40 Years of Riviera Travel

Gillian (right) with fellow STA contributor Jeannine Williamson

Gillian Thornton joins in the anniversary celebrations as Riviera looks to the future

Who can resist an invitation to a birthday party in Paris? Certainly not me, especially when we are celebrating 40 years of Riviera Travel, the UK’s leading river cruise and tour operator. The very first Riviera holiday in 1984 was a coach and camping tour to the French Riviera – hence the name adopted by the new company – so the French capital was the perfect choice of venue for Riviera to unveil its plans to a group of UK travel journalists.

My husband and I have taken several land tours with Riviera – most recently a spectacular visit to Jordan – but I have never sampled the cruise portfolio that now makes up half of all Riviera holiday sales. So, I was delighted to be hosted on board the Jane Austen river cruiser, moored within sight of the Eiffel Tower.

First impressions ticked all my boxes. A spacious reception area with gift shop, leading to a comfortable lounge and bar with panoramic windows at the bow of the ship, passenger accommodation to the stern. Here on Ruby Deck I found my Standard Double cabin with floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, ample storage space, and fully tiled bathroom with semi-circular shower. Suites are available on the upper deck, along with a panoramic observation lounge. Downstairs, a small spa area with sauna, steam room and hairdresser is the place for a spot of post-excursion pampering.

‘Dress to impress’ was a ship’s command I was happy to obey as I got ready for the gala dinner showcasing the talents of the kitchen staff. Each of the three courses included a dainty portion of a signature dish from four European rivers or countries, the Danube and the Rhine, Portugal and France, so no menu decisions necessary!   

Next morning, CEO Phil Hullah took us on a whistle-stop video tour through Riviera’s 40-year success story. Their first river cruise holidays in 2009; ocean cruises in 2016; and three years later, their popular Walk and Discover tours. Phil emphasised the company’s three core values– an exceptional holiday experience for guests; a focus on affordable luxury; and outstanding customer service. 

As Riviera looks to the future, their aim is to become the number one specialist tour operator for the mature, child-free market, and to broaden the holiday experience for customers whilst continually ‘obsessing’ about the guest experience. They are also aiming for a 20% carbon reduction by 2028 on a per-customer, per-night basis. 

So, what can customers – old and new – expect to see coming up? Already this year, Riviera have introduced seven new escorted tours, all of which include an extended stay at a city, coastal or wildlife landmark. Destinations include India’s Golden Triangle and Mumbai, a Kenya Safari, and Icons of Japan.

On the river cruise front, they have added a free guest drinks package to all European cruises. There is good news too for customers in Ireland, where the company has just re-opened its European river cruise programme. And in 2025, we can all look forward to new themed sailings with 32 departures across eight themed cruises that include food, art, history, music and horticulture.

“We are also launching two new ships in spring 2025”, continued Chief Operating Officer Robin Shaw. “Riviera Radiance will cruise the Danube and Riviera Rose on the Douro, carrying 178 and 114 guests respectively. Meanwhile, three new voyages will start in December this year dedicated to solo travellers. We will also have five new combination cruises so guests can merge two back-to-back itineraries”.

Later on, I chat to Marketing Director Sarah Fowler and discover just how seriously Riviera takes customer feedback. Maximum group size will drop from 50 to 36 on the 2025 Classic tours programme and the season will last from March to November with new departures added in the 2025 shoulder season. For guests who like an even more intimate experience, 12 new Signature Grand European tours will have an average group size of just 22 guests, including 12-day trips to the Austrian Tyrol, Northern Croatia, and Madeira.

“Mature travellers are our core audience, but we frequently welcome younger guests too who share the same holiday interests”, says Sarah. “So when it comes to advertising, we use a range of professional models in our TV advertisements, but never anyone under 50, because it is important to represent our audience accurately.  

“But the videos you see on our website show real customers enjoying our holidays, all filmed by our in-house team, and we also use photos in our brochures that are submitted by customers to our popular annual photo competition”.

Post-holiday feedback is an essential follow-up to any booking and the issues raised by guests in the Welcome Home surveys are reviewed at regular meetings to see how the customer experience can be enhanced still further. Recent innovations include the introduction of the drinks package for river cruisers and the launch next year of more themed trips. So what does Sarah think Riviera is particularly good at?

“Doing the right thing by the customer”, she replied immediately. “Bending over backwards to help when problems occur and with a 24/7 helpline to the UK in case of emergency. That element of affordable luxury too. We don’t inflate prices and then suddenly discount them. If there is a promotion after a customer has booked with us, they won’t lose out”.

It is clear that the team never stop looking for ways to grow both the business and the customer experience, a goal we were all happy to toast with a glass of bubbly and a slice of Riviera’s 40th birthday cake. Try it yourself on their river cruises this year.  

After a morning of presentations and interviews, we set out by coach past some of Europe’s most iconic city sights – the Champs-Elysées and Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and Notre-Dame de Paris, its roof still shrouded in scaffolding – to experience the Atelier des Lumières. The capital’s new digital light experience, this immersive show transports viewers to the time of the Egyptian Pharoahs in the cavernous surroundings of a former foundry near the Bastille. Then it was back to Jane Austen for a final chat over dinner to friends old and new.

Next morning as I packed my bag ready to disembark, staff were already preparing the ship to receive the afternoon guests for an eight-day cruise through Normandy. Was I envious of them cruising the scenic meanders of the Seine to Monet’s garden, historic Rouen and beyond? You bet I was. My first experience of a Riviera cruise ship will definitely not be my last. The challenge is which one to choose first!

Next steps

Visit Riviera Travel to discover more about their river cruises in France and across Europe. Call 0800 412 5678 to get a quote and book.

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Gillian Thornton

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