Kristin Karst of AmaWaterways: The Future of Travel in The Post Covid World

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

--

Encouraging guests to form connections with other travelers: One of the most special parts of traveling is meeting people from all around the world and I believe it is important to provide guests with opportunities to connect with others. Our ships welcome on average around 150 guests, so it is easy to interact with different guests on tours and in the evening during our complimentary Sip & Sail cocktail hour. Another way we do this on our ships is with a special dinner at the Chef’s Table specialty restaurant that every guest gets a chance to experience while onboard. The dinner features a seven-course tasting menu and the opportunity to gather with a smaller group of guests while connecting over a delicious meal.

As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Karst.

A native of Dresden, Germany, Kristin Karst has become one of the leading executives in the river cruise industry. After obtaining her degrees in the Economics of Tourism & Business Management and an MBA from the University of Dresden, Karst worked for American Express for eight years. Karst relocated to the United States and, in 1999, entered the river cruise segment. Three years later, she co-founded AmaWaterways with Rudi Schreiner and Jimmy Murphy. Karst’s extensive knowledge of Europe’s rivers, culture and traditions, as well as commitment to providing top-notch customer service, enable her to effectively shape the products and services of the company and communicate the benefits of river cruising to travel agents, group leaders and diverse educational and business organizations.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up in Dresden, Germany while it was still “behind the Iron Curtain”, my parents deeply valued the benefits of travel, and they are a large part of why I decided to pursue a career in the industry. They always encouraged me to explore and embrace the world’s diverse people, languages and cultures while urging my brother and me to contribute a little something to each of our vacations to teach us the value of setting a goal and finding creative ways to reach it. Through recycling paper products and selling our garden-fresh fruits and vegetables to neighbors, my brother and I were proud to make our small contributions to the travel experiences that we so looked forward to each year. I have never taken the freedom to travel for granted nor the appreciation of the value that travel brings to our lives.

This passion for travel has played a formative role throughout my life. After getting my MBA from the University of Dresden, I worked at American Express in Switzerland for eight years learning the importance of customer service. After relocating to the U.S., I entered the river cruise segment, which led to co-founding AmaWaterways in 2002. The experiences I had as a child truly shaped my appreciation for travel and helped me realize the positive impact it can have on people’s lives. One of my biggest joys is providing unforgettable experiences for our guests and hearing stories about the memories people have from sailing with us and I’m so grateful to have such a rewarding career doing something that I’m so passionate about.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are so many amazing stories that I could tell from my time at AmaWaterways, from sailing onboard with our guests to visiting the destinations of my dreams like Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia. I have to say that one of my favorite stories unfolded close to home in Lahnstein, Germany where we christened my namesake ship, AmaKristina. The whole day flew by so quickly, but it was surreal to be surrounded by my loved ones and our loyal travel partners as my dream of being the godmother of a ship finally came true. The experience was nothing short of magical from the breaking of the champagne bottle on the hull of the ship to having my parents attend the ceremony after encouraged my entrepreneurial spirit and deep love of travel. This celebratory day is engrained in my mind as one of those moments when you finally take a deep breath and realize all your hard work has paid off and it is such a sweet memory to reflect on surrounded by people I love.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While I am still constantly learning about work-life balance, I struggled a lot with this in the beginning of my career and didn’t take much time for personal hobbies and leisure. I truly love what I do and found it difficult to distinguish my work life from my personal life. I soon realized that my life was richer, my relationships stronger and my vision clearer when I made time to do the things that brought me joy. I am now a big advocate for setting aside time to stay active, spend time with family and friends and of course, travel to new places. These activities leave me feeling refreshed and invigorated, which allows me to perform my best for our outstanding AmaWaterways staff and guests.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am incredibly grateful for Rudi Schreiner, our co-founder and president, as he has been one of the biggest supporters throughout my career. When I first moved to the U.S. and began working for a river cruise line, I was in middle management, and I noticed that there were not many women executives within the travel industry. When I met Rudi at this company, he truly recognized my hard work and encouraged me to reach for higher leadership positions. Together with the late Jimmy Murphy, we envisioned a company that would provide experiences for our guests that we ourselves would want to have, with personalized service, specially curated food and wine and the ability to immerse ourselves in the authentic culture of the destinations we visit. All three of us contributed the ideas and plans necessary to launch AmaWaterways and I cannot thank Rudi enough for believing in me and being a partner that continually challenges me to provide innovative ideas and inspirational leadership to our teams.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

Our team at AmaWaterways is passionate about creating unparalleled travel experiences that allow our guests to explore the world in new ways. We are always encouraging them to come up with innovative new ideas, like having Wellness hosts onboard or introducing an optional Golf Program on the Danube and not forgetting the success of our Celebration of Wine cruises hosted by such a remarkable variety of North American vineyard owners and wine experts. Food and wine and music are important ways that our guests experience a destination and we are always looking for new ways to bring those cultural experiences on board as well as finding hidden gems on shore for guests to discover. Pushing for innovative hospitality services like these have allowed AmaWaterways to become a pioneer in the river cruise industry.

Our longstanding partnerships with Adventure by Disney and Backroads have proven to be very successful ways of introducing new experiences and different clients to river cruising. We also announced a groundbreaking partnership with Ancestry for a special river cruise experience that will depart in 2022, allowing guests to discover their genealogical history and visit the places that shaped the history of their ancestors.

We have also introduced a variety of innovative new itineraries in the past few months that we are very excited about. This past year we announced our groundbreaking Seven River Journeys which will set sail in 2023 and will take guests to 14 countries over 45 or 46 nights — the longest river cruise journeys in the history of the industry. We also announced that starting in December 2023, we will be the first luxury river cruise line to sail the Magdalena River, immersing guests in the rich culture and biodiversity of Colombia. I can’t wait to offer these new experiences for guests, and I look forward to hearing about all the unique memories that guests make throughout these journeys.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

Since the pandemic hit, many people have reexamined their values and there has been a new emphasis on slowing down to enjoy life. After spending so much time at home, many people have realized that the things they once took for granted, such as exploring new destinations and forming connections with loved ones, are what makes life so special. As a result of this, many people are looking to cross off their travel must-do items and we are seeing a large demand for longer, more immersive journeys that will allow guests to learn a little more about themselves and the world around them. Each of our new itineraries or journeys meets a different need, from our Seven River Journeys that will fulfill the desire for longer once-in-a-lifetime experiences to our partnership with Ancestry™ that will meet the desire for the connections, with the past and present, that so many people are craving after spending so much time apart. We pride ourselves in creating these unique experiences that make us a leader and innovator in the river cruise industry, so we are excited to see how these new options shape the travel industry moving forward.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

I strongly believe that personalization will take center stage in the travel industry in the years to come. From personalized menu planning to the variety of included tours and activities to meet the wants of a variety of different travelers, there is no “one size fits all” approach with luxury travelers. In addition to offering up to 23 included excursions during a seven night cruise, we are building into our river cruise journeys more variety in pre- and post-cruise land programs with curated experiences in destinations like Lake Como or Jordan. I think this will play out in a variety of ways across the travel industry especially as technology continues to play a large role in the way that people book their vacations. We are able to capture important information on each guest such as their dietary restrictions or activity levels at the time of booking, and this information will help us create even more seamless and enjoyable experiences for our guests throughout their journey with us.

The COVID-19 pandemic also made people prioritize their health and safety and they want to ensure that they are well taken care of throughout the entirety of their vacation. With the everchanging regulations and protocols in place to keep travelers safe, it is the job of travel companies to ensure that all guests are aware of what will be required of them and to find ways to provide the assistance and peace of mind that travelers need.

Additionally, I foresee travel and hospitality companies evolving to provide more authentic experiences as people increasingly crave immersive travel experiences in less visited destination. I expect to see a lot of companies form more local partnerships and work with local communities to help the travel industry recover, while providing unique experiences for guests. At AmaWaterways we value the local partnerships and relationships that we have in the destinations that we sail through, as it is these events that we have organized in conjunction with the local communities that have helped make our river cruise experiences unique and authentic.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

There are two things that make a vacation experience special for me — forming connections with the locals and spending time with the people I love. Travel is all about connecting with others, seeing the world differently and growing, and I believe the best way to do that is by immersing oneself in new cultures and learning from the people who make the destination special. This is even more meaningful when you do this with friends, family or even interesting people you meet while traveling. One of my favorite trips that embodies both of these things was the honeymoon that Rudi and I took in Africa. This trip was the beginning of my love for Africa and inspired me to further invest in the continent and its beautiful people. The people that I met on that trip shaped my perspective on life and community support and I make it a priority to return whenever possible, as I always leave with a heart full of joy.

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

I absolutely love the idea that travel is about connecting, and I am proud of all the amazing wellness options that we offer on our river cruises to help our guests connect with others onboard and the destinations we visit. We offer a variety of excursions for all activity levels including biking and hiking tours through the picturesque country sides of breathtaking countries. These excursions allow guests to explore the landscapes of the countries they are in and visit local spots hidden away from the mainstream traveler. They also provide quiet time to connect with those they are traveling with and those who reside in these communities. We also offer a variety of wellness experiences onboard that provide a vacation experience that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Our onboard fitness centers and open-air walking track allow guests to continue with their exercise routines even while on vacation and we even offer a variety of exercise, stretching and yoga classes guided by a professionally trained Wellness Host.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Surprise and delight experiences throughout the trip: Our internal motto has always been “under promise, over deliver and sprinkle in personalized surprise and delight moments”! We are constantly looking for ways to provide delightfully unexpected experiences for our guests and have received great responses from guests who have been wowed by the unique experiences they have had onboard our ships. These little moments, often provided by our crew who take such pleasure in watching and listening to our guests, are what make a vacation special. Some of my favorite surprise and delight moments have happened on our Christmas Market Cruises. Some examples include children (and adults) being encouraged to leave their cruise-provided slippers outside their stateroom, just as children throughout Europe leave their shoes out on St. Nicholas Day in hopes of receiving presents. The next morning, they all receive special treats from the AmaWaterways elves! Other surprises on these sailings have included a tree-trimming party with a special gift for the guest that finds the glass pickle ornament and surprise cookies being left in staterooms on Christmas Eve.
  2. Connections to locals that offer authentic experiences: With the desire for authentic connections and travel experiences growing, it is so important to offer opportunities for travelers to immerse themselves in the destinations they are visiting. Our top priority is to support the countries we visit and understand their perspectives in order to build a strong relationship. With less then 150 guests on board, it’s easy for our guests to mingle with the residents of the town and truly experience the culture, visiting off-the-beaten-path places and discovering local restaurants, coffee shops and bars. It is so special to work with the local businesses and community leaders to create exclusive experiences for our guests like our Oktoberfest in Vilshofen and our Wine Festival in Bourg and Spitz.
  3. Outstanding consistent service: One of the most important aspects of any vacation is the service that guests receive throughout their trip. Service that seems intuitive and is delivered with joy keeps people coming back. AmaWaterways encourages all our crew to provide personal touches and I especially love the human interactions that take place during our river cruise. One specific instance of these outstanding personal touches occurred when one of our young guests left their beloved teddy bear onboard one of our ships. On discovering the forgotten bear on board, our dedicated Cruise Manager jumped quickly into a taxi and made a special trip to the airport. This caring gesture truly exemplifies how our staff goes above and beyond to ensure our guests create vacation memories of a lifetime.
  4. Providing ways for guests to stay active and continue to prioritize wellness on vacation: As wellness has become top-of-mind over the past few years, people will return to vacation experiences where they don’t have to compromise their exercise routines and healthy diet. We pride ourselves in embracing the newest trends in wellness and active travel by providing healthy cuisine choices like whole grain and fresh fruit breakfast bowls, delicious gluten-free, low-sodium and vegetarian options and setting up hydration stations with citrus and gemstone water. We also offer a variety of classes from guided meditations to stretching and fitness classes. We have heard from many guests that these wellness options have become an unexpected favorite part about sailing with us.
  5. Encouraging guests to form connections with other travelers: One of the most special parts of traveling is meeting people from all around the world and I believe it is important to provide guests with opportunities to connect with others. Our ships welcome on average around 150 guests, so it is easy to interact with different guests on tours and in the evening during our complimentary Sip & Sail cocktail hour. Another way we do this on our ships is with a special dinner at the Chef’s Table specialty restaurant that every guest gets a chance to experience while onboard. The dinner features a seven-course tasting menu and the opportunity to gather with a smaller group of guests while connecting over a delicious meal.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am incredibly proud of the ways that AmaWaterways has used its success to give back. In partnership with Opportunities of Development thru Art (ODA), we provide both financial and supplies support to a school in Siem Reap, Cambodia that offers young children free English language instruction and computer education. We also aid in continuing education for teachers at the school. In addition, we are passionate about supporting the communities that we sail through and have formed relationships with many of the locals who have opened their homes to cooking lessons or their vineyards and family chateaux to specially guided tours and tastings. We also encourage our guests to use their free time to explore the towns that we sail through and visit local shops, restaurants and cafes, so we can give back to the people that have given us so much throughout the years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe that everyone performs at their highest when they are well-taken care of and supported through nourishing their body and mind. I would love to start a movement that encourages everyone to prioritize both their mental and physical well-being, because we cannot pour from an empty cup and when we take care of ourselves, we are able so show up as the best version of ourselves for others. I think small steps such as implementing more physical activity, prioritizing fruits and vegetables and taking time to do the things that bring you joy are just the beginning. Of course, not everything can be fixed by these simple things, but there may be a ripple effect that reduces anxiety and causes more kindness among everyone.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Our guests and crew post remarkable photos and videos of their experiences and I encourage readers to follow AmaWaterways on Instagram @amawaterways.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

--

--

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor