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AmaWaterways’ Kristin Karst Details the Luxury River Cruise Line’s Brand Approach

The co-owner and executive vice president talks to 'Business Traveler' about the brand, marketplace trends and 2023’s business climate

by Susan J. Young

September 8, 2023

Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president of AmaWaterways

In 2002, Kristin Karst, Rudi Schreiner and Jimmy Murphy founded European river cruise line AmaWaterways. Now, co-owners Karst and Schreiner, a husband-and-wife team (with Schreiner as president and Karst as executive vice president), are solidly cruising along in the travel industry. (Murphy’s son Gary is also a co-owner.) AmaWaterways operates 29 vessels across Europe, Asia, Africa and, starting in 2024, South America.

In Spanish, “ama” means “love,” and from the beginning, Karst says the team set out to create a river cruise product that they’d love to experience themselves—one offering stylish, comfortable ships, delicious food and wines, interesting excursions and a crew eager to treat guests as family. “Those early years weren’t easy,” she acknowledges. “We started right after 9/11, at a time when no one wanted to travel.”

But Karst says the team was “determined to keep the dream alive and we made it through the challenges. The company kept doing better and better each year.” In addition, she says “we’ve been purposely careful about the pace of growth,” noting that AmaWaterways adds just one or two new ships a year. “That has allowed us to remain personally involved in all aspects of the product.” The line typically operates with no debt, an austere financial approach that has served it well.

Two new AmaWaterways river vessels will debut in 2024—AmaLilia on Egypt’s Nile River and AmaMagdalena on Colombia’s Magdalena River (with new itineraries between Barranquilla and Cartagena). In 2025, AmaSintra will join AmaVida and AmaDouro on Portugal’s Douro River and AmaMelodia will also start Colombia cruising. Business Traveler spoke with Karst about the brand, marketplace trends and 2023’s business climate.

What is AmaWaterways’ style and service level?

We’re a luxury river cruise line, and our friendly, inviting ships offer an intimate experience for an average of 150 guests or fewer, depending on the ship. But luxury isn’t only about the hardware. Personal connection has been a fundamental value of our brand since our launch. True luxury is found in the little things that make you smile, the people who make you feel welcome, and the stories to cherish. It’s all about creating those special surprises and moments that nurture the soul and leave an indelible mark on one’s heart.

We also give guests “the luxury of more”: more choices, more space, more relaxation and more opportunities to engage with the world around them. Staterooms and suites deliver the luxury of space—averaging 355 square feet to as much as 710 square feet onboard AmaMagna. We offer some shore excursions in three different activity levels—gentle, regular and active. Our inclusive fares cover a multitude of onboard amenities, fitness classes with Wellness Hosts, locally sourced food and wine, high-speed Wi-Fi, local entertainment, up to six excursion choices daily, and more.

What river cruise booking trends have surfaced this year?

Since the pandemic, we’ve seen increased demand for more far-flung river destinations, including Egypt’s Nile River, Africa’s Zambezi River, Asia’s Mekong River and, for 2024, Colombia’s Magdalena River, which is the closest to North America geographically. We’ve also seen a rise in back-to-back cruise bookings, guests seeking longer voyages and extended families desiring to catch up on lost time.

Remote work also continues to change how people travel. Many people now have more time to experience the world, and not necessarily during a set vacation time.

How has the guest experience changed over the years? What’s important for river cruisers to know about your brand culture?

From the beginning, we placed our guests’ well-being at the center of every decision we made. It wasn’t that making money wasn’t important. It was just that Rudi and I agreed that if we focused on exceeding our guests’ expectations the money would follow. We also knew the importance of working with the right partners and hiring the right employees—people passionate about travel and customer service we could trust to bring our vision of river cruising to life.

We’ve monitored guest feedback forms from every cruise, and we’re quick to jump in if need be. For example, we might call and talk to a guest or their travel advisor if we read a concerning comment, or we might send flowers to a guest who raved about our crew members.

With increased competition and more capacity, how are you attracting new-to-cruise guests?

River cruising has become more mainstream, moving away from the outdated perception that it’s only for older, less active travelers. The appeal of smaller river ships going to less crowded destinations is attracting many luxury ocean cruisers. We’re also attracting new guests by consistently updating and innovating with our ships, itineraries and excursions.

Our hiking and biking tours, wellness options and focus on locally sourced regional fine food and wine have really been a draw for younger active people. Our ships have state-of-the-art onboard fitness rooms, a pickleball court on AmaMagna, and included yoga, Pilates, resistance band stretching, cardio and dance classes, all led by Wellness Hosts.

Most notably, we introduced Celebration of Wine river cruises and today we have more than 60 hosted, wine-themed departures annually, each with exclusive wine and culinary experiences. Hosts are North American or European wine experts including vineyard owners, winemakers, certified sommeliers or wine educators.

On the culinary side, our traditional and regionally inspired cuisine is prepared by expert chefs using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. One exclusive gastronomic experience, the Chef’s Table, features a set multicourse tasting menu created live by the chef and accompanied by specially selected regional wines.

What’s your perspective on today’s business climate?

River cruising is stronger than ever, with 2023 shaping up to be an incredibly successful year. In fact, demand is so high that we’ll launch our 2024 European season with special Rhine and Danube river cruises starting February 11. We’ve also extended our popular Portugal sailing season through the end of December.

All indications point to a record-breaking 2024, as well. The ease of traveling to multiple countries in one trip and not wasting time waiting in transit is a fundamental advantage for river cruising. While oceans take you to countries, rivers take you seamlessly through countries.