Hope floats: AmaWaterways co-founder Kristin Karst reflects on her career and changes in luxury river cruising
At the beginning of the 2015 Los Angeles VEMEX conference, a “speed dating”-type event connecting journalists with European tourism boards and organizations, I was presented with a schedule of five-minute sessions interspersing people who accepted my requests for meetings as well as others requesting a meeting with me. I was very surprised to notice that Kristin Karst, co-founder and president of luxury river cruise line AmaWaterways was one of those requesting a meeting with me.
At that point in time, my understanding of luxury river cruise lines was that they appealed to older travellers with their amenity-laden floating hotels travelling along itineraries that were beautifully packaged “trips of a lifetime”. However, Karst selected me and others to set the record straight on AmaWaterways’ long-term goal: attracting younger, more active and adventurous generations of travellers.
The energetic, fashionably dressed blonde effectively got her point across, especially with her charisma and her dense-but-fluid five-minute elevator pitch: while boomers made up much of AmaWaterways’ clientèle at the time, she and husband–co-founder Rudi Schreiner were already charting the line’s journey into new territory, changing the meaning of ‘all-inclusive’ in the process. That proposition intrigued me enough to pitch and publish business profiles about the couple for Los Angeles press (as their base is Calabasas, a suburb north of the city).
A year later, I was invited to travel aboard the AmaSerena to experience the Tulip Time Netherlands and Belgium cruise. By accident, I lived a case study in smart and seamless crisis management. In April 2016, the cancellation of Tulip Time appeared imminent in the wake of terrorist attacks at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem and the city’s Maalbeek metro station. The AmaWaterways representative making the travel arrangements, however, stressed that the itinerary would be modified rather than cancelled.
What ended up making the cruise so fascinating was observing in real time the graceful, purposeful way in which the AmaSerena’s crew handled the crisis, ensuring passengers would still get their money’s worth. Off-the-beaten-path Netherlands stops filled the Belgium voids (like Middelburg, a university town in the country’s southwest) were so well received by passengers according to Karst, that they would later be added to future itineraries.
‘I always say if the door closes, a window opens,’ Karst said, aglow following the official christening ceremony for the AmaSiena this past September that I (to my surprise) was invited to cover with several top-tier travel writers.
‘It’s about thinking on one’s feet and adapting,’ she continues. ‘If we cannot go to one port, there are plenty of other ports worth discovering. Following that Tulip Time sailing, many guests told us they absolutely loved Middelburg. I think it’s one of those hidden gems in the Netherlands, and we provided guests a rare opportunity to discover something new and unexpected, [with] a very authentic feel and interactions with friendly locals. This kind of quick thinking is part of how we’re looking toward the future when seeking out interesting excursions. We like the way places like Middelburg prompt guests to slow down and see a country or region with fresh eyes—especially with travellers who are Gen X and younger who value authenticity over checking off all the boxes.’
While it was interesting to observe how Karst’s and Schreiner’s influence impacted the way the team on board and on land handled a one-off crisis in 2016 to keep the mood cheerful and the clientèle confident, their handling of the pandemic serves as a full-on masterclass on using a global crisis to set new practices in place to improve the on-board experience and readily adapt to younger travellers with different expectations and goals. And while they were testing new safety protocols with European markets during the pandemic on existing ships, they were finishing the building and implementation of the AmaSiena, AmaLucia and AmaDalia (created especially for Egypt itineraries) to include vibrant interior design, environmentally sustainable engineering and a broadening of food choices to accommodate vegetarians and vegans with style.
Another AmaWaterways innovation added to work toward optimal sustainable cruising and connecting to younger guests is its MyAmaCruise app. While saving paper and cutting down on stateroom clutter, it puts the whole itinerary and each day’s activities into a manageable format. A GPS feature puts the geography into sharper context and proves to be useful offshore as well. While complimentary old-school postcards and postage are still available on board, the app shifts that idea into an e-postcard–social media format.
In other words, AmaWaterways is not your grandparents’ cruise line, but they’re confident your grandparents will appreciate the changes and progressive approach to travel, too. Even with a packed schedule aboard the AmaSiena’s christening cruise, Kristin Karst generously set some face-time aside to discuss what was on her mind during the whirlwind of events.
Lucire Rouge: Looking back at the events surrounding AmaSiena’s christening, what were your thoughts on how everything came together? Did everything measure up to expectation?
Kristin Karst: It felt like coming home again, and it did not seem as if it had been nearly two years since we left [cruising], between saying goodbye to our staff and crew following the 2019–20 the New Year’s cruise and August 2021. It’s been a very emotional homecoming, reconnecting with our team members, and even seeing photos of those who started families during the shutdown. The christenings this summer have been very emotional, as was spending time on this new ship, and seeing how everything came together the way we had planned it, from the design to the décor and its functionality. It’s been wonderful to see how our new crew members on board have come together and work as a team.
How have executive level-professional opportunities for women improved in the industry since you started AMA and what do you feel needs to go farther?
I’m encouraged to see the number of women in executive level positions within the travel and hospitality industries continue to rise. However, I do think that there’s room for growth, particularly for women in minority groups. It is so important for us to support and empower young women from all backgrounds who have the desire to be in executive level positions and provide opportunities for them to learn about what makes a successful company and how to effectively lead a team. As an entrepreneur, I hope to lead by example and be a source of inspiration to young women around the world, showing them that it is possible to achieve their dreams through hard work, dedication and commitment. I know that the future is bright, and I’m excited to see women continue to move up in the travel industry, leading teams with their amazing insight and collaborative problem-solving skills.
As you recently received the honour of inclusion in Inc.’s Female Founders 100 List, how do you feel your work can be an influence not only to young women wanting to be an executive in the industry, but also doing it with an entrepreneurial approach?
I believe that a large part of being an entrepreneurial leader involves leading by example and finding a balance between hands-on involvement and delegation of authority along with responsibility. I always try to lead with positivity and optimism and hope that I can be a source of inspiration to young people, women especially, whose goal is to be an executive in the travel industry. I welcome any opportunity to share my experience and what I’ve learned over the years! It is my goal to provide unwavering support to our crew, team members and travel advisor partners because they embody the heart of the Ama family. Without them, I wouldn’t get to do what I love to do each and every day.
What advice would you offer hospitality industry professionals at any stage of their career, especially coming out of such unprecedented times?
I would encourage [professional women], particularly in this time of social distancing and a work-from-home environment, not to lose sight of the importance of building trust through personal interaction. One of the reasons I think our company has grown so successfully is the fact that human connection is at the core of what we do. We operate on the motto, ‘Be extraordinary—together.’ This means that no matter what challenges or unexpected situations may arise, it is important to work together to get through them and remember that true trust and respect towards one another is ultimately what will get a team through difficult times.
How have the brand and the sailing experience for passengers changed since you first started? How will witnessing those changes influence how you will move forward as AmaWaterways approaches its 20th anniversary?
The goal throughout has been to create a river cruise experience that we ourselves would love, with elegantly appointed ships, the freshest locally sourced food and wine, immersive tours and crew that welcomes guests as part of the Ama family. We have stayed true to our vision while continuing to pursue innovation and sustainability in all our aspects of our business whether on board or on shore with our sales and marketing teams. We have followed a conservative growth plan, investing money back into building new ships and remaining debt-free. It’s hard to believe that 19 years have passed, but Rudi and I are just as excited by new itineraries and destinations, such as our recently announced Seven River Journeys and expansion to the Magdalena River in Colombia in 2023, as on July 1, 2002, when we launched AmaWaterways.
What are some of the most important things you learned from the travel agents and journalists on this cruise?
It was important for the travel agents to see first hand and in real time what was involved in the new house and safety protocols on board—how the mask policies work for crew and passengers [in enforcing them], what are the rules for masks in the dining room and how do the shore excursions work in terms of when to wear a mask. We also have gotten positive feedback for offering guests the option of having their pre-flight covid tests on the ship for a fee that’s competitive with what pharmacies are charging travellers across Europe. The [passengers] really seemed to appreciate how we not only made the safety rules easy for everybody to follow, but also how smoothly everything together was rolling out—in keeping with the way we offer our guests everything they need over the past 19 years. It validates the way we’ve done things during our years in the business.
How did you test the safety protocols prior to European travel opening back up for Americans?
When Americans were not allowed in Europe, we operated last year in a smaller capacity in collaboration with a German tour company and put into practice the safety and health protocols aboard the ships. We did this for four months, and we had no cases of COVID. We then implemented these successful protocols on a wider basis once American travellers were allowed to return to Europe, and we plan to do this throughout the fleet. This validated that we have done things the right way in Europe, and are now fully prepared for the [remainder of] 2021, 2022, and 2023 seasons.
How did your approach dealing with the global pandemic reflect the lessons you learned during your corporate positions (with American Express and Viking) and entrepreneurial experience?
During these unpredictable times, we are confident in our teams’ ability to react quickly to changing conditions, come up with creative solutions and work together to implement these solutions. I can speak more to my formative experience at American Express, as it had a huge impact on developing my sense of customer service, attention to detail and willingness to take on new challenges. Working in large companies, Rudi and I both learned the importance of making decisions quickly and creating a united team all working in the same direction. We work hard to keep communication channels open, embrace differing opinions and consider many innovative solutions regardless of where they come from. We have tried to instil in our teams the freedom and confidence to make decisions as long as they are always in the best interests of our guests.
What were some of the most important life lessons you received from your family growing up?
Growing up in Dresden, Germany, my family instilled in me a great work ethic and love for travel at a young age. My parents would take my family on vacations around the world, but required my brother and me to contribute through recycling paper products or selling vegetables from our garden to neighbours. I’m so thankful that my parents did this, as it helped me become a determined young woman and fuelled my passion for being an entrepreneur in the travel industry.
As you’re observing that river cruising is gaining popularity among Generation X and millennials, how will you continue to address the ever-changing needs of these travellers?
Options for the younger, more active traveller include our Wellness Programme, which includes guided hikes and bike rides through the destinations that we sail through. We are also continuing to dream up exciting itineraries in new destinations that we believe will be popular with younger travellers. These include the Secrets of Egypt and the Nile itinerary, taking guests to ancient wonders like the Temple of Luxor, the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza on board the beautiful and modern AmaDahlia. We are also thrilled to partner with Metropolitan Touring and set sail on the Magdalena River in Colombia starting in 2023, offering guests an immersive mix of shore excursions that will allow them to explore the astounding history, culture and beauty of the region. The new ship, AmaMagdalena, will be an eco-friendly ship with many sustainability elements including a zero-carbon footprint, meeting the desires from these generations for more sustainable travel. Down the road, a Borneo itinerary is also in the works.
Is the wellness aspect a part of addressing your shifting demographics?
We have started implementing a variety of new wellness options on our newer ships, such as the AmaMagna, which features an expansive Zen Wellness Studio complete with a large exercise area with an outdoor “spinning with a view” exercise area, group classes led by a professionally trained wellness host, a juice bar, two massage rooms and manicure, pedicure and hair services. Also, in 2019, we débuted new guided wellness activities on board AmaDara, inspired by the culture and heritage of Vietnam and Cambodia, including an introduction to the traditional way of making organic teas, a beginner’s guide to yoga, tai chi and guided meditations. •