guests tend to be younger than our average Ocean voyage guests. While the average age for river is 58 years old, we also see many honeymooners and young families. We cater to groups and families by offering connecting rooms. Crystal Mozart is unique as we offer triples in every suite category, and a 2-bedroom suite.

In terms of the future, Crystal River Cruises’ ships are designed to exceed travelers’ wishes today and anticipate those of tomorrow. We completely refurbished the all-suite, all- butler service Crystal Mozart and have launched four brand new ships over the last two years – the first and only all-suite, all-balcony, all-butler service river ships on Europe’s rivers. These ships feature state of the art technology with free unlimited Wi-Fi, allowing guests to stream across all devices, as well as many other details that make the Crystal River Experience a completely streamlined and seamless one for our guests. Our commitment to offering as many choices as possible for travelers to make the voyage their own helps ensure that we naturally continually evolve to meet and anticipate guests’ preferences. I believe we have already considered the future in this way.

What are three things travel agents need to know or experience to successfully sell river cruises that they might not already know?

  1. Go on a river cruise. We offer travel partner fares and encourage travel agents to experience the Crystal difference for themselves.
  2. The idiosyncrasies of river cruises: There are many factors that can ruin a guest’s experience if not managed from the beginning. The water is a main factor as river cruising experiences both high and low water tides. This may cause a break in the planned itinerary as ships may not be able to sail due to water levels. Crystal has contingency plans in place for all such scenarios and with the comfort of having Crystal motor coaches that accompany each voyage, we are able to continue as planned with our shore excursions and city trips to the next destination. Another factor that many guests do not always anticipate is that river ships are docked side by side, causing guests to walk through one to two river ships as they head into the city. This, as well as the cobblestone streets of many destinations, is why we do not suggest river cruises to guests who are not able to walk on their own or arewheelchair-bound.
  3. Positioning of different brands: Not all brands are the same. The big differences are in the cuisine, onboard services and amenities. We offer locally sourced fresh ingredients on every sailing, amazing Michelin-inspired cuisine and open dining in up to three dining venues and unique all-inclusive amenities. Crystal’s private butlers attend to every suite — Crystal is the only true luxury brand in a sea of mass market or premium river brands.

What would you say are the most unique offerings on Crystal Cruise’s river cruises that draw travelers? Any innovative new developments on the horizon?

  • Michelin-inspired cuisine, using only fresh ingredients
  • Unregimented onboard atmosphere from our farm-to-table dining experience to port talks by regional and cultural experts.
  • Spacious accommodations (106 vs. 190 guest capacity; Crystal’s average suites are 40% larger, with walk-in closets and double-vanity bathrooms)

Walter Littlejohn serves as vice president and managing director of Crystal River Cruises, overseeing all aspects of the division including operations, sales and marketing, product development and finance. Littlejohn has a 30-year tenure in the travel industry spanning several executive and leadership roles. Prior to joining Crystal, Littlejohn served as a vice president with AmaWaterways, where he oversaw operational components including reservation sales, inventory management and customer relations. Littlejohn also possesses strong ties to the travel agent community, having co-founded his own agency, which he ran for 14 years, after his tenure in sales with Carnival Cruise Lines. Littlejohn earned his Bachelor of Science in Economics with competencies in Marketing and Multinational Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


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