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Author: Anthony Pearce/21 November 2019/Categories: Interview, Onboard experience
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
“River cruising is more art than science,” says Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
It may sound like a grand statement, but then the ultra-luxury cruise line that Bettridge leads has never done things by half measures. “Many companies do business on the rivers of Europe and beyond, but what distinguishes Uniworld beyond overall quality of design, touch, cuisine and so forth is the intangible, but essential, commitment to generous and genuine service,” she explains.
If Uniworld’s ships feel unique, that’s because they are: the décor on each is different from the next. The chic SS Joie de Vivre, which sails the Seine and docks near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, has a Parisian-style bistro and feels and looks completely different to the grand SS Catherine, which sails the Rhône and Saône. But no matter how different they are, all the ships are unmistakably Uniworld. They all bear the same hallmarks: striking and ornate, almost decadent, interiors.
“Our ships are designed to be unique to each region, never cookie-cutter, but reflective of the destination they serve with original artwork and fine fabrics,” explains Bettridge. “The onboard cuisine is all locally sourced from the markets at each port, truly immersing the guests in the gastronomy of the destination. That is the Uniworld way and it is an art that we practice every day and are enormously proud of.”
Bettridge says that while the interior designs vary, the experience and diligence of the staff onboard each ship remains consistent across the fleet, describing the service as “never intrusive, never forced and always anticipatory”. Anyone who has sailed with the line will agree with that analysis, and it’s not by chance that its cruise offering is so good. Uniworld invests in yearly kick-off meetings for staff and crew, which Bettridge says is for two main purposes: training and employee recognition. “We take our kick-off meetings very seriously because by taking great care of our crew and providing them with comprehensive training and much deserved recognition, they are happy and prepared to take care of our guest’s every need.”
This training manifests itself in the Uniworld mantra, ‘no request is too large, no detail is too small.’ “If a customer onboard wants something we don’t have, we go and get it,” says Bettridge. “For instance, a crew member overheard a guest talking about how he was looking forward to visiting a particular town for a specific sauerkraut dish. Unfortunately, the guest couldn’t find the particular sauerkraut dish while he was in town, so the onboard chef procured the ingredients and surprised him with the dish for dinner one night. To serve with passion is a philosophy that is carried throughout every guest interaction with our staff onboard.”
Bettridge adds that her staff’s “dedication to delivering the very best and their dedication to Uniworld year after year” is what continues to impress her the most. “There is a comradeship among a group of people committed to the highest standards of performance – an enthusiasm that is contagious and I am confident this is reflected in our high employee retention rate and crew tenure,” she says, adding that there is an ideology that runs from the top of the company to the bottom: “We are a team of like-minded people at Uniworld, always in pursuit of excellence.”
Uniworld is undergoing a period of expansion and renovation: two ships, Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer and SS Bon Voyage (formerly River Royale) joined the fleet this year. The latter became the second ship in the line to be upgraded to a Super Ship, after the SS Beatrice. In 2020, the line will introduce three new vessels in Vietnam, Egypt and Portugal and complete another Super Ship renovation in Italy.
The cruise line now also has a sister brand, U River Cruises, which is aimed at a younger audience. A cool, more youthful alter-ego to the main Uniworld brand, it has two ships named The A and The B offering activity-packed, immersive river cruises along the Rhine, Main and Danube with entertainment, cuisine and excursions aimed at a tech-savvy, selfie-happy generation of travellers. “The aim is to introduce a whole new generation to river cruising,” says Bettridge. “This is about cruising for the young at heart and those who want to have fun. Our ships are modern, cool and sexy.”
As part of the Travel Corporation, which celebrates 100 years of travel experience in 2020, Uniworld also counts Trafalgar, Contiki and Red Carnation Hotels among its stablemates. It’s a formidable line-up, and while Uniworld is by no means its biggest river cruise brand, it’s certainly one of the most celebrated and distinctive. Guests are incredibly well-heeled, usually American travellers, and they know what they want and what they expect from a Uniworld cruise.
“Planning is determined by the philosophy that our guests deserve the best – that drives everything that we do,” says Bettridge. “We are committed to maintaining the best fleet of ships on the rivers, for our guests. For us, it’s about elevating instead of growing.”
The first step with any planning, she notes, is actively listening to what guests want and need – like more dining options onboard and more suites. “We also keep a close eye on trends that are happening in the marketplace and insert them into our programming, whether it be more focus wellness and health, hands-on culinary classes with the chef, and everything in between,” she says.
Bettridge adds that the line tries to provide unique experiences that guests could never have on their own. “We’re excited about the new Baden-Baden sailing in 2020,” she explains. “Along with Luxembourg, Strasbourg [France] and other quaint Central European cities, our guests will get to explore the picturesque spa town of Baden-Baden and go on our excursions to the famed Caracalla Spa or Sea Salt Grotto to experience the thermal waters that bubble up from 12 natural springs, sitting thousands of feet below the earth,” she says.
In one of the fastest growing sectors in cruise, it’s easy to see how Uniworld, with its gilded décor, attentive service and unique excursions, is setting itself apart.
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