An Interview With Uniworld’s Ellen Bettridge

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Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld

Ellen Bettridge clearly is enthusiastic about her new home, as she calls her job. Speaking at a recent Signature Travel Network Owners Meeting in Phoenix, the President and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection put her sales skills to work when passionately talking about a company that, like her, has gone through a lot of changes in recent years.

She joined Uniworld after a career that included top spots on the retail side and leadership positions at Silversea and Azamara on the ocean cruise side. Meanwhile, with the advent of Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld is facing changes of its own with new competition on the luxury river cruise side of the business

“I’ve been at Uniworld for a little bit more than a year,” she said. “I’m in this incredibly cool river cruise space. And it is so cool.”

It’s not a word one often uses for river cruises, but Bettridge proceeded to point out why she chose the phrase when addressing challenges facing retailers selling the product. First and foremost is that agents are trying to figure out just how different the companies are from one another. “It has been, ‘You guys are all the same, you are all floating down the river,’” she said.

With great pride, Bettridge contended that there is nothing that could be more untrue. Furthermore, Uniworld’s very uniqueness is really one of the reasons to concentrate on this brand when dealing with those discriminating clientele who appreciate differences. “We are all so different,” she said emphatically of river cruise brands.

The differences extend well beyond the cutlery. With her first point, she clearly had her audience of travel agents primarily from family-owned businesses in mind: “Uniworld is a family-owned business. Anyone who works for a family-owned business, you know that they are picky about everything. So we’ve got to be the best.”

OK, but sometimes family-owned businesses have financial issues, so her second point was that Uniworld is 100% debt-free. “They write checks for all the ships,” she said, adding: “That is a really nice feeling for me. I just have to bring in the profit.”

Thirdly, they’re part of The Travel Corporation. “It’s a huge company,” said Bettridge. “I don’t know how my boss does it. Somehow, he seems to know all about all of our businesses at all times. It’s great because we truly have great resources.”

Uniworld’s Floating Boutique Hotels

The greatest difference about Uniworld, she says, is the fleet. “Our ships are the most magnificent floating boutique hotels,” she said. “That’s the only way to describe them. Every single ship is different. Every chandelier is picked out for each ship. Each piece of art comes from Mr. [Brett] Tollman’s personal art collection. They’re worth a fortune and we have them on our ships. Each carpet is specifically designed on every ship and for every stateroom. They are unique in every way.”

Maria Theresa

She referenced the Maria Theresa ship as an example. “This ship is over the top. But you know what, you’re in the Hapsburg region! When you’re floating down the Danube, you feel like you never leave the Hapsburg region, whether you’re on the ship or on land. It’s magnificent.”

She said that every one of the suites is different from suites of other brands. “They all have amazing handmade Savoir beds. They all have incredible marble bathrooms and they all have outstanding closet space. All of that is really important.”

There is nothing cold about these ships. “If you don’t feel like you’ve walked into someone’s home, you aren’t on a Uniworld ship,” she emphasized. “It’s the little tiny things like incredible flowers everywhere, it’s little candy dishes or homemade cookies. They want you to feel like you’re coming home.”

Uniworld Stateroom 425 Maria Theresa

Joy of River Cruising

In 2017, she said the big news was the launching of the Joie de Vivre. Her message about this newest ship, which docks in the heart of Paris, is analogous to what she said about Maria Theresa sailing on the Danube in Germany and Austria: “The Joie de Vivre might depart from Paris, but Paris never leaves her.”

She cited authentic French dining ranging from “an authentic little French bistro with good views and the best French onion soup to a fantastic full French restaurant onboard with authentic, absolutely stunning pieces of art. You don’t feel as though you could possibly be on a river. You feel as if you’re in the middle of Paris and you’re looking out at the Eiffel Tower.”

These ships aren’t big, but they make up for it by putting every space to good use: “We took Club L’Esprit, a spa and wellness center during the day, and transformed it into Claude’s supper club at night,” she noted.

As an example of how the company listens and make changes to improve the product, Bettridge pointed to suite changes: “We’ve heard feedback from agents and we’re trying to tone them down a little bit. But they have that yacht-like finish and are absolutely stunning.”

Food, Service & Feefo

She waxed poetic over the detail placed on cuisine: “Food is so important to what we do. Mrs. Tollman is actually my executive chef. The most important thing to her is that it has got to be fresh. It has got to be healthy. Also important is how do we continue to evolve our menus because people’s tastes change.”

Uniworld Staff, Ariella

Evolving cuisine is a balancing act. “Right now we are doing some massive things to our menus, but you’ve got to keep the classic stuff in there,” she said. “Fortunately, we work with an amazing team of people. They are so much fun to work with. We challenge them every day and they absolutely deliver.”

As for service she observed: “Everyone says they have the best service. But our team on board is so empowered, they are so passionate, they care about every single person and making sure that we wow them. They are warm and they are wonderful. From the captain all the way down, everybody knows their jobs and they do it really well. I’d like to take the housekeeper home with me because she is so efficient and through.”

Don’t just take her word for it: “On our website we have something called Feefo in which guests independently fill out the survey and we list their responses. Right now we’re sitting on 4.905 (out of 5). It’s my favorite thing to check. If you have customers wondering if they should or shouldn’t spend more money, tell them to check out the website. It’s all about selling the differences. You have to understand that you are selling something different and these help to show that you are.”

On October 11, we checked out the site for ourselves. Sure enough independent feedback based on 1,686 verified reviews stood at 4.9 out of 5. The two most recent comments came in from 10 hours earlier: “Would absolutely use their service again. Great service and staff. Wonderful food and drink. Beautiful new ship. Tours were well organized. I loved every minute.”

And from a second customer: “Eurose (butler) and Tameran (bartender) were wonderful. This is our second trip on Uniworld and it will not be our last.”

All in all, it was one of the best and most enthusiastic sales presentations we’ve seen on river cruises in recent times, covering all the basics, with a sense of authentic enthusiasm while doing so. You can see why Bettridge is enthusiastic about her new home.–Michael Driscoll

Also see …

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