While the river cruise is the fastest-growing segment in travel right now, the crowding of the market is having some serious drawbacks for river cruise companies. More ships, a limited number of ports, and difficulty educating the travel market are causing these travel brands to scramble to differentiate themselves and fill cabins.

Let’s take a look at some of the concerns in the industry, and see if we can’t find solutions.

1. Not Everyone Has Viking’s Marketing Budget

Fans of Downton Abbey will know the river cruise brand Viking, even if they didn’t before they watched the program. The brand not only funded the Masterpiece Theater series but also launched a cruise to the “real” Downton Abbey.

Few river cruise companies have the kind of marketing budget for these giant efforts, so how can they connect with their audience?

A Solution: You don’t need an astronomical budget to compete with larger players in this space. Branded content, social media, and video content are all great tools to help you connect in a meaningful way with the people you want to fill your ships with. In fact, advertising will only take you so far these days. Consumers want to get to know a brand, and these other tools will do the trick. And let’s get away from these generic emails sent to every guest who’s ever booked a trip. How hard would it be, for example, to send a handwritten thank you note after a cruise? In my mind, I’d be more likely to book again if I heard from the company’s CEO rather than a canned email sent to thousands.

2. Ports (Especially Europe) are Getting Crowded

North Americans love Europe, based on the fact that half a million people took river cruises there last year, a number that has grown 7x since 2001.

The problem with this explosive growth is that there are a finite number of ports in Europe. Everyone wants to dock at Paris or Budapest, but it’s less enjoyable when you’re crawling over other river cruise ships to get ashore.

A Solution: I’ve got two ideas. The first is to explore less popular ports in Europe. Yes, the top cities are hot destinations, but what about those smaller ports that are less crowded and can let guests have a more authentic (and less tourist-centric) piece of Europe?

And what about other destinations? For example, Amazon or Australian river cruises, while certainly established, don’t have the throngs of crowds fighting over land access, and can differentiate your brand in (nearly) uncharted territories.

3. Shore Excursions are Lackluster

Travelers who book river cruises often have already taken them in the past, so it’s hard for them to get excited about the same rehashed bike tour or a generic wine tasting. If a traveler is trying to choose between two river cruise brands, it’s those shore excursions that will be the determining factor. Do your stand out enough to be chosen?

A Solution: While this is a challenge, it presents plenty of opportunity to get creative with excursions. Visiting the same ports every cruise gives your brand the chance to forge relationships with locals, to incorporate culture into your cruise.

Connect with the famed truffle hunter to take groups on a truffle hunting expedition. Partner with the olive oil maker to take travelers through the manufacturing process. Ask local families to open their homes to your guests for home cooked meals. It’s these relationships — these authentic experiences — that will stay in the memories of your guests and have them tell others how magical their cruise was.

4. The Audience is Difficult to Expand

Currently, the majority of river cruise travelers are over 60. River cruise brands would do well to appeal to a wider audience, but the challenge is: how?

A Solution: On a recent cruise I took, I was pleased to see younger and more diverse guests. I have high hopes for the demographic expanding, but it does take effort through targeted marketing. Rather than focusing on AARP and its ilk to reach potential travelers, hit social media. Advertise in publications that target newer, more modern audiences. But remember: Generation X and Millennials want something very different out of travel — and marketing — so it’s imperative that you understand this audience and how to best reach them.  

River cruises are only going to explode in the coming years, if we can overcome these obstacles and find innovative ways to differentiate.