Managing director: Want to become completely climate-neutral – pandemic already strategically overcome
by Andreas Meyer
Jörg Eichler has already checked off the pandemic: The managing partner of Germany’s largest river cruise company wants to take off again with Arosa – and in the Ostseezeitung newspaper interview he announces a new strategy, more service on board and a multi-million euro modernisation programme for all twelve Rose ships.
Mr Eichler, you have just finished the 2021 season in Portugal – the second Corona season. You are still sailing on the Rhine and Danube. Nevertheless: How did it go?
Very well. I can’t say otherwise. The Germans were extremely lockdown-weary in the summer. Many people wanted to travel – but they also wanted to travel safely. In German-speaking countries, in a safe environment and without airlift.
Did you benefit from that?
Yes, quite clearly. Despite the special situation, we were able to operate with eight of twelve ships – under a very clear hygiene concept, with reduced capacity. But: these capacities were 99 per cent fully booked.
Why then “only” eight out of twelve ships?
Among other things, because we unfortunately had to cancel all trips in France. Unfortunately, the Corona-related entry requirements and quarantine regulations for our international crew members presented us with great challenges. For this reason, trips on the Rhône and Seine could unfortunately not take place throughout the season.
Were there any Corona cases on board among the guests?
No! And I am particularly proud of that – and also relieved. It was not easy for all the staff to implement the strict concepts. It took a lot of energy. But it was worth it. But I also have to say: it is easier for us than operating a hotel on land, where new guests arrive every day. With us, the passengers are almost always on board together for a week.
What rules currently apply on your voyages?
The Rhine cruises are comparatively normal. There we sail in 2G-plus mode (recovered, vaccinated). Unfortunately, we can’t call at Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The Netherlands are in lockdown. We are stopping in Antwerp instead. On the Danube, we currently have to pause completely – because both Austria and Slovakia are in lockdown. We hope that the lockdown in Austria will end on 13 December and that we will be allowed to call there again.
Difficult conditions. Is the cruise business worthwhile at all under these conditions? Last year, Arosa also needed financial injections from the shareholders, banks and the state …
We were able to achieve prices that were ten per cent higher on average in 2021 than before the pandemic. We could hardly put any offers on the market, so quickly were the trips fully booked. And it looks even better for 2022, by the way: The advance bookings are enormous.
The fourth Corona wave is sweeping Germany. Restaurateurs, hotels are being restricted. You, however, sound downright euphoric …
The current situation is terrible. No question about it. I hope that many people will now be convinced of the protective vaccination after all and that we will soon have overcome this crisis. For the river cruise industry, however, this time is a historic opportunity: we have a window of three or four years in which we can establish ourselves as a popular form of travel – even with target groups for whom a trip with Arosa has not been an option so far.
Which ones are these specifically?
Almost three quarters of our new guests have only been on ocean cruises before. That’s one group. In general, we all see the trend in the industry that it will be years before long-distance travel to exotic destinations is as popular as it was before the pandemic. Many people are currently more attracted to holiday destinations where they have good medical care in case of emergency.
Does that mean that Arosa is going all out for growth in the coming years?
That’s exactly what it means. In terms of planning, we have long since overcome the pandemic, developed a strategy for the future – and received the blessing of the shareholders for this. Step one: On 21 May the maiden voyage of our new ship, the “Arosasena”, starts. The ship is still in the Netherlands at the Concordia Damen shipyard, the final finishing work is underway. And this ship will show what the future of Arosa will look like.
Because it will be the first ship in the fleet with battery-powered propulsion?
Not only, but that is certainly the biggest advance. We switch to battery power shortly before reaching the cities, and then sail emission-free. The battery will be recharged overnight or during the journey. But we will also have a new concept: The cabins are 21 square metres. The standard – even on ocean-going cruise ships – is 14, 15 square metres. All cabins – except the large family cabins – have balconies. And we will have a permanent children’s club on board for the first time – as well as two pools on deck.
Why are you doing this?
Because we have decided on a new strategy for Arosa. We are a premium provider, now we want to become a premium plus provider. There will be more food and beverage choices on board. But above all there will be more service. Guests can choose whether they want to be served their menu at their seat or choose it themselves from the buffet. In future, we will also offer “room service” – so that you can drink your cocktail in peace on the balcony. Of course, we will continue to offer bus trips. But we are also upgrading the shore programme, aiming to eventually offer 200 different experiences to choose from.
But you will probably need more staff for that?
Yes, both on board and at the head office in Rostock.
So, you are creating new jobs?
By the end of 2022, we will hire about 40 new employees here in Rostock – more than 20 of them will fill newly created positions. All of them permanent. But we know that we have to make an effort if we want to have the best. That’s why we have just put together a package with the works council to become one of the most attractive employers in the region.
What does that look like?
We have been completely out of short-time work since July, we haven’t had to lay anyone off. Now we pay a Corona bonus for all employees in Rostock. We have also agreed to increase the employee’s vacation time. No one at our company has less than 30 days. Salaries are also going up. We want to pay a double-digit percentage increase in entry-level salaries. And one more thing: we offer employees the choice of working completely in the office, completely at home or in an alternating model. We learned this flexibility in the pandemic and every company must be able to offer this today.
The big buzzword in the cruise industry is “green cruising”, i.e. climate-neutral cruising. What is Arosa’s plan?
We want to be completely climate neutral by 2040 – also on our ships. To achieve this, Arosa has created a new sustainability department, is working together with the Fraunhofer Institute and for this we will invest millions every year from 2022.
In new ships, in replacing the fleet?
Not in replacement, in modernisation. With Matthias Lutter and Jens Walla, we have two proven experts for new ships and ship conversions. Step by step, we are converting the existing ships, making them more climate-friendly and better. We started in 2002, which will soon be 20 years. But the ships – made in Warnemünde – are still top-notch.
So no new, additional ships?
We are looking into it. Maybe we can say more next year. But the fact is: we want to continue to grow; also in terms of the fleet. But at the moment we can’t talk about new destinations or ships.
Expert: River cruise guests spend more money
No more crisis mode: Germany’s largest river cruise shipping company Arosa wants to go on a growth course with a new strategy.
Prof.Dr. Dr. Alexis Papathanassis, rector of the Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences and cruise expert, shares Arosas optimism, at least in part: “Destinations that everyone can comfortably reach by car or train instead of by plane are among the winners in the pandemic!”, he says. That would also apply to river cruises. The target group is on average ten years older than on ocean cruises. “Health safety plays an even greater role there.”
In addition, he said, river cruises have another advantage: the comparatively small ships with 100, 200 passengers on board are still welcome in those cities that are already considered “overcrowded”: “River cruise passengers are seen as potential. They spend more time ashore, spend money and are more interested in local attractions and offerings.”
But the signs are also pointing to recovery in ocean cruising: by the end of the year, a good half of the global fleet is already expected to be back in service. The assumption that the shipping companies would rely on smaller ships in the future was not confirmed: “45 % of all new ships that will set sail by 2027 are so-called mega-ships with several thousand cabins,” says cruise professor Papathanassis. Around 40 % of the newbuildings will be powered by the more climate-friendly LNG. “Even though the global cruise fleet is rather stagnant in terms of the number of ships, the total passenger capacity continues to increase steadily.”