New River Cruise Product in Southeast Asia with Haimark Ltd.

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Superior Suite on the Mekong Navigator.
Superior Suite on the Mekong Navigator.

If you sell river cruising in Southeast Asia and Haimark Ltd is not on your radar, then read on because this is one company you are going to want to be dialing up if you have clients interested in taking a voyage on Southeast Asia’s most mesmerizing rivers—the Mekong through Cambodia and Vietnam and the Irrawaddy in Burma—plus the Ganges in India.

Our editor-in-chief, Paloma Villaverde de Rico, had a chance to speak with Tom Markwell, the managing partner, sales & marketing, for Haimark Ltd. Markwell spoke about the launch of the company, including the company’s first ship, the Mekong Navigator, which will set sail on the Mekong in September 2014, and about how Haimark differentiates itself from the other companies selling river cruise itineraries in Southeast Asia.

Paloma Villaverde de Rico: Tell me a little bit about Haimark Ltd.

Tom Markwell: For a few years we [the partners who founded Haimark] were with Pandaw River [a river cruise company that sails on rivers throughout Southeast Asia], but then we left Pandaw, and since then we’ve been handling land arrangements for mainline U.S. tour operators, operating river cruise programs in Southeast Asia for Uniworld, Avalon. Then we just took off with regard to this river product, so ultimately by the end of 2015, we’ll have five vessels in Southeast Asia. We have three under construction right now, and another two that are pending contract that look like they are fairly firm; those will be deployed January 2015. Mekong Navigator is the first of our vessels to deploy, in September 2014.

PVR: What unique aspects does Haimark bring to the Asia river cruising landscape?

TM: Five years ago in Southeast Asia, things started out in a very expeditionary form. It was still rough and rugged and you were on the cutting edge, and now all of the mainline U.S. operators are there, so the product on the Mekong has really matured. The expectations of travelers on the Mekong are very similar to the expectations they have on European vessels. So what sets us apart from the bulk of the other companies operating on the Mekong is that we’ve really matched those European services.

PVR: The Mekong Navigator looks stunning.

TM: It’s a great ship because a lot of people who are putting ships on the Mekong, they want it to look like a European product, but we want it to look like we belong on the Mekong River, although we want to provide the same service standards offered on European rivers. It’s a good marriage, because right now you have very European-style ships coming on to the river and they look out of place, they look awkward. So the Mekong Navigator offers a French colonial look, which makes sense considering that Vietnam and Cambodia were French colonies. We’ve kept that flavor and that’s a very romantic flavor that people usually anticipate when traveling to these destinations. So we wanted to embody that and then bring on all these comforts that they would expect from a product on the Rhine or the Danube.

Le Salon Lounge on the Mekong Navigator.
Le Salon Lounge on the Mekong Navigator.

PVR: Can you elaborate on the amenities, etc.

TM: The reason we’ve coined this an all-suite vessel is because when you look at the average sq. footage in the European product, you are probably looking at them averaging around 170 sq. ft. in a standard cabin. Our lead-in cabins start at 258 sq. ft. and they go all the way to 545 sq. ft., so these cabins are huge for a river product. The square footage is the first thing we want to highlight because that gives people so much more living space than what they are accustomed to on the Mekong. Beyond that, look at the amenities such as 500 thread-count sheets, a pillow menu with seven different types of pillows…when you come into your cabin there’s fresh fruit, fresh flowers, the whole ship is wireless. All of these things play into elevating the experience that guests can encounter on a river in Southeast Asia.

PVR: What are the average rates?

TM: The lead-in rate for 2014 for the 258-sq.-ft. cabin is $1,998 per person. We are about $800 less pp on average than let’s say an AMA product. I think the important thing on any river product as it matures and as there is competition, it’s one thing to provide quality product, but the other thing is how much is it costing the client and are they getting value in return for their dollar. So we’ve been very careful not only to manage our lead-in price, but also the step-ups between categories, making sure that if the superior is not available and your clients have to book the Vista category, that we are not going to jump up $1,000 pp. We are only going up $400. We feel very good about our price points.

Regarding our commissions for travel agents, we offer up to 25 percent commission on groups. So we are really very aggressive because we recognize that this type of product is not one that travelers will book independently. They are going to go to a travel professional because they need guidance and they need educating, so with that in mind we have to be closely aligned with the travel agent community.

PVR: What does the $1,998 rate include?

TM: Transportation to and from the ship, from Ho Chi Minh City; all sightseeing; listening devices while on tour; one local guide per 22 guests—we have a good guide-to-guest ratio—plus accommodations, meals, beverages (coffee, water, tea, local beer, local spirits) and wine with dinner is free flow, so very inclusive. The Grande and Prestige suites, they’ll receive free laundry, butler service, and a 1-hour complimentary spa treatment.

PVR: What is the average duration of the itineraries?

TM: The cruise itself is seven nights. Typically, when people buy our pre and post land programs it stretches out to a 14-night program in total, however the way we’ve structured it, they can buy cruise only and they can tailor their land program around that however they wish. Or, they can buy our pre and post land programs to build an inclusive product from A to Z. Additionally, travel agents need to know that our reservations system goes live June 30. Travel agents can go online, build a login and select cabins, can book pre and post land, private transfers, all of that comes into play on June 30.

PVR: Why do you think Asia river cruising is so popular?

TM: It’s continued from the time the AMAs, the Vikings, the Uniworlds came on; it kind of brought it to the attention of the mainline river cruise audience. I think that as these baby boomers continued to experience the product with these river cruise companies in Europe, they were also looking for things that were a bit more exotic. Once they’d done the Rhine, the Danube, let’s say the Volga in Russia, they wanted to stretch their arms a little bit, and wanted to experience something beyond Europe.

With that, these people are migrating from Europe and now they are coming here. Keep in mind, the Mekong is not typically going to be a traveler’s first river cruise experience. This is for very seasoned river cruisers; they’ve done the products many, many times. So when they come to Southeast Asia, they are looking for something very different, very fresh. The Mekong has been the first one that entered the market for folks, and based on that they kind of just want more. So that’s the reason we’ve moved and developed into Burma so quickly and ultimately into India on the Ganges River. The typical river cruiser that these mainline companies market to is going to definitely evolve over the next few years. We see it happening already, as they continue to look for new and more exotic places.

Grande Suite on the Mekong Navigator.
Grande Suite on the Mekong Navigator.

PVR: Do you think the passengers are starting to get a little younger?

TM: I do see more young people, and I definitely see my age [40s] on board. Every once in a while, I’ll see people with their children on board because, of course, family travel is strong and they are traveling everywhere, not just to Europe. However, I do find that right now it does tend to lean older because these people have been cruising for many years, whereas someone in their 40s might not have done so many cruises yet.

PVR: What about airfares to Asia?

TM: Everyone thinks, “Oh my god, Asia, it’s going to be so expensive.” It’s a long flight, but what you are getting from this long flight, what you are paying for is such a great value. I just flew Chicago to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, roundtrip, I paid $1,200. I pay more than that to go to Paris in August. There’s a perception that it’s going to be super expensive, but I think that’s falling by the wayside. There’s just great airlift to Southeast Asia.

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