The power of positivity
They’re movers and shakers. Their contributions have changed and continue to change the nature of travel, both in Canada and around the world. In this week’s issue, Canadian Travel Press’ series of profiles on Women in Travel continues with Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.
Kristin Karst first got hooked on travel while growing up in Dresden, despite it being a time when vacation options from East Germany were limited.
“My parents took me from a young age actually to travel, but, of course, it was the Eastern part, it was the former Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and I loved it,” she recalls. “It was clear that I really wanted to make travel part of my life.”
A key attribute of the executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways today is a sense of positive thinking, which she says stems from her upbringing, and plays a factor in her success.
“I learned this when I grew up in Eastern Germany. We had to make everything out of nothing,” she says. “I think never to take anything for granted. To always be able to be creative, to never give up, to always see there is a solution to everything, and never to lose this positive energy, and passion and spirit.”
In the beginning
Although she also worked in a hospital as her parents thought she could be a doctor, during school breaks Karst got her first experience in the industry at a German travel agency – the only one that existed in the East during this period.
“I was working in incoming tourism, outgoing, the flight department, the train department,” she says. “And I was lucky enough to get one of the spots out of 12 in one year at the one school where you were able to study Economics of Tourism.”
After graduating with an MBA from the University of Dresden, Karst started working with American Express, which opened an office in the city shortly after the fall of The Berlin Wall.
“I was managing the leisure department there, got transferred over after a few years to American Express in Switzerland, the headquarters in Zurich,” she says.
On her first day on the job, she dove right into the position as her manager tasked her with writing the intro to the new brochure, which was due the following morning. In the end, she says the new post had a very steep learning curve, as her manager never returned to the job due to health reasons.
“I took binders home, was reading through them into the night, in order to be able to answer all the client’s calls and requests, and I had a wonderful team around. I would say that also shaped me, the way how everything was handled that the client didn’t even know what was happening,” she says. “And really to be prepared to swim and jump in and to do it, that has never left me. Whatever situation can occur in life, I’m ready to jump in and to do it. When I’m at the airport and the flight gets cancelled, not to be stressed out, you know it is just what it is, and now let’s see what the best solution is.”
A new course
In 2000, Karst relocated to California and took on a role with Viking River Cruises, where she met her future husband and AmaWaterways co-founder Rudi Schreiner.
“With my knowledge being German, knowing all the different rivers, the cities, what can be done there, entertainment, so I worked on that side and there was a lot of passion in it,” she says. “Shortly after in 2002, we founded our own company, AmaWaterways, it was called then Amadeus Waterways, and then later we shortened it to AmaWaterways and that is now 16 years ago.”
Prior to launching the business, she says she was both nervous and excited, but notes the entire process from conception to the first river cruise went by quickly.
“That was maybe a year that we started thinking about it and then maybe six months before we started to look more closely into this, but it was actually something done very quickly,” she says. “We were very small in the beginning.”
Thanks to the connections of AmaWaterways’ third co-founder, the late Jimmy Murphy, who was the owner of Brendan Worldwide Vacations, a tour operator that started booking river cruises, business picked up just as fast.
“And then the rest is once you work hard, once you treat everyone the best way, then it’s just growing and developing,” she says. “There are so many entrepreneurs out there, there are so many home-based agencies both in the US and Canada, we just had to put ourselves into their shoes to be on the same page, help each other be true partners. And then they would want to grow with us and that’s how it happened.”
From the get-go, she says their concept was to redefine the river cruise industry, which at the same time skewed a lot older.
“Many river cruise ships attracted the 70 to 80-year-olds only, and today, it’s 40 to 50-year-olds, it’s multigenerational families, but you know, you had to make that happen,” she says. “We knew that we had so much knowledge, so much passion.”
Some of the changes they implemented included making WiFi free of charge and adding bicycles on board for guests to use.
“We have 25 bikes on all our ships in Europe to make it more active,” she says. “We also were the first ones to include wine, first with dinner then with lunch because we know wine is a culture. It brings people together. It creates a much more fun and happy environment.”
No matter how much the river cruise line grows, the California transplant strongly believes in maintaining the level of personal interaction within the company.
“Personal interaction, the human connection, that is so important no matter how many beautiful ships one builds, it’s all about how do we treat each other, how do we respect each other. And that is, of course, how we respect and treat our guests, our clients, but, on the other side, all of our employees in the entire AmaWaterways crew that is working with us,” she says. “And that is still today the soul, the heart of our company, that human connection, and I believe this is the reason why we’ve become so successful and have grown. For us, it’s always quality over quantity. We never wanted to be the biggest, but we want to be the best. And I believe we’ve achieved this.”
The best moments
Although she considers the entire past 16 years as a highlight, she says a rewarding part of the job is being able to provide staff with a wonderful working environment, whether it’s the head office in California, the teams in Basel or London, or on board the ships.
“It’s not the physical awards that count, of course, it’s nice when you get called up and you get this award as best river cruise line, but that’s not really what matters and counts,” she says. “It’s the personal email that we get from an agent saying thank you for making me look good, my client had the best vacation of a lifetime from all the trips he or she has taken, those are truly the highlights.”
Looking ahead, she says one of her goals is to become more of a mentor to her team, and share the knowledge and expertise she’s accrued from decades in the industry.
“They come with a whole new set of tools of understanding technology, they are way ahead of me there, however, the experience is priceless,” she says. “And still that customer service that is so basic and has nothing to do with technology, the communication that is so important.”
As for her own mentors, she points to her mom, for teaching her how to be independent, invested, to reach her goals and to not to rely on anyone or anything else.
“That definitely helped me to become what we are today,” she says. “And this is the same how I have raised my daughter, even though it was not always easy. There’s some pushing back, of course, but once children get older, they realize and recognize that this is the best.”
A day in the life
While no day on the job is ever quite the same, when she’s not travelling, Karst starts off her morning by going for a dip.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a small swimming pool at home, so from 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., I swim, which is nice, the cold water really refreshes me,” she says. “In this half hour I get my thoughts together for that day, I’m planning out my day as much as I can. I try to solve little challenges that came in the night before to see how can I best solve them. Not to be emotional, but really professional.”
Then it’s time for coffee and sorting emails in a priority based on the respected time zones from partners. Upon arrival in the office, she greets every department in order to get them energized and fired up for the day.
“That’s really important, no matter how we grow, that we keep that family feeling and the smile on our face and a good morning because if we lose that, then anyone else will lose that, so it’s very important,” she says.
After that it’s a mixture of conference calls, meetings, working across various departments, checking emails in-between, as well as being on the road to visit clients or take part in conferences with top consortia.
“It’s a very good balance between travel from a sales perspective, a customer service perspective, travel to be on our ships with our crew, launching new ships, christenings and also to be in our office here and do the work here,” she says.
Role of the trade
As for the future of travel advisors, Karst believes they will always be very important, especially in a day and age where people have less and less time.
“You need the expert that is there for you to really help you, planning these things,” she says. “The expert also that can judge if the marketing that is done online is truthful or not because pictures can be all beautiful. I think that’s very important that people listen to their travel advisors, to always have the best and the most memorable time in their life.”
Not only can agents qualify their clients, she says they are also knowledgeable in terms of the products that are out there.
“With all the different things we do on board, all the activities, the way how we design the tours, the way how we have the size of a tour, with AmaWaterways, it’s not one size fits all; we break it out into gentle walkers, active walkers, late risers, so many different tours all included, but it’s up to you, you choose and that’s what the client today wants, the younger client, and so that’s where the travel advisors are coming in.”
Going beyond simply the lucrative commission levels, she hopes travel agents experience a river cruise for themselves.
“Hopefully with AmaWaterways, but with any of us river cruise lines to know, to see what it is, to see the beauty, to be able to talk to all the clients about it,” she says. “To really encourage that beautiful vacation concept, and have all of these wonderful times when the clients come back and tell the agents you’ve just provided me with the best travel experience of my life.”
What’s to come
Moving forward, the company is gearing up to launch new ships in 2019, including the AmaMagna, and is constantly looking at what’s to come in terms of trends.
“What do the new generations want? It’s about the personalization, it’s about the choice, seeing new trends. We identified this food and wine trend, we have today 60 wine cruises, after we started with one wine cruise years ago,” she says. “We identified the wellness trend, we will have wellness on pretty much all our ships next year.”
Another growing trend is that of multigenerational family travel onboard river cruises, as it’s a stress-free environment where they don’t have to constantly pack and unpack.
“Families are spending quality time together on a river cruise ship and everyone can do what they want to do,” she says. “The kids can go hiking, biking, maybe the parents join a culinary tour, but they all spend family time together during the meals, in the evening.”
But no matter what challenges lay ahead, her positive streak is bound to continue.
“We have challenges no matter what, everyone has challenges, and you know, when I for instance go to the Mekong River and I see how happy the people are there and see how happy they are living with almost nothing, that actually always puts me down into perspective that we can be the happiest people here the way we’re working in travel and our whole environment.”
Q and A with Kristin Karst
From how she spent her honeymoon to getting up close and personal with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the co-founder of AmaWaterways shares a few travel tales…
What’s your overall country count?
It’s over 100. I don’t know if it’s now 110, 120 or more.
How often are you on the road?
I would say I travel probably seven months out of the 12 months, maybe even eight.
Where are you based?
We are based in southern California in Calabasas. It’s about 45 minutes away from Los Angeles, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. But we have an office in Basel, so I’m very often in Europe, that’s why I’m also not losing my German accent, over there I speak German, and sometimes of course in the UK, then the destinations where our ships are and then looking for new destinations as well.
Do you still have a bucket list then?
I will have a big bucket list for my entire life. There are still so many countries that I haven’t seen, or maybe I’ve been to this country, but I haven’t seen certain places there. I love Asia, I love the Mekong River, but I still have Bali on my own bucket list or Indonesia. And there are so many more destinations in the world. I love Africa. We have a small ship there the Zambezi Queen cruising the Chobe River in the four country corners between Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. But I know because I love Africa so much I want to see more countries in Africa.
Favourite river cruise experience?
Every cruise where I am, it’s my favourite for that time. But when Rudi and I got married in 2011, our honeymoon trip took us to Africa and that was the first time we actually cruised on the Zambezi Queen. Because of this whole excitement being a honeymoon trip, seeing that part of Africa for the first time, the incredible wildlife there, the most wonderful genuine people there, all of that I feel that is really the ultimate travel experience.
Share a special travel experience?
Last year when Rudi had a big birthday, his wish was to go see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, so we went there and saw Rwanda for the first time, and now we feature that Rwanda package as part of our 2019/2020 pre- and post-extensions to the Zambezi Queen. That encounter with the mountain gorillas I have to say was one of my most emotional travel experiences. It’s hard to imagine that it can get better than that.
Do you have anything to add?
I can say river cruising is the fastest-growing segment in the travel industry not just the cruise industry but the entire industry. The potential is huge. The big ocean cruise lines are helping us with all their shipbuilding projects because there is always so many of the clients once they start cruising, they come eventually to us river cruise lines, and so do the non-cruisers. I feel we have the best between ocean cruising and land travel – river cruises features the advantages of everything.