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Think you know Kristin Karst, think again…

There’s more to Kristin Karst, executive v.p. and co-owner of AmaWaterways, than meets the eye, so we decided to ask her those comical, personal and telling questions to reveal the woman behind the suit.

In 2002, Kristin, her husband and president of AmaWaterways Rudi Schreiner and travel entrepreneur Jimmy Murphy founded an innovative river cruise line that would, in 14 years, help set the standard for modern river cruising. Although life wasn’t always easy sailing for Kristin, who grew up during the communist period in East Germany, her parents instilled in her an early appreciation for travel and the discover of different people, languages and cultures.

Still, Kristin thought she would become doctor and began volunteering at a local hospital before soon realizing that she was too squeamish for the medical profession. At her next job with a government travel agency, Kristin found herself writing airline tickets by hand to exotic destinations—planting the seed for what would become her life’s calling. It would take a lot of hard work and moxy before Kristin would be accepted into the competitive international tourism program at the University of Transport and Communication in Dresden, but she was, and as they say, the rest is history.

These days, Kristin is traveling the world bringing back unique experiences for her clients. Even her honeymoon has served for inspiration for a new program with AmaWaterways. Just how dedicated is Kristin to her work? We’ll let her explain in this installment of our Coffee Time With Industry Vets Q&A series.

Where did you go on your first trip and how old were you?
Having grown up during the communist period in East Germany, there were many restrictions that made travel a very special opportunity. My first flight was when I was 9 years old. My parents took my brother and me for a 2-week vacation hiking in the Caucasus Mountains and exploring and relaxing in the coastal resort town of Sochi. My mother was a Russian language teacher and it was very important to her that we get exposure to different languages and cultures at a very early age. This was my first experience flying—it was with Aeroflot and to this day I have such vivid memories of the airport experience—it was pretty chaotic by today’s standards as we were surrounded by such an assortment of people, and even chickens in cages, waiting to board the planes.

Travel, relative to salary levels in East Germany, was very expensive. However, my parents instilled in my brother and me how important and valuable travel was and we decided to earn extra money to contribute to our trips. We became very young entrepreneurs and set off to earn money by recycling paper products and selling our fresh garden vegetables to our neighbors in much the same way that American children set up lemonade stands to earn pocket money.

From this first experience, I fell in love with travel but I also learned to appreciate the cost of travel and how meaningful it is when you work very hard to save money to pay for your travel experiences.

My parents continued to organize family trips every other year allowing us to gradually discover the people, languages and cultures of many other Eastern European countries.

Kristin at the Opportunities and Development thru Art (ODA) Free Village English School in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Kristin at the Opportunities and Development thru Art (ODA) Free Village English School in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

What is your most vivid travel memory?
My most vivid memories revolve around the interesting local people encountered during my travels rather than the spectacular scenery or UNESCO sites that I have been fortunate enough to visit. Probably the most vivid travel memories come from the time spent with the Cambodian children while travelling on my very first Mekong trip. What left a lasting impression on me was how joyful the children seemed despite living in what we, in the western world, would consider as very basic living conditions. They had so very little and yet they took great pleasure in playing, singing and dancing together and being given the opportunity to attend school and learn English. The interaction I had with these children led to our decision to have AmaWaterways assist financially with the Opportunities and Development thru Art (ODA) Free Village English School in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which now runs a total of seven after-school English language instruction schools in the Siem Reap area. I never miss an opportunity to visit one of the schools and spend some time with the children whenever I am in Cambodia.

What was the “Aha” moment that led you into the travel industry?
I was a good student so my parents wanted me to become a doctor. At the age of 14, I started to do volunteer work at a local hospital to see if I was passionate about the medical profession. While I enjoyed assisting the nurses with the basic care of the patients, I soon realized that I was too squeamish to watch any procedure involving needles, which did not bode well for a career as a doctor!

My next work experience was with the government travel agency, which at the time also included the East German national airline Interflug. There I found myself writing airline tickets by hand to exotic destinations like Bombay and Shanghai and I started dreaming about visiting those places myself one day. I think looking up maps and daydreaming about what it must be like to visit these strange far away countries made me decide that working in the international travel industry was perhaps my calling.

At that time only about 10 people per year were chosen to study International Tourism at the University of Transport and Communication in Dresden so I knew I had to do everything possible to be chosen. Only earning good grades wouldn’t be enough. I had to show my commitment by working in the field and getting as many letters of recommendation as possible. I was very proud when I was finally accepted into this program of study.

In Eastern Germany all students have a gap year before entering secondary education. Boys were required to do military service, while girls had to work in the field where they had been chosen to continue their studies. I guided travel groups to the Ukraine that year, which turned out to be a period of great turmoil in the former Soviet Union. A lot of unexpected situations popped up, which helped me to develop important people management and problem-solving skills.

Upon completing my Economics of Tourism & Business Management degree, as well as a Master of Business Administration from the University of Dresden, I was very fortunate to have been recruited immediately by Amex and as such began my career in international tourism.

Kristin and her husband Rudi in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Where did you go on your honeymoon?
When Rudi and I were married in 2011, I told him that I wanted our honeymoon to be somewhere totally different and in order for us both to relax, it had to be away from “rivers.” I was very excited to go to Africa and didn’t realize that Rudi actually sneaked in a 2-night cruise-safari on the Zambezi Queen on the Chobe river. I was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting and the closeness that the ship brought us to the wildlife on the banks of the river. One evening at sunset, after watching the elephants and their babies frolic in the calm waters around us, I insisted that Rudi find a way to make this experience available to all our guests. For me, the 2-night program was not long enough and luckily, we were able to convince the ship owners to change their program and put together a 4-day program on the river to which we added very special safari experiences. While a relatively small part of our river cruise business, the Zambezi Queen African Cruise and Safari program is very special to both Rudi and I and it adds a little spice to our portfolio of river cruises.

What was your favorite trip you took last year and why?
The Ayeyarwady river cruise I took in Myanmar was perhaps my most favorite trip in the past couple of years. Myanmar is a country just opening up to travelers and all the visits to the sites and interaction with the local people feel so remarkably authentic—particularly stunning is the first stretch of the cruise between Yangon and Bagan.

Where would you like to go that you have yet to visit?
From a river perspective, I would love to explore Borneo and Papua New Guinea. Other parts of the world that seem to be calling out to me these days are Iceland and the Northern Territory of Australia.

Do you always buy a souvenir the first time you visit a destination?
Both Rudi and I are drawn to local art during our travels. We love to buy paintings and carvings that we fondly display in our home and in the office. We have about 24 paintings of all different sizes from local artists in Myanmar.

You can tell us – do you collect magnets from the destinations you’ve visited?
No – not at all!

What do you do to pass the time on the plane ride to your destination?
I do have a bit of a ritual onboard our longer flights to Europe and Asia – before the meal I like to enjoy a glass of champagne and spend the first hour or so answering emails or reviewing our guest feedback reports. I’ll then eat a light meal and enjoy a couple of movies as I never have a chance to watch TV or go to the movie theaters anymore. While I like to relax, and think quietly about new ideas, I have also been known to sell a river cruise to whomever happens to be seated next to me on a flight!

Who is your favorite travel companion?
Obviously, I cherish the times that Rudi and I get to travel together but I also love to travel with my daughter Isabel. Our trips together give me the unique opportunity to see the world through a young adult’s eyes and helps me to better understand what our younger clients value most when traveling.

Kirstin, her husband and the AmaWaterways staff.
Kristin, her husband and the AmaWaterways staff.

If there were one hotel room in the world you could call home the rest of your life, which would it be?
That’s an easy one… any stateroom on our ships. They really are my home away from home. I must admit that I love being pampered onboard like every guest who sails with us.

What is the best food you’ve had on a trip?
I love the quality and variety of our new tasting menu in The Chef’s Table restaurants onboard our European ships. The three different items per course show such creativity and you get to experience such a wide range of different dishes without feeling stuffed at the end of the meal.

The strangest food I’ve eaten?
Worms and fried tarantula—the latter I have to admit I couldn’t actually swallow.

What can’t you travel without?
Chargers for my computer and iPhone, photos of our three children (Julie, Jake and Isabel) and a few AmaWaterways brochures! I once did a 5-week trip to India and Myanmar with only one carry on suitcase but I have to admit I like having a choice of comfortable dresses plus shoes and boots and workout clothes so I usually have to resort to check in baggage.

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
I had a very spiritual meeting in one of the orphanages we visited in Myanmar where I received a blessing from their oldest nun—she was certainly over 100 years of age. There was something very special about that encounter that left me touched and grateful for the opportunity to share a few moments with her.

One time I sat beside the actor Christoph Waltz (“Water for Elephants”) on a flight and I found him to be very personable and humble and I very much enjoyed our conversation, which covered a wide range of interesting subjects.

Kirstin making rice paper in Vietnam.
Kristin making rice paper in Vietnam.

Tropical beach or Snowy Mountain?
While I love the warm weather, I am not at all interested in just hanging out on a beach. I do love to spend two or three days in the tropics as long as I can go island exploring, do some yoga on the beach or go out snorkeling.

I’ve been snow skiing since I was three years old and I do still enjoy it, so I guess you would have to say that I like a little bit of both sun and snow.

City or countryside?
I always considered myself a big city girl but over the last couple of years I’ve started to develop a greater appreciation for the less stressful lifestyle of the countryside—under the condition, of course, that I still have convenient access to an airport! I love working and living in Calabasas and Malibu area as it feels like a small community, yet has access to big city amenities when I need them.