AmaWaterways’ Kristin Karst and Rudi Schreiner: Rolling on the river…and the punches…with style

Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst , attending the christening of the AmaKristina. Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

The AmaSiena, one of AmaWaterways’ newest ships, is essentially a floating boutique hotel, with a main dining room, white tablecloth restaurant, and informal dining area, along with amenities such as a library, a stylish bar/lounge area (that’s a living room by day), fitness room, and hair salon. Some cruise ships (both ocean and river) are elegant, but in a way that duplicates every other vessel in a given line’s fleet. AmaWaterways’ answer to a “signature look,” meanwhile, designing each ship with its own aesthetic and identity. The décor is strikingly modern, but unlike your mom’s luxury cruise ship, also open and airy enough so you can appreciate the Rhine’s castles, cityscapes, wine country expanses, and other points of interest through the lounge’s floor-to-ceiling windows or in a stateroom’s outdoor deck. Renaissance and medieval architectural marvels fill in the chronological and physical space between notable German towns and small cities (including the imposing Cologne and Heidelberg, a university town surrounded by wineries).

The beauty of a river cruise, such as this “Captivating Rhine” itinerary, is that it hits that sweet spot between a pre-planned packaged vacation and one you plan yourself. And after 18 months of COVID-19 lockdowns and uncertainty, this nicely-paced trip is the stuff dreams are made of for anybody dipping their toe back into international travel. Better still, you can do it aboard the sparkling new AmaSiena (the 24th ship in the fleet, to be followed by AmaLucia and AmaDalia, #25 and #26, respectively).

The AmaSiena in Amsterdam on departure day.
Heidelberg, Germany
Cologne, Germany
Strasbourg, France
Requewihr, France

Another thing that sets AmaWaterways’ excursions apart is that they are not operated like a hyper-shaperoned school field trip. Should you stumble into an overbearing guide, the AmaSiena’s cruise manager (the warm and attentive Martina Valachova) is all ears, and will also provide recommendations for the best-fitting activities based on your personality and interests. She is intent on having you get the most of Cologne and Heidelberg, Germany, Strasbourg, France and points in between, on your terms.

This is exactly what AmaWaterways’ co-founders and travel industry power couple Kristin Karst and Rudi Schreiner had in mind nearly 20 years ago. After seeing how the companies they helped lead in the past catered to an older, selective clientele, they decided to re-engineer river cruising based on how younger generations of sophisticated and well-traveled will be evolving. One of the most telling signs of their anticipating more active, wellness driven travelers is keeping bikes available on board for tours and individual rentals. More recently, they added an on-board “wellness host” as well as vegan and vegetarian meal options (no more settling for steamed veggies) and a welcome farm-to-table sensibility that changes at every port-of-call.

Kristin Karst (l) and Rudi Schreiner (r) with Godmother, Debbie Fiorino – Senior Vice President and COO of Owned Brands for World Travel at AmaSiena’s official christening, August 29, 2021.

While Karst and Schreiner still embrace the challenges of refocusing river cruising through a modern luxury lens and rethinking the sustainability aspect of cruising, their efforts and the company’s were redoubled during the pandemic. Though they earned such accolades as induction into the British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2019 along with numerous awards from prestigious Stateside travel trade magazines and organizations, they not only implemented COVID-related safety procedures but also updated on-board experiences, completing and perfected new boats in their 26-boat fleet (at press time), further developed the wellness program and thoroughly overhauled the food program to make the stodgy buffet a thing of the past. Karst also noted that just before the pandemic, AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to be inducted into Tables et Auberges de France, a prestigious French association dedicated to hospitality professionals (especially smaller firms and entrepreneurs) with a vested interest in providing their clientele high quality and regionally authentic dining experiences.

Kristin Karst
Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

They also take great pride in the AmaWaterways’ app, the perfect embodiment of achieving optimal sustainable cruising and connecting to younger guests. While saving paper and cutting down on stateroom clutter, the app translates the whole itinerary and each day’s activities into a manageable format. Its GPS feature puts the geography into sharper context, and proves to be useful offshore as well. While providing old school paper postcards and postage for guests is still a perk, the app offers this perk in an e-postcard/social media format.

Although Schreiner was aboard another christening cruise, he felt compelled to race to Lahnstein, Germany by car to make a surprise visit to the AmaSiena on its christening and share his thoughts about how the AmaSiena’s official debut will set the course for the company’s future. Even with her own whirlwind schedule, Karst generously set some face-time aside to discuss her hopes and dreams for AmaWaterway’s future…which involves younger generations and their very different goals and needs for international traveler—specifically well-traveled Gen-X and older millennials who, “value authenticity over checking off all the boxes,” as Karst puts it.

In other words, AmaWaterways is not your grandparents’ cruise line…but the founding couple is confident your grandparents would appreciate the changes and progressive approach to river cruising, too.

How has the brand and river cruising changed since you launched in 2002, and how will witnessing those changes influence how AMA Waterways will evolve beyond its its 20th anniversary?

Kristin Karst: While the brand and sailing experience has continued to stay centered on offering our guests luxurious river cruise vacations with unmatched shore excursions and onboard activities, our sustainability and culinary efforts are taking us to new places. In 2019, AmaKristina became the first river cruise ship to receive the Green Award, a prestigious certification that recognizes ships for their quality, safety and environmental performance. As of May 2020, our entire European fleet has earned the certification, and we are also continuing to implement new measures to minimize our impact on the environment such as replacing plastic with paper straws and providing glass water bottles in our staterooms.

Even with Europe re-opening to American travelers, the pandemic is ongoing for now and there’s still uncertainty about what may happen. What makes you hopeful things will work out in the long run?

Rudi Schreiner: I am confident things will get better in the next year, and if not, the next two years. People may find it hard to believe, but I have not lost sleep in the past 18 months because I’ve been in (the river cruising business) since 1992 and the travel industry since 1982 with STI (Student Travel International). We’ve dealt with a variety of things from terrorism to civil war to god knows what. We’ve been careful of how we spend our money and always prepared our company for the possibility for a year of no cruising. While we did not specifically predict COVID, and we did not know what would cause travel to shut down, we knew there would be a point where it would happen, whether the cause was civil unrest, global terrorism, or environmental issues causing water levels to fall.

Our clientele is also optimistic as 2022 looks very good for bookings. I have been (keeping track of) the case scenarios for AmaWaterways, and as I am very big spreadsheets, I have spreadsheets on practically everything, including COVID case numbers for every country we travel, from Belgium to Romania, as well as a few other countries of interest to see where the next wave may be coming from. No matter what happens, I am very strongly in favor for everybody to get vaccinated, as I predict it will become a standard requirement for everybody be allowed to travel.

How did you turn the cessation of travel at the height of the COVID-19 into a time of opportunity?

Schreiner: We finished building the AmaSiena and AmaLucia, and completely rebuilt two other ships, the AmaBella and the AmaVerde, gutting them and making their operation more sustainable. We created a cruise down the Nile in Egypt aboard the new AmaDalia to be relevant for a variety of travelers as well as luxurious. Also, Kristin and I spent the end of April and beginning of May in Colombia and Ecuador in the planning an itinerary and launch of a tour down Colombia’s Magdalena River from Cartegena to Barranquilla, hitting six UNESCO World Heritage sites on the way.

Karst: We’re so excited to be the first luxury river cruise line to sail the Magdalena River in Colombia starting in 2023. The experiences offered on this journey will meet the demand for immersive travel and truly allow guests to embrace the rich culture, wildlife and people that make up the beautiful country of Colombia. This itinerary will also allow guests to experience the nature and art of the destination. On that score, we are constantly dreaming of new destinations, ships and itineraries that will provide unparalleled experiences for our guests. Borneo is currently in the works.

Looking back, from the lead-up to AmaSiena’s christening to today, what were your thoughts on how everything came together?

Karst: It was like coming home again, and it did not seem as if it had been nearly two years since we left (cruising), between saying goodbye to our staff and crew following the 2019/2020 the New Year’s cruise and August 2021. It’s been very emotional homecoming, reconnecting with our team members, and even seeing photos of those who started families during the shutdown. The christenings this summer have been very emotional, as was spending time on this new ship, and seeing how everything came together the way we had planned it, from the design to the décor and its functionality. It’s been wonderful to see how our new crew members on board have come together and work as a team.

As river cruising is gains popularity among Generation X and Millennials, how will you continue to address the ever-changing needs of these travelers?

Karst: I am happy to see wellness becoming such a large part of the travel experience. Options for younger, more active travelers include our new Wellness Program, which offers guided hikes and bike rides through the breathtaking destinations that we sail through. In addition to a heated swimming pool, sun-deck walking track, fitness room and complimentary fleet of bikes, guests aboard the AmaSiena can also participate in a range of fitness classes led by an expert Wellness Host, from core strengthening to sunrise yoga. (The ship) also includes a massage and beauty salon that is perfect for relaxing at the end of the day.

We started implementing a variety of new wellness options on other ships, such as the AmaMagna, which features an expansive Zen Wellness Studio, complete with a large exercise area with an outdoor “spinning with a view” exercise area, group classes led by a professionally trained Wellness Host, a juice bar, two massage rooms and manicure, pedicure and hair services. In 2019, we debuted new guided wellness activities on board AmaDara, inspired by the culture and heritage of Vietnam and Cambodia including an introduction to the traditional way of making organic teas, a beginner’s guide to yoga, tai chi and guided meditations.

And this leads us to the elimination of the controversial buffet element common to cruise shipfood programs, which many are happy to see go with health concerns stemming from the pandemic.

Schreiner: We eliminated the buffet throughout our European fleet during the last 18 months and replace it with a new food program where everything is made to order. However, I was contemplating doing away with the buffets years before the pandemic. As I see it, if I go to a fine restaurant in Los Angeles (where I live), I want a nice menu where I can order exactly what I want. COVID presented us the perfect moment to make this change. Furthermore, we are planning to keep this approach to our food program, and will not be going back to buffets. Fine dining is not buffet dining. Fine dining is about sitting down, enjoying the service and enjoying leisure time rather than waiting in a line—to me, this is luxury.

Karst: Rudi and Robert Kellerhals, our Culinary Director, have done a wonderful job creating uexceptional culinary experiences on board our ships, with so many healthy options accommodating a variety of dietary preferences. As we’ve moved to full table service, our menus incorporate healthy breakfast bowls, made-to-order salads and regional dishes made from ingredients sourced in towns along our routes. Our delicious cuisine includes gluten-free, low-sodium and vegetarian options, not to forget our daily fresh-baked whole grain and brown breads and more tasty vegetarian options.

The vegetarian falafel dish offered to guests in Amsterdam can be made vegan, and was devised to excite all palates. photo by Elyse Glickman
One of many excellent fish dishes served on the “Captivating Rhine” trip. photo by Elyse Glickman

What are new things in place that are designed to make post-COVID travelers chose an AMA Cruise with an extra reassurance of safety and confidence?

Schreiner: We are proud to show our travel partners and guests that it is possible to implement these precautions without diminishing the wonderful river cruise experience AmaWaterways is known for. While the current situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve, our teams here and in Europe are constantly monitoring and adapting to changes in entry requirements and local health regulations.

Karst: When Americans were not allowed in Europe, we operated last year in a smaller capacity in collaboration with a German tour company and put into practice the safety and health protocols aboard the ships. We did this for four months, and we had no cases of COVID. We then implemented these successful protocols on a wider basis once American travelers were allowed to return to Europe, and we plan to do this throughout the fleet. This validated that we have done things the right way in Europe, and are now fully prepared for the (remainder of) 2021, 2022, and 2023 seasons.”

Schreiner: That learning and adaptation process continues this year and into 2022 as we carefully restart our river cruises throughout Europe, building on our solid foundation of experience, trust and confidence. Implementing these protocols and procedures (requiring all guests to be fully vaccinated and masked when moving around the ship), in turn, creates layers of protection and reassurance for guests and crew.

How have executive level-professional opportunities for women improved in the industry since you started AmaWaterways with Rudi, and what do you feel needs to go farther?

Karst: I’m encouraged to see the number of women in executive level positions within the travel and hospitality industries continue to rise. However, I do think that there’s room for growth, particularly for women from visible minority groups. It is so important for us to provide opportunities for the next generation to learn about what makes a successful company and how to effectively lead a team. As an entrepreneur and co-founder of our company, I hope to lead by example and provide a source of inspiration to young women around the world, showing them that it is possible to achieve their dreams through hard work, dedication and commitment.

I always try to lead with positivity and optimism and hope that I can be a source of inspiration to young people, women especially, whose goal is to be an executive in the travel industry. I welcome any opportunity to share my experience and what I’ve learned over the years! It is my goal to provide unwavering support to our crew, team members and travel advisor partners because they embody the heart of the Ama family. Without them, I wouldn’t get to do what I love to do each and every day.

Why is Calabasas an ideal locale for a headquarters, and how has this choice paid off through the two decades?

Rudi and I have resided in California for many years, and we continue to be inspired by the ocean and the wonderful year-round weather encouraging a healthy outdoor lifestyle. We are excited to be gradually returning to in-office work and welcoming our employees to a wonderful new spacious office that will allow everyone to collaborate in multi-use indoor and outdoor meeting areas plus we even have a “green room” to produce more of our popular webinar series and video content.