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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022
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Full Speed Ahead

River crusing is rising and Ama Waterways is going along for the ride. The Chatsworth company is set this season to launch its latest ship, the AmaVida, which will ply the waters of the Douro River Valley in Portgual. It’s just one of about half a dozen new ships the company has on order over the next two years. That kind of heady growth has caused the river cruise line to outgrow its offices. In May, Ama will move its headquarters to a 19,000-square-foot office on Mureau Road in Calabasas, nearly double the size of its current location. “Things are going well right now,” said Rudi Schreiner, a cruise industry veteran who is the company’s president and co-founder. “We’re at a point where we’re building ships and not worried about paying.” The 106-passenger AmaVida will feature an advanced eco-friendly design, incorporating photovoltaic solar panels on the sundeck to generate energy for its operating systems. But AmaWaterways’ vessels have plenty of competition on the river. Rival lines, including Viking River Cruises of Woodland Hills, also are experiencing rapid growth as river cruises lead an overall comeback for the cruise industry following the recession. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at CruiseCritic.com¸ a Pennington, N.J. consumer website that follows the industry, said river cruising is moving from a niche market reserved for older, wealthy travelers into a more popular form of vacationing. “It’s the most exciting and dynamic niche in the cruising industry,” she said. Double-digit growth Schreiner previously worked for Uniworld, an Encino river cruise subsidiary of Travel Corp. of London, and river cruising industry leader Viking. He founded Ama in 2002 with his wife Kristin Karst and Jimmy Murphy, co-founder of Brendan Vacations, a tour operating business that’s now a subsidiary of Travel Corp., before he sold his share of Brendan in 2001. The founders pooled their money and leased their first ship, the Symphony, in their inaugural year in business. The company grew with additional leases and didn’t build its first vessel, the AmaDagio, until 2006. Today, Ama operates 15 ships, 10 of which are owned, four leased and another partially owned. Gary Murphy, vice president of national accounts and son of co-founder Jimmy Murphy, said the sales at Ama have gone up steadily since the company started. “We are seeing double-digit growth each year,” he said. The company booked 1,300 passengers in its first year, Schreiner said. It will transport about 65,000 this year, and its ships are more 90 percent booked through the end of the year. An Ama river cruise can take a traveler anywhere from down the Danube River in Central Europe to the Mekong River of Vietnam and Cambodia. While the ships have typical cruise amenities such as gyms, travelers spend much of their time off the ship, and can even ride bicycles to visit ports. Sandra Badgley, a travel consultant at Montrose Travel, said she has seen about a third more calls this year about river cruises. Nonetheless, she said the price of a trip means the typical client is usually 55 years old and up. A 12-day cruise down the Danube from Prague to Budapest starts at roughly $2,200 per person. “For someone with an annual household income of $40,000, it just isn’t going to work,” she said. “It’s certainly becoming more popular. But it’s still a very little piece of the cruising market.” Schreiner would not release revenue but said it is on pace to be 65 percent higher this year. All aboardOne reason river cruises cost more is that the ships are small, which means fixed costs are spread among fewer passengers. But that also means river cruise lines have lower capital needs than their ocean-going cousins. Princess Cruises, a Santa Clarita-based division of Carnival Cruise Corp. & plc of Miami, is set debut a new ship this summer that will carry 3,500 passengers and wow them with all the latest advances – but at a cost of more than $750 million. Compare that to an Ama ship, which Schreiner said typically carries no more than 150 people and costs between $20 and $40 million. The AmaVida is being leased for an undisclosed amount from Portugese shipbuilder Douro Azul S.A. The lower cost has allowed Viking, the industry leader, to go ahead with a far more rapid expansion plan. The company, which operates about 35 ships, christened 10 new ships in one day last month. Viking, founded in 1997, serves Europe, Russia, China, South East Asia and Egypt. Murphy said the demand for Ama ships is outstripping the supply, but the company has decided to move more cautiously. “There are always rainy days and we like to have capital and retained earnings to navigate through those rainy days,” he said.

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