Q&A with European Waterways’ President

European Waterways' Panache barge cruising in Alsace.
European Waterways’ Panache barge cruising in Alsace.

Recommend had a chance to chat with European Waterways’ president, John Wood-Dow, about the growth of barge cruising and why this intimate way to travel through Europe’s canals (with only a handful of passengers) is for clients seeking a different kind of travel experience.

Deserae del Campo (DC): Tell us about barge cruising?

John Wood-Dow (JWD): The buzzword these days is experiential travel, and in fact, we’ve been doing that for at least 40 years now. It’s very personal, very intimate and boutique—we call it a floating house party concept where you really spend the time over a week to do a slow-boat cruise through regions with lots of culture and history; enjoying the food, the gastronomy and the experiences. We know most of our clients are very sophisticated travelers who have done Paris and London, so we give them an experience that they wouldn’t have done before and will be truly memorable when they get home.

DC: How many passengers can sail on a barge?
JWD: Our barges can accommodate between eight and 12 passengers, which gives us a flexible platform to be able to create an experience to what people are really looking for. These days just about half of our business comes from whole-boat charters because people just love having the private space. A group of 12 friends, or a multigenerational family group can take the barge for themselves; there are not many cruise options where you can have that private space on board, and I think that explains why although barging isn’t very well known it’s certainly picking up in the American market in terms of interest.

We’ve got 18 vessels in our fleet with a crew of five or six on board. There is the captain who is responsible for navigation, but who is also the primary host; a very upscale chef; and a tour guide who takes you on an excursion to see a castle or visit a vineyard, for example.

DC: How long are the barge cruises with European Waterways and what are the rates?
JWD: Our cruises are normally six nights, from a Sunday afternoon to a Saturday morning. Our barge cruises are all-inclusive—food, wine, excursions, transfers, open bar, everything really except for gratuity. I think a 6-day cruise gives passengers enough time to relax and soak up the experience. Rates vary a bit, but we would say the experience should be the same overall; the one thing that varies a bit is the size of the cabin, so we would say about $5,000 pp is the fairly average price and that can go up to about $7,000 for really big cabins. We tell clients that the experience is really what’s outside the cabin, from meeting other guests to soaking up the whole experience of cruising a canal.

DC: So what’s new for European Waterways this year?
JWD: We have been upgrading our fleet, so we’ll be spending about $600,000 on the fleet upgrades this winter, which includes a complete overhaul of the interior designs across the fleet. We have a few new themed cruises as well. For example, we are introducing an opera cruise with live opera performances offshore: passengers will also visit opera houses, and we’re inviting a small group of opera singers to perform on board. We are also doing some departures in the spring that include commemorative cruises for WWI, so we’ll be cruising through northern France, and some of the barges cruise right through the battlefields.

In 2016, we’ll be launching the latest vessel in our fleet, Finesse. She will be an ultra-deluxe luxury vessel for eight passengers, but very big cabins for a barge at about 260 sq. ft. The vessel will be taking passengers on board in May of next year, and she’s already in the shipyard being transformed because all of our barges are originally cargo barges with a history of 50 to 100 years as a cargo barge; they have all been fully transformed to deluxe passenger accommodations.

DC: Have you seen an uptick in U.S. travelers cruising with European Waterways?
JWD: In the last three years we have seen a 10 percent growth in passenger numbers coming out of the U.S.—the U.S. is our biggest source market.

DC: What advice would you give U.S. travel agents on how to sell this product to their clients?
JWD: I would tell the travel agent that although barging is a very small industry we are by far the biggest operator there with 18 vessels; we now have a U.S.-based representative, part of our sales team, based in Florida, so it’s very easy if they want to talk to us to call our (800) number for advice. We also have an online reservations system for any agent to reserve space 24/7 and that would give us five or six days to work out the best package for their clients. We also have a huge library of videos online and I recommend any agent to see our website and videos to help them articulate what is barge cruising.

For more information about European Waterways, visit gobarging.com.