Having joined The Travel Corporation-owned Uniworld last year, Ellen Bettridge has moved quickly to make her mark on the company.
In just 12 short months she has launched a new youth-orientated brand and welcomed the SS Joie de Vivre to the main fleet.
Speaking to Breaking Travel News in London, Bettridge explains her decisions have sought to widen the target demographic for river cruising, while also ensuring established guests receive the service they have come to expect from Uniworld.
She explains: “I would position Uniworld as the luxury river cruise; we truly are a floating boutique hotel.
“We have a fantastic clientele; they are 50-plus, they have the means, they have the time, and they have the energy - and we are fortunate to have them.
“But what we saw was that there was another whole group of people we would love to bring on-board to enjoy the experience we offer.
“Hence, we decided to launch a new brand, called U by Uniworld.”
The new brand will offer immersive, authentic experiences for the next generation of cruisers.
Launching in April next year, it is aimed at 21-45-year-olds, with the idea of creating a unique place for younger travellers.
Bettridge continues: “They are not going to want a river cruise with an older generation; they are going to want to do things differently.
“They might not want to get up first thing in the morning, they want excursions that are exciting, whether that is going to the Louvre, kayaking, biking, or even just going out on their own.”
The first ship, The B, was unveiled last month, with select members of the trade welcomed to an inaugural sailing.
So how was U by Uniworld taken from the drawing board to the rivers of Europe?
“We are really lucky in that The Travel Corporation also owns Contiki, so we went to past customers of that brand and asked them a few very pointed questions,” explains Bettridge.
“We looked at whether they had ever been on a cruise, whether they would be interested in river cruising, and if not, why not.
“From that we got a good feeling - 94 per cent said they would be interested in a river cruise if it were created for them.
“That was really the big moment - we knew there was an appetite for it.
“From there it was about, how do you create the brand? How do you create awareness?
“In October of last year we decided to do this; so this is very quick, to develop a brand, get a ship launched, and get it out there.”
While Uniworld will seek to keep service standards immaculate on-board The B, and sister ship The A, nearly everything else will be different.
Bettridge continues: “These vessels are very different to our existing brand.
“From even before the moment you step on-board, the ship is painted black on the outside, matt black.
“There is really cool lighting, with a big ‘U’ on the side that changes colour as she goes.
“When you get on-board, there is this large, cool, sexy space, and people go ‘wow’.
“It is super relaxing, a lot of lounges, spaces to hang out.
“When you walk through the newer hotels these days – Aloft, Moxy, for example – you see people sitting on laptops, sitting with friends, and that is what our guests want.”
As ever with this demographic, technology will play a key role for U by Uniworld, with the new brand seeking to engage with passengers through their mobile devices.
“With both of our brands we believe the vacation is yours,” Bettridge adds.
“We offer many options each day, or you can go and do your own thing.
“All these options will come through a phone; we are developing a new app called My Travel Space, which will connect travellers before, during, and after a cruise.
“It also gives them a chance to connect with their fellow guests before they arrive.
“This group of people want to connect with other people.
“They are happy to travel alone, sure, but they are interested in a river cruise if they know it is going to be a place where they can meet a lot of young people.
“We have created an environment where this can happen.”
While drawing inspiration from existing itineraries – there are only so many navigable rivers in Europe after all – U by Uniworld will tweak plans for a new audience.
“We offer similar itineraries as those in the main brand, but there are designed differently,” Bettridge continues.
“For example, if you start in Paris on the way to Normandy, you will stay in Paris for a bit longer, because that is your big city.
“With Amsterdam, Frankfurt, people want to see those cities – so we are going to show them, and stay in them longer.”
With a younger target audience, costs have been scaled back at U by Uniworld, although prices still start at upward of £1,000 for a seven night break.
Bettridge explains: “The value is also amazing for U by Uniworld – a lot less expensive as it is a different audience.
“There are different inclusions as well as people on board who know the destinations, who can give you tips on where to head.
“Excursions are included for the most part, while there are others, such as an exclusive dinner, or wine tasting, that you can purchase.”
Two ships – the Ambassador and the Baroness – were moved from the Uniworld fleet to join the new brand, with both given a comprehensive overhaul.
It could be considered a brave decision to move a ship out of a market where guests are willing to pay £1,000 a night into one where younger travellers are able to pay £100, but Bettridge believes Uniworld is in it for the long haul.
She argues getting guests hooked while they’re young will pay dividends in the future.
“River cruising still feels like it is in its infancy, because you can only put so many passengers on a ship,” she explains.
“If I think of a Royal Caribbean ship, I can put my entire fleet in there twice, on their smallest ship!
“There is a lot of room for passengers to have that experience.
“With river cruising, a lot of people have not experienced it yet, and that means there is a lot of opportunity out there for it.
“So, whether this is through U, getting them hooked early on, so they understand the value of it, the opportunity, and the ease, or through Uniworld.”
With so much happening at U by Uniworld, it can be easy to forget about the existing brand.
But there has been plenty happening there, too, with the SS Joie de Vivre launched earlier this year to rapturous reviews from guests.
“The new ship, the SS Joie de Vivre, ended up having the highest occupancy rating of all the fleet this year,” Bettridge continues.
“This was not a big surprise, as she is so beautiful.
“I love saying that she might depart Paris, but Paris never leaves her.
“Everything about the ship is French, the fabrics, the look, the vibe, is it very, very French.
“If I look ahead to 2018, she is also selling very well.”
Investment has also gone into the other vessels in the fleet, with the SS Beatrice currently undergoing an overhaul.
Bettridge tells Breaking Travel News: “We are taking the Beatrice and converting her to a ‘super-ship’.
“This means she will be a little larger, we are adding a nose, and will have more venues, and new amenities.
“The ship will also feature a new staircase, larger suites, adjoining rooms; giving us some of the things our passengers have been asking for.
“This project is underway and she will be revealed at the end of March.
“As for new ships, we are exploring different options, we are excited about where we will go next, but I have enough to do now.”
Of course, Uniworld is part of the wider The Travel Corporation organisation, with Bettridge reporting directly to chief executive Brett Tollman.
“He is absolutely amazing,” she enthuses.
“He gives me a lot more freedom than I ever though he would.
“This is a family business, but we are very collaborative, and I have a thousand ideas each day, and we speak most days.
“I have earned the freedom to do what I need to do.
“In the past year, we have moved the most passengers we have ever moved, we launched a new brand and a new ship – so we have had a pretty good time.”
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection features luxurious ships with an average capacity of 130 guests, exclusive excursions, gourmet cuisine, and one of the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry.
Based in Los Angeles, California, Uniworld offers truly all-inclusive itineraries in Europe, as well as voyages in Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, India, and Egypt - a total of 23 rivers in 24 countries worldwide.
Find out more on the official website.