t unfolded like a fairytale: a small hotel that needed a boost in clientele arranged tours to visit the property. The tours were wildly successful, and after a domestic tax made international tours more desirable, the company expanded to become a major river cruise line.
Scenic’s fairytale came about in three ways: by giving people what they want, responding to roadblocks and creating a vision of the future. Glen Moroney, Scenic’s founder and chairman, sees the company’s innovation and inclusiveness as the two most prominent distinctions that set its cruise operation apart from competitors.
Now celebrating 30 years of touring and eight in cruising, Scenic has designed some of its unique features from scratch. Take the Scenic Tailormade program, for example. As guests walk through a town, or even as the ship sails along a river, a unique handheld tablet provides GPS-triggered tours and site interpretations with fully developed lectures and music. Travelers can explore as they choose and still receive the kind of enrichment a guided tour provides. They can rely on the system to answer questions that come up as the ship sails (even ones as simple as “What’s that over there on the shore”). It’s not unusual for passengers to come to breakfast with their Scenic Tailormade devices, in case they sail by something they want to have identified. Industry observers predicted that other river cruise lines would develop their own versions of Scenic Tailormade but it hasn’t happened yet.
“I can tell you why,” Moroney said. “It’s very expensive. It costs millions every year.”
Scenic is on its third generation of the devices, with passengers endorsing the system with high feedback ratings.
This innovative approach can also be seen with Scenic’s hands-on culinary centers. Although a popular feature of many seagoing ships, they have never appeared on river vessels until Scenic announced it would be adding them on its French ships. And earlier this month, Scenic launched river cruising’s first travel guarantee: insurance coverage — at no charge to the guest — against delays or cancellations due to weather, high- or low-water issues, labor strikes, mechanical breakdowns and more.
Scenic also was a pioneer in creating its glassed-in Sun Lounges, an innovative take on the once-dominant French balcony or the conventional step-out balcony found on seagoing cruise ships. The company wanted to provide passengers a comfortable lounging area in their rooms — without taking away precious space from the accommodation when weather doesn’t permit sitting outside. The Sun Lounge creates an open space where guests press a button to enclose it with glass panels, allowing the balcony to become a sort of conservatory with a broad view of the river panorama, regardless of the weather. “The shipyards resisted the idea of balconies on river boats,” Moroney said. “But we insisted. We do all the new things for one reason: to provide a better experience for our guests.”
That mindset is also at the heart of the company’s all-inclusive stance. Scenic found that making all excursions complimentary dramatically increased the number of new experiences passengers were willing to try, adding an exciting dimension to a vacation and raising guest satisfaction.
“We want to remove any issues and problems, such as concerns about whether a concert in a port of call is worth the price of admission, or whether to try something unfamiliar,” Moroney said.
From Land to River
A combination of small and large opportunities and brilliant responses led Moroney to luxury river cruising — and now to luxury seagoing cruises. When he left university, Moroney was unenthusiastic about becoming an accountant. His father owned a 50-room property off the beaten track that needed to attract a steady flow of business, and Moroney saw an opportunity. He began organizing local coach tours from Melbourne to the property and marketed them to senior citizen clubs. He called the operation Scenic Tours. The tours were so successful that he was fully booked the second year, and his guests told him they would like tours to Tasmania and the Northern Territories, as well.
“We put the packages together, and before we knew it, we had 21 buses going all over the country,” he said.
Business with domestic coach tours was successful, and Moroney and Scenic began putting out brochures, which brought in FIT guests and groups.
When Australia’s General Services Tax was instituted in 2000, it became cheaper for Australians and New Zealanders to travel overseas rather than tour at home. As a result, Moroney’s domestic business declined, and Scenic pivoted to become an international company in order to retain and expand its business. A river cruise operation was born. “Chris Newman of Insight Vacations repeatedly told me that river cruising was the wave of the future — a nicer way to tour Europe with no daily packing and unpacking,” Moroney said.
Eventually, the cruise side of Scenic’s business became so important that the company changed its branding from Scenic Tours to simply Scenic a few years later. In its first year doing cruises, the company tried out seven charter sailings, then 17 the next. It distributed a cruise brochure in October 2004, and by the time the brochure was available, it was sold out. It was clear that there was great demand for touring Europe by river vessel, but another important step needed to be taken before Scenic could fully emerge as a cruise entity. After a guest who had done land tours with Scenic buttonholed him on a cruise, Moroney made the decision that the brand should build its own ships.
“He said they were having a great time, but it wasn’t really a Scenic experience,” he said. “It was someone else’s ship, and someone else’s cruise. We had always been fully inclusive, and there were luxury aspects missing. I knew he was right, and soon after, we started building our own ships.”
Early on, Scenic’s guests were 98 percent Australian; today, Scenic has 16 ships, and Australian customers make up just over 40 percent of the line’s passengers. North Americans have responded with enthusiasm to the Scenic product.
“We have been pleasantly surprised by how the agent community in North America wants to hear about us and go onboard,” Moroney said.
A stronger international presence has changed Scenic’s cruise lengths, as well. Australians typically book longer holidays, but Scenic offers a wide range of seven-night cruises for travelers on a tighter schedule. According to Moroney, prices remain high for the luxury line, but it’s still a great value proposition.
“We can’t compete on price, but we can compete on value,” he said. “Agents need to explain to their clients what they are getting for their money.”
And what they are getting includes free Wi-Fi access; included gratuities; a choice of red or white wine at meals, an open bar and an in-room minibar; alternative dining; butler service; 24-hour room service; and a wide choice of free tour options. In addition, there are special onshore cultural events under Scenic Enrich, which offers guests experiences such as a French cabaret beneath a big top in Lyon and four-course dining with matched wines at Mumm Champagne house in Reims, France.
“People don’t need their credit cards on our ships,” Moroney said. “Nickel-and-diming leaves a bad taste with passengers, and we knew they needed a real choice of shore excursions included in the fare.”
In 2000, the line introduced Scenic Free Choice, which offers a variety of tour experiences with various levels of activity, all without an additional fee. The program also enables Scenic to cater to a broader age range by offering more of an FIT feel.
The company is constantly refreshing and adding onshore activities for guests, including new active shore excursions — such as a Tournon vineyard hike and wine tasting — as well as new cycling options in Caudebec-en-Caux and Bordeaux, France. And for more independent-minded travelers, there are electric-assisted bikes that allow guests to comfortably tool around even hilly destinations.
On the Horizon
As Scenic’s product grew and refined, the line also branched out geographically — into Russia in 2012 with the 112-passenger Scenic Tsar, for instance. This year, in Southeast Asia, it launched Scenic Spirit on the Mekong River and Scenic Aura on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.
The company expanded out in another direction, too, launching a second brand in 2014 with two ships. The new brand, Emerald Waterways, was designed to command a lower price point as a somewhat less-inclusive option than the Scenic product. “Emerald competes on price like our company’s Evergreen coach product,” Moroney said. “It’s more mass market, and we sell it to North Americas and the U.K.”
Emerald has expanded and will increase to a fleet of seven in 2017, including five 182-passenger vessels and two smaller ships: Emerald Liberte, which will sail on French rivers, and Emerald Radiance, which will sail Portugal’s Douro River.
According to the company’s research, once passengers sail with Scenic, they remain quite loyal. Forty-seven percent of passengers are repeat guests, and when the line goes into a new region, the number is even higher, with more than 80 percent of sales in a new market made up by repeat clients.
And there will soon be much more in the way of new options for guests. Scenic is extending into luxury bluewater cruising with the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse, the world’s first “Discovery Yacht,” which will debut in August 2018. The ship will feature a seven-seat submarine, Zodiacs, kayaks, scuba and snorkeling equipment, as well as two helicopters. Its first cruises will be in the Mediterranean, followed by Northern Europe before sailing in the Americas and Antarctica.
Scenic Eclipse is drawing new guests, and Moroney says new agents are getting involved for the first time, too. If Scenic chooses to pick up its option for a second sea-going ship, it will certainly spread out its itineraries, creating even more options for clients. “With Scenic Eclipse, we have onboard space to do things we could never do before,” Moroney said. “A lot of people are going to be very surprised. And if we build the second Discovery Yacht, it will open up Alaska, the Northwest Passage, the Baltic and the world.”