Following our extended visit to the Dusseldorf Boat Show, the world’s biggest, David Edwards-May and we attended the 2016 VNF waterways tourism conference. David is French Waterways’ Practical Navigation section editor, a cartographer and specialist waterways consultant. This year, it was held in the Pope’s Palace, Avignon. We had been at the previous VNF event, in Strasbourg in 2014.

We came away quite impressed by improvements in emphasis and attendee numbers compared with Strasbourg. And there were some interesting discussions and developments. It wasn’t all positive, however. For the key points of interest, please keep reading!

Pope's Palace Avignon

  • The conference venue in the heart of historic Avignon was memorably different. The delegate accommodation aboard the Viking Buri and Baldur river cruise ships was first class. But there was an embarrassing lack of internet connection. (Bear in mind this was promoted as a business-related, internationally focused, 2-day event). Sadly the matter was blamed by the organisers on Viking and predictably, by Viking on the organisers. We also saw people turned away from the networking evening and Gala Dinner. Seemingly it was significantly over-subscribed and folk were turned away disappointed at the door.

Viking Buri breakfast

  • Although these events tend to be somewhat less than exciting there was a fairly good mix of participants. There was representation from all sides of our sector – boat/barge/cruise operators, particular rivers/canals, towns and regions, suppliers – and of course VNF in its various guises.
  • The post-conference newsletter boasts that 400 participants (including 80 local authorities) from 15 nationalities attended. That there were 30 stands and 2,500 one-to-one business discussions. Plus 4 plenary sessions with 22 speakers.
  • It was good to meet up there with barge owner colleagues Tim Harrold of ‘Randle’ and Olivier Baudry of ‘Alegria’, plus our friend and website colleague Carmen Momenceau of Fluvial.
  • The second plenary session, Foreign customers, how can we improve their satisfaction?, was the one we were hotly anticipating. Unfortunately it contained little (in our opinion) that advanced things other than to reinforce how very important non-French tourists are to the waterways sector. Figures cited ranged from 83% American guests on board Viking river cruises to 70% Anglophone customers hiring self-drive boats.
    Atout France, France’s national tourist promoter, spoke at both of the sessions that we attended but had almost nothing to say that was waterways relevant.
    David spoke from the floor and emphasised to the assembled 200 or so that meeting English-speaking expectations (i.e. selling to them) required understanding and communicating with both sides of the equation – the potential worldwide tourist audience and the suppliers in France (e.g. hotel barges). Many people came up to us at the conclusion of the session, to discuss further.

Pont d'Avignon

  • Amongst other meetings, David and I met with the ‘new’ combined Burgundy-Franche Comté regional initiative that Mike Gardner-Roberts had talked to us about in Dusseldorf. There is a lot of positive feeling about this effort between VNF and local operators to improve canal and river operation, and boat operator and boat user customer experience.
  • In fact, all of the ‘regional and local’ VNF and tourism authority meetings we had were very positive; people seem on the whole to be very keen to promote waterways tourism. Even if the degree to which this might translate into practicalities or hard cash is perhaps less clear.
  • We also had a long discussion with Frédéric Millet, the recently appointed head of tourism development for

So all in all, for us, it was worth the 1,300km travel there and back (by excellent Eurostar and glorious TGV). Spent two full days thinking about the waterways tourism subject, met lots of people, had a good number of worthwhile discussions.