Posted: 11:01 a.m. Friday, April 5, 2013
By Julie Strickland
How one entrepreneur built a business around tourists' love of offbeat experiences.
In 1975, when he was 23, Rudi Schreiner spent seven months on a river raft in the Peruvian Amazon, where he lived with a local indigenous family. Once he had a taste of river adventures, he was determined to return.
He wasn’t the only one with a love of river cruising. As co-founder and CEO of AmaWaterways, a river cruise company he started in 2002, Schreiner’s thumb has been on the pulse of a buzzing industry for more than a decade. Demand for off-the-beaten-path cruise experiences is spurring growth in the specialty cruise business, and Schreiner is taking advantage of this thirst for something new and different. The company is pushing river cruises as an unexpected, culturally richer alternative to typical oceanliners, adding destinations such as Myanmar and Africa, and themes such as wine and tulips. On the company's African safari cruises, "in the afternoon, four or five animals come down to the river to drink, and the boat’s in front of them," Schreiner says. It's not your run-of-the-mill cruise experience.
Today, AmaWaterways owns 10 ships, leases four, and owns 50 percent of another--a total fleet of 15, with plans to add four more by 2015. The ships are becoming more luxurious, in response to both customer demand and increasing competition. Larger staterooms and more amenities such as twin balconies, flat-panel TVs, and individually controlled air conditioning have become standard features. Such perks are critical in the competitive cruising industry, which has relatively low barriers to entry. "Anybody who stands still today is probably gone in a few years," Screiner says.
Big the company's big growth driver is its offbeat appeal. Traditional cruise ships are too large to access the narrow waterways that grant central access to many cities. Unlike a conventional ocean liner, riverboat docks are often in the center of town, so travelers can step off the boat as if they’re lodging at a downtown hotel. They can walk in and out as they please, at their own pace. For the ease and convenience, AMA travelers pay around $3500 for a river cruise, not including airfare.
Riverboats haven't always sported multi-jet showers and gourmet dining; they used to be spartan, utilitarian affairs. But by 2002, the industry was buzzing with smaller, more intimate vessels that could navigate waterways too narrow for traditional, huge cruise ships. With more than 20 years of travel industry experience under his belt, Schreiner decided the time was right to branch out on his own. He teamed up with Jimmy Murphy of Brendan Tours and Kristin Karst (who became his wife in 2011), launching Amadeus Waterways--now AmaWaterways--in 2002.
Schreiner and Karst worked the first couple of years without a salary; the bootstrapped company was profitable by 2004. Since the company’s beginnings in the corner of a friend’s office, the company has grown to carry 65,000 passengers a year along the waterways of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Seventy-three employees are based at the Los Angeles headquarters, and another nine are in Switzerland.
The greatest challenge, he says, is controlling growth--an average rate of 30 to 40 percent per year. But he is also always looking for ways to expand beyond the traditional travel season, which typically runs from mid-April to mid-October. "The creative side is my favorite part," he says. "New itineraries, new tours, new places to visit, new docking or better docking facilities."
Over the years, he has created tulip time cruises in March and April in Holland and Belgium, and Christmas market cruises in the wintertime. But there was still a gap in November, so he devised wine cruises about five years ago. In November, the grape harvest and pressing has been completed, and there are festivals in Europe celebrating the new wine.
In 2010, AmaWaterways operated its first wine-themed cruise with a winery owner as its host. In 2013, the company will operate 21 wine cruises.