(2:30 p.m. EDT) -- Major river cruise lines, whipped into a competitive frenzy by the genre's burgeoning popularity, have been adding new ships and itineraries with head-spinning frequency. Now comes word that Avalon Waterways is planning major experiential changes as well, scheduled to go live by March 2013.
"Everyone's focus has been on the hardware," said Steve Born, vice present of marketing for the Globus family of brands, which includes Avalon. "We've been on that page as well. But now that we're in a good spot with our ships, we started to look at what else is important. What's the evolution?"
Born told Cruise Critic that the company's research concluded that shore excursions and the experience passengers have on land were critical to the river cruise experience. "We started with excursions and that grew into the 'Avalon Choice' concept."
All of the changes will be included in cruise fares, except for a new on-shore dining option. Here's a look at what Avalon Choice will include:
In addition to the traditional one-size-fits-all shore excursions, which typically include a walking tour and perhaps a trip to a cathedral or museum, passengers will have two new shore-ex choices. "Essential Sightseeing" will give travelers a basic orientation and then set them free to explore on their own, while "Leisurely Sightseeing" will take things slower. Born said this will allow passengers to "take their time."
Each ship will be equipped with Nordic walking sticks for passengers who want to hit the trails.
An "alternative sightseeing experience," designed for passengers who want more in-depth excursions, will be offered in some larger ports. For example, Born said visitors to Vienna might be offered a shore excursion examining the history and tradition of Viennese music.
Don't want to sit through a formal two-hour-long four- or five-course dinner in the main dining room? Avalon's new option is a light dinner that will be offered a couple of times per cruise and will feature local specialties in a newly dedicated "Panama Bistro" area on each of the newer, roomier suite ships (Panorama, Vista, Visionary, etc.). Born said the dinners will appeal to those who want to eat lighter and to those who enjoy local food and wines.
Tastings that sample a city's famous dishes and delicacies will be offered on a regular basis, and a local chef will come onboard at least once per cruise to cook local dishes.
In some cities, travelers will be offered an on-shore dining option, the only component of the choice concept that will cost extra (price to be determined).
A "Culture & Cruise" program will concentrate on the region where the ship is traveling, and it'll dovetail with the new food experiences. Demonstrations by local artisans, beer and wine tastings, talks by regional experts and performances by area entertainers will round out the program.
Admittedly, not all of this is revolutionary, Born explained. "We're already doing some of this," he said. "But now we'll be doing more of it."
--by Carol Sottili, Cruise Critic Contributor