Up Close With AmaWaterways: A Passion for River Cruising

Meeting of the Minds: Gary Murphy, Kristin Karst and Rudi Schreiner share a passion for river cruising. They are shown here in their expanding Calabasas, CA headquarters.

A new ship and plans to expand to India and beyond are just some of the strategies AmaWaterways has in the works. The river cruise company, which is co-owned by Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Gary Murphy, is now in its 15th year, with 20 ships in operation sailing Europe’s rivers, including the Danube, the Rhine and the Douro, as well as the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the Chobe River in Africa.

We caught up with the three executives recently to hear what’s on tap for the company’s expansion and to get an insider’s perspective on how it consistently innovates and enhances its high level of service.

We visited Schreiner and Karst in their Calabasas, CA headquarters, where they moved the company four years ago to accommodate a growing staff. The office, in a prestigious corporate corridor located just off the Ventura Freeway, at first occupied just the second floor, but it’s now taken over the first floor as well.

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Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, has been using his architectural training to oversee the remodeling, which includes the installation of a gym for the employees. The new space will also allow for future expansion, which seems quite likely considering the pace at which AmaWaterways is growing. At its inception, the river cruise company comprised Schreiner and Karst (the late Jimmy Murphy of Brendan Tours was also a cofounder), who took turns answering phones and operating the business from a small office in the building where Brendan was headquartered. It launched with one vessel in 2002 and now tops 20.

Things have changed since then. Just walk in to the lobby of their current space and you’ll be tempted to start counting the numerous trophies and plaques from publications and travel agent networks recognizing the company’s achievements. As you begin to count, however, you realize there are more and more awards everywhere you look and you’ll also be intrigued, as we were, by the sight of a training session taking place behind a glass door of the reception area. Training is serious at AmaWaterways; it takes two months before a new reservationist is allowed to get on the phone with a customer. Before that, it’s classes, classes and more classes and listening in on live calls to get the vibe of how AmaWaterways services its travel agent customers.

When we meet up with Kristin Karst, she takes us on a tour of each department, all filled with spacious cubicles adorned with the name of the resident employee and the number of years they’ve worked at the company. There’s a quiet buzz in reservations, as operators explain sailings and hotel programs to callers. We say hello to Melanie Wolstrup, the customer relations manager, who is busy answering letters that clients have written. “This is a very engaged group,” she tells us.

We pass through sales and marketing and meet with Jerre Fuqua, who was brought on last September as the chief marketing officer of the company. That’s a new position that aims to bring together the company’s strategic and tactical marketing teams to facilitate communications across all media channels. The travel trade is a big part of his focus. Fuqua has a strong background in luxury travel, having held leadership positions with Travcoa, TCS Expeditions, Intrav, International Expeditions and Country Walkers. He’s enjoying his new role at AmaWaterways. “There’s a huge entrepreneurial focus on innovation here to enhance the guest experience at every touchpoint. I’ve never seen a travel company that is so loved by guests. And I’ve never seen a travel company that is loved even more by the agent community,” Fuqua says.

Perhaps the most notable find on our tour was a wall that serves as a “toolbox” for the entire AmaWaterways team. On it are posts with tips on how to better sell cruises, as well as intel from travel advisors garnered by the reservationists. The toolbox is meant to encourage and give the team ownership, as is the inspirational “quote-of-the-day” program, which everyone contributes to, including cruise managers and members of AmaWaterways’ Basel office and its London branch, which just opened last September.

“Everyone can always contribute and be proud of it, and this way they take ownership,” says Karst, who has strong management experience in the travel arena.

She hails originally from Dresden, Germany, where she earned her Masters degree. When the Berlin Wall opened up in 1989, American Express moved in with an office and hired Karst. She grew to become the manager of the leisure department and was subsequently transferred to the larger Zurich office, which had multiple operations handling air, group and incentive travel for major corporations like IBM, Coca-Cola and Kaiser, as well as the new Platinum Card program. Karst moved within the company in 1999 to Southern California and joined up with Rudi Schreiner in 2000 when he opened Viking River Cruises. There, using her strong personal knowledge of Europe’s tourism offerings, she worked on tour planning, organizing shore excursions and onboard entertainment. When she transferred to sales, she managed groups and incentive travel and worked with tour operators and international markets to grow the line’s business.

On July 1, 2002, she, Schreiner and Jimmy Murphy launched what was then Amadeus Waterways, and evolved into AmaWaterways; along the way, Karst and Schreiner married.

Now, 15 years after the launch, Karst, who is EVP, clearly fills a lot of roles at the cruise line and is intent on ensuring that AmaWaterways’ team enjoys their workplace.

That starts at the hiring stage. “Passion, sparkle and flexibility” are the traits AmaWaterways looks for in prospects.

Kicking off the season: Schreiner and Karst recently led the annual cruise managers gathering on the AmaStella to discuss the year ahead, as well as guest trends and input.

“Important for us is attitude,” says Karst. “It’s the way they present themselves, the way we see that they care, the way they have big smiles, the way they think outside of the box. It’s the way they want to make it happen, and how they say, ‘yes,’ and it’s the way they think.”

That goes for the 46 cruise managers on the 20 ships, who are considered brand ambassadors for AmaWaterways. “It’s about the sparkle, the care, the flexibility and the attitude. That’s what we want them to reflect — that their heart, and the company’s, is in the right spot.”

It’s no surprise, then, to hear that “no,” is never an acceptable answer for a travel advisor or a guest.

“We always try to find a way to make it happen. It’s really about expectations. We always want to be the company that shows we are here for your customer. With this comes our success,” Karst adds.

A Visit With the President
The final destination on our AmaWaterways office tour is President Rudi Schreiner’s office, where a large map of Europe’s waterways framed in glass adorns one of the walls. It’s immediately obvious that Schreiner is intimately familiar with, and passionate about, the rivers and how they are linked.

He outlines how Europe’s maritime landscape changed dramatically when the Main-Danube Canal opened in 1992, connecting the major arteries on the continent. The canal was meant to open up cargo transportation throughout Europe, but it launched the river cruise industry as well, since it was now possible to sail long distances, say, from Amsterdam to Budapest and even beyond.

While he obviously loves the lure of river cruising to its core, Schreiner has his hand in virtually everything at AmaWaterways, overseeing operations, ship design and itinerary development. He was born and raised in Vienna, at the heart of the Danube River.

Schreiner invested heavily in his education and was a student for 13 years, studying architecture and anthropology. He was by all means an intrepid traveler from the start. Early road trips included driving from Vienna to Nepal, and later on, from New York to Peru and Panama. An early remarkable experience, he says, was spending seven months in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon.

He’s clearly someone who works with all sides of his brain, equally able to run a business as design a ship or create unique itineraries for seasoned cruisers.

At one point during our conversation, he goes to his desk and pulls out a tall, neat pile of ship draft plans for past projects. One ship floor plan has paper taped over one of the deck plans to indicate an amendment had been made. “This was for the connecting rooms we added for Disney,” Schreiner tells us, referring to the relationship AmaWaterways formed in 2015 with Adventures by Disney to provide programming for families traveling with kids and teens on select cruises. Part of the alliance included formatting staterooms and suites so they would connect to create accommodations for three- and four-person families.

While the programs are promoted by Adventures by Disney, the AmaWaterways branding and DNA remain very apparent to guests — a factor that was important to Schreiner — and today, the relationship continues to thrive. Sales opened in March for 2018, including sailings for special “Beauty and the Beast”-themed experiences along the Rhine, and epicurean-style experiences along both the Rhine and Danube Rivers.

Iconic Footprint
Today, Schreiner’s legacy in the industry is extensive; he’s held executive positions at most major international river cruise companies, playing a key role in launching their U.S. operations. In fact, when CLIA awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted him into the association’s Hall of Fame, they referred to him as the “Godfather of River Cruising.”

As such, AmaWaterways is a company of innovation, which has spawned unique amenities like bicycles that guests can use on a complimentary basis in each port to explore on their own, or to even ride to the next port of call should they choose.

Another unique twist was the invention of twin-balcony (French and outside balconies) staterooms to optimize the views of the passing scenery.

Bicycling along the Danube: AmaWaterways provides free bicycles so guests can explore on their own or in a group. The line is finding that travelers are more active these days.

Other standouts on AmaWaterways vessels include The Chef’s Table, which includes a multi-course tasting menu paired with regional wines at no additional cost. Other amenities? The sundeck has a running track and a heated pool with a swim-up bar; there’s free Wi-Fi throughout the ship and Entertainment-On-Demand systems in each room.

We learned from personal experience when cruising that the line’s complimentary wines during meals give it a competitive advantage. The selections vary each day, there’s no standard, free “house wine” that’s repeatedly served and many of them are purchased in port from local wineries along the rivers. And if the waiter happens to remember you particularly enjoyed the previous day’s selection, there’s a good chance he’ll find a glass for you if there’s more to be had.

All of these features and experiences will be available onboard the newest vessel, the AmaKristina, which will be christened during a special cruise from Basel to Amsterdam this month. Kristin Karst will be the godmother, the first time she has christened a ship.

The Energy of Innovation
Schreiner says he personally puts time aside simply to think about “stuff,” daydreaming about possibilities for the cruise line. Ideas also evolve from the annual sales meeting held each December, and an operations meeting in January for the cruise managers. “During that last meeting, we had a session that was all about creating ‘wow effects,’” says Schreiner.

He also maintains strong connections in Europe with port authority officials, mayors of the towns along the rivers, as well as the tourism offices, which keep him apprised of what’s happening. Schreiner also has made the trek to World Travel Mart in London annually since 1984, not as an exhibitor, but “because the whole world is there. Every country and every major tourist destination is there. It’s a creative environment, where you can find new things, hear new things and you meet people. You discuss things.”

His personal exploration of Europe never ends, either. He and Karst often visit towns along the rivers, exploring all the ports in the region in search of new land experiences to keep options fresh for repeat cruisers.

“The creative part is also probably for me the most fun,” says Schreiner. “From the ship construction to figuring out what we need onboard to what you can do on an itinerary, it’s always about seeing what’s new.”

More than ever, he’s looking beyond churches and museums and trying to provide more local opportunities that will allow guests to engage with the locals.

“That’s becoming more and more important,” notes Schreiner. “Land programs have changed tremendously over the last 20 years and they will continue to change. We will always be looking for what we call the ‘wow’ effects,” he adds.

Passage to India
Exploratory trips go beyond Europe’s borders. He and Karst just traveled to India to explore launching a river cruise on the lower Ganges, with Calcutta as the hub. That’s a program that’s been under consideration for six months. According to Schreiner, when AmaWaterways considers a new destination, they always visit with their potential partners and everyone involved in the partnership face-to-face. They did so in India and Schreiner says he and Karst felt very comfortable with the experience.

In India, they also visited several shipyards to meet with shipbuilders, and as a result, will go with a slightly longer ship than planned.

“It looks like it will be a go-ahead. I don’t want to pinpoint the time yet, but it looks it will start in the beginning of 2019,” Schreiner tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

The program will launch with one ship, but there may be more to come.

“This is a region where I can see good potential for future growth,” says Schreiner. That’s because India is looking more and more at resolving environmental issues, he says, which could spur future riverfront development and would, in turn, translate to dynamic new ports to visit.

India will be an exciting addition for AmaWaterways and with Schreiner constantly eyeing developments on rivers throughout the world, we can probably count on more exotic itineraries in the future.

“I always have pretty much all rivers in focus,” he tells us. He’s banking on the potential of China’s Lower Yangtze, which is also undergoing environmental cleanup.

“The Lower Yangtze has a lot of great cities, from Shanghai to up the river,” says Schreiner. “There are wonderful, wonderful old cities there, one after the next. There’s a lot of potential,” he explains. And while he says development could take years, it could be achieved more quickly if the Chinese government decides the country will switch from oil to cleaner electric fuel. “They are capable of doing that,” he observes.

Schreiner is also waiting to see how long it will take for Egypt to come back, as he’s not comfortable with the idea of sending U.S. passengers there at the moment. “But it’s always on my radar,” he notes.

Along the Rhine: New land tours are constantly being developed. Shown here is AmaSonata.

Russia is also always under consideration and Schreiner is in touch with shipbuilders, who are starting to build vessels in Astrakhan in Southern Russia. The city is on the Volga River, close to the Caspian Sea. That region could serve up some fascinating port options since the Volga is the longest river in Europe and the coastline of Caspian Sea includes Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Schreiner says he sees future interest perhaps from the European and North Russian market. “We’ll see how this progresses,” he says.

Dynamic Trio
Schreiner has been quoted as saying he’ll build the ships and it’s the responsibility of Murphy and Karst to fill them, but it’s clear the three co-owners of AmaWaterways are always working together to come up with new ideas.

“We live and breathe river cruising; it’s our 100 percent focus,” says Gary Murphy, vice president of sales. “For Rudi, Kristin, and I, that’s all we do. When we wake up each morning, we wake up thinking about river cruising.” 

The three also provide uniquely personal service; their cellphone numbers are printed on their business cards, so if a travel agent has a problem they have a direct line to each of them. “An agent once called me from a ship to say something wasn’t working quite right,” says Schreiner. “She called me again the next day, and she seemed quite surprised that everything had been fixed.”

It’s also not unusual to see one, or all three at travel agent conferences, doing it all, from networking to attending their booth.

The personal feeling translates onboard where the staff takes on the same genuine care for a guest. For example, a travel advisor once requested Hungarian wine be placed in their client’s room as a gift. When the client didn’t seem overwhelmingly delighted with it, the crew realized it wasn’t his favorite brand and a staff member took the train from Vienna back to Budapest to purchase the correct brand of wine, all without being asked.

On another occasion, a guest mentioned she was used to having mango juice every morning. That’s not a fruit commonly found throughout Europe, but a crew member did his magic and the guest enjoyed her mango juice throughout the cruise.

When we last spoke with Schreiner and Karst for this article, they had just returned from a trip that included the annual kick-off meeting with their 46 cruise managers and members of their European offices onboard the AmaStella in Linz, just prior to the launch of the 2017 cruise season. During the annual event, the group evaluates the past season to point out the highlights and what worked especially well. Guest trends are also discussed as input from guest evaluation forms. Plans for the upcoming season are also outlined in detail.

Cruise managers also relay their personal experiences with guests and spend five minutes each with Schreiner and Karst in a speed-dating format that allows them to ask any question about the company.

After spending time with Schreiner, Karst and Murphy, we say AmaWaterways will always have news to share with their team and with their guests. Aside from India and the potential of other waterways opening up, plans are in the works to add a gorilla mountain trekking program in Rwanda, Africa, which is where Schreiner and Karst headed after their trip to India.

“It was Rudi’s dream to do it,” Karst tells us. “It was actually his birthday present and we loved it so much we are now committed to adding it to our Africa program in the future.” Implementing the program may be a ways off but she is keen that this new passion of theirs be shared with guests.

Karst says that whenever she and Schreiner travel, it’s always personal and it’s always business.

“It’s our life, of course, it’s our passion, our excitement,” she notes. “Whenever we experience something like India and Africa, we always put ourselves into our customer’s shoes. We see it through their eyes, and we’ll say, does this match our core product, and if not, what do we have to do to make it absolutely comparable?”

What does Karst want people to realize most about AmaWaterways? “That it’s a company that wants to fulfill the dreams of our customers the same way we want to fulfill the dreams of everyone who works with us. We also want to make a great impact in the community,” she says, noting that the company is very active in giving back.

“It also makes us happy that we have come to the point to be able to do so,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor

Up Close With Gary Murphy, VP of Sales

“My father used to always say, ‘If you listen to the travel agent, they’ll tell you how your business is going.’ We all get caught up in what we believe is true, but it’s like that saying, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ The travel agent will keep you honest, and if you’re loyal to them, truly loyal to them and not just saying you’re loyal to them, they’ll be loyal to you.”

That’s Gary Murphy, vice president of sales and co-owner of AmaWaterways, speaking about his father, Jimmy Murphy, founder of Brendan Tours and one of the founders of AmaWaterways. Jimmy Murphy passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on and clearly he passed his love and respect for the travel advisor on to his son.

In fact, in Gary Murphy’s office in AmaWaterways’ Calabasas, CA, headquarters hangs a vintage Pan Am poster that reads: “See Your Travel Agent Before Seeing the World.”

We caught up with Murphy in our New York offices in March, when he was in the middle of a road trip to attend a variety of travel agency network events.

Murphy, who joined AmaWaterways in 2009 as a partner after heading up his family’s business, Brendan Tours, points out the river cruise line’s key selling points with ease. He says those points start with the fact that all three partners — he, Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst — have a 100 percent focus on river cruising. “The co-owners of this business work in the business,” he says.

“It’s very tempting to go and start a blue water cruise line, or hotels, or all those other aspects within our industry, but Rudi is very much on point,” says Murphy. “We’re living and breathing river cruising. We do that because the amount of time and effort it takes to deliver the perfect experience takes all of our energies. That disseminates through the company, and through to the product.”

AmaWaterways is affiliated with virtually every agency network; Murphy has a team of 20 outside business development managers and a substantial support system within the company. Having started with one leased ship 15 years ago, AmaWaterways now has 20 in operation and remains in growth mode. Murphy loves that it allows AmaWaterways to promote from within. That’s true for the corporate office, the Basel or London offices, and on the ships, where a hotel manager may have started their career cleaning cabins and worked their way up.

Extensive training is available for all at AmaWaterways and they get to learn about the product firsthand; each is also treated to one river cruise a year. And that does not come out of their vacation time.

“So they all feel like they have skin in the game,” says Murphy.

Consideration for the employee comes in more subtle ways. For example, the cruise line sails through December, extending the season with wine cruises and Christmas market voyages. That provides more options for the client, but it benefits the teams on the ships, too.

“If we let our staff off at the end of October, then hire them up again in late March, you lose a lot of them,” says Murphy. “By keeping the ships busy right through the end of the year, it keeps your staff happy.” And that consistency elevates the guest experience.

“If you do everything that’s right for the people you work with, everything else seems to fall in place,” he notes.

As for actual product, a major differentiator for AmaWaterways is the way it handles alcoholic beverages in its pricing. It includes champagne with breakfast, and beer and wine at lunch and dinner, but not additional bar drinks as some of its competitors do. That’s because executives believe clients want to be out experiencing the local culture.

“A river cruise is more like a floating hotel than a blue water cruise out in the middle of the ocean. When we’re docked in Cologne, Germany, after dinner, over 40 percent of our clients go ashore. And we’re going to go into a 200-year-old beer hall, and have Kölsch beer, which is made and founded in Cologne, with a bunch of Germans, in these tall, thin glasses. And they always serve you too many of them, and you always wonder how they figure out the bill,” says Murphy.

The cruise line is, however, getting ready to launch an open bar for an hour before dinner on its vessels in 2018. “That’s when generally people have a cocktail, and say, ‘Let’s meet at the bar before dinner,’” Murphy says.

(Note: AmaWaterways does include the bar on Mekong River cruises, since port stops are often in little villages that might not provide a lot of entertainment options in the evening.)

Of the complimentary wines served during lunch and dinner on AmaWaterways, Murphy says they are often purchased from local wineries along the Moselle and the Rhine rivers, and are changed every day. “And if you enjoyed the spatburgunder from two days earlier, the waiter will serve that to you.

Gratuities are also not included in pricing. “We don’t put it on your bill when you’re checking out,” says Murphy. “The guest decides what they want to tip. We have a phenomenal crew onboard and they work hard. We pay EU wages, but they know if they deliver a better experience or go beyond what the clients’ expectations are, they’re financially rewarded for it.”

Gary Murphy has been a proponent of the travel advisor community since he started out in the business.

AmaWaterways employs 46 cruise directors even though it has 20 ships. That’s because the cruise directors accompany passengers on pre- and post-cruise programs to provide a land experience that’s consistent with the high level of service on the ships. For example, if a client is on a three-day pre-cruise program in Prague, their cruise manager will be seated in the hotel lobby for the duration, serving as a personal concierge or resolving issues like lost luggage. Everyone then transfers to the cruise together.

Pre- and post-cruise programs are also guaranteed, says Murphy. “We don’t have the mentality that if we don’t get 25 people on the bus, we’re going to cancel. Rudi’s point of view is, if we have three people, we’re going to do the pre-program in Prague and transfer them with the cruise director to the ship. The travel agent is not going to be told three months out, ‘I’m sorry, we’re canceling your clients’ pre and post. Go find out how to do it yourself.’ That’s very disruptive for the travel agent.”

Travel advisors can also purchase long transfers from AmaWaterways for clients who might want to start their European vacation, say, in Madrid, prior to embarking on a cruise in the Douro Valley.

“It’s about being flexible; things are not etched in stone. If something makes sense, we’ll try to deliver it to the agent,” says Murphy.

Fresh foods are a vital part of the line’s culinary offerings. “We’re supporting the local butcher, fishmonger, produce suppliers,” says Murphy, who adds that the Chef’s Table is a unique dining option on ships. On a seven-day cruise, each guest gets to dine there once, free of charge. That experience involves 12 courses in a separate dining room that seats 30. (An additional two wine rooms seat 12.)

Forty percent of AmaWaterways’ business is groups and if a group of 20 in 10 cabins has a specific theme, say, architecture, golf, or beer, the line will provide two customized shore excursions at no additional cost. The practice was initiated when guests started forming their own wine groups, separate from the 51 hosted wine departures the line offers a year.

A Life in Travel
Murphy has a strong foothold in the travel business; as a young man, he worked in the family business at Brendan Tours in the mailroom or reservations, whenever he needed money. But he’s an entrepreneurial soul as well, starting his own wholesale flower business when he was just out of high school. When he returned to college and earned his degree, he worked for IBM’s national marketing division in Los Angeles, where Brendan Tours was also located. One year, at Brendan’s Christmas party, Murphy chatted with Adi Steiner, who was running Globus Gateway in Europe. Steiner invited Murphy to come work for him and two weeks later, he was on his way to Lugano, Italy, charged with handling meet-and-greet services. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” says Murphy. After a year, he returned to work for Brendan, heading up sales on the West Coast out of San Diego.

“It was a phenomenal job,” Murphy says. “I learned the importance of working with the retail travel agency community. And I learned how to really love the retail travel agency community.”

Murphy became vice president of sales at Brendan, but was subsequently recruited to work for a start-up company called Miami Air. He consulted with his father, who said, “If they’ll take you, go for it.” Murphy worked for Ross Fischer, a founder of the airline, and stayed for five years as the company grew from 16 employees to 650. “He taught me a lot,” says Murphy, noting that Fischer’s strong military background played in to his management style.

“The great thing for me was it allowed me to prove myself outside of my father’s reach,” observes Murphy, who over that time had also married and had two daughters. One day, though, he received a call from his father’s attorney, asking him to return to Brendan as president of the company. Because Murphy and his father were so close, they negotiated the deal completely through the attorney.

Working so closely with his father was a phenomenal experience, he says. He recalls that his father never raised his voice. “He had a real class in running the business,” Murphy recalls. The same is true today at AmaWaterways. “It’s a very respectful relationship. I think that comes not only from my father’s influence on AmaWaterways but from Rudi’s and Kristin’s as well,” says Murphy.

In a way, Murphy has come full circle, joining a company that’s very much like working in the family business. He says being there has given him a wonderful balance in life.

“I’m enjoying my job,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

AmaWaterways

President, co-owner: Rudi Schreiner
Executive vice president, co-owner: Kristin Karst
Vice president, sales; co-owner: Gary Murphy
Headquarters: Calabasas, CA, with offices in Basel, Switzerland, and London
Fleet: 20 ships in operation, sailing Europe’s Danube, Rhine, Moselle, Main, Rhône, Seine, Garonne, Dordogne, Dutch and Belgian Waterways and Douro rivers. It also has voyages on Southeast Asia’s Mekong and Africa’s Chobe River.

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