From Botswana’s beasts to Cambodian school children, AmaWaterways’ cofounder and executive vice president Kristin Karst lets passion be her guide.
With river cruising in her veins, AmaWaterways’ cofounder and executive vice president Kristin Karst lets passion be her guide. Bob Cooper
Kristin Karst spent her honeymoon in 2011 on a luxury riverboat cruise through Botswana’s Chobe National Park, which sounds wondrous until you find out that she spends nearly every waking year-round hour planning, promoting, and taking river cruises worldwide as executive vice-president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. But it was wondrous, she insists, because she’s as much in love with river cruising as she is with husband Rudi Schreiner, who cofounded the line with her in 2002.
On the last night of the cruise, the couple dined with a co-owner of the Zambezi Queen, which kicked off a conversation that eventually led to AmaWaterways leasing the small ship for its first African cruises. “We watched the sunset, saw all these animals coming down to the river, and knew we wanted to take it on,” she recalls, “so we started working out the deal that night.
“We watched the sunset, saw all these animals coming down to the river, and knew we wanted to take it on.”
It was not the first time the couple have paired work and pleasure. They do so constantly, dating back to when they were colleagues with a rival rivercruise line in 1999. Today, Karst oversees sales, marketing, and business development for AmaWaterways, which hosts 28 itineraries on 15 ships on 12 rivers in 18 countries. Schreiner is the company president, or as Karst puts it, “He builds the ships and I fill them.”
Women are underrepresented at the executive level in the travel industry — especially cruise travel — so Karst stands out. But it’s never been a problem, she says, because she’s earned the respect of industry peers. “It’s actually an advantage, because as a woman I’m perhaps a bit more detailoriented and sensitive to the customer’s needs.” She notes that women are usually the primary travel decision-makers, which adds value to her input.
Bikes and Chocolate Cruises
Ideas that Karst has implemented can be seen from bow to stern: a color scheme and artwork that she calls “warm and cozy;” free WiFi and “infotainment” flat-screens in cabins; open seating for meals (“as a conversation-starter”); meals prepared from fresh ingredients purchased at riverside markets; and complimentary wine, postcards, and stamps.
Karst may be proudest of putting bikes on most AmaWaterways ships, which guests ride on guided tours or pedal to the next town, where they then re-board the ship. Along with onboard spas, fitness centers, and walking groups, the bikes are part of her push to keep cruise passengers active, which she believes is key to a rewarding cruise experience.
“The average age of our passengers has dropped from over 70 to under 60 as we’ve tried to make river cruising
Most passengers on AmaWaterways’ “Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong” cruise now visit the village school during their time in Cambodia.
more active,” she says. “I’m thinking of adding yoga classes next.” Yoga, swimming, tennis, and skiing are all currently enjoyed by Karst, who was a competitive gymnast and mountain climber when she was younger.
Through the Iron Curtain
Growing up in Dresden when East Germans were not allowed to travel west didn’t stop Karst from venturing where she could go. “I think those limits fueled my desire to travel,” she says. “My mom was a foreign language teacher [Karst now speaks five languages] who took me every summer to Russia, where she worked on a river cruise on the Volga. I loved every moment.” Day cruises up the Elbe from Dresden to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in a paddle steamer on family hiking trips also gave her an early taste of river cruising.
Fortuitously, the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain parted in 1989, the same year that Karst graduated with an MBA in the Economics of Tourism from the University of Dresden. She immediately began touring Western Europe’s great cities and rivers. “Suddenly the whole world was open to me, so I headed off to a different European capital every weekend,” she says.
When Karst cruises now, it’s still fun even though it’s work. “I cruise five or six times a year on our own ships — meeting with managers and crew and spending every meal with passengers.” It was on a trip in 2010, after AmaWaterways launched its Mekong River cruise, that Karst chatted with the founders of a village orphanage, who proposed that the line build a desperately needed school in the nearby village of Banteay Srei.
Back to School
“Classes were held under raised houses, with boards serving as both seats and desks, and no walls to keep the kids warm and dry,” she says. “We knew that something had to be done.” Six months later the ODA Free Village English School opened, with English now taught to about 100 kids daily. That improves the odds they will eventually go to a university or become English-speaking guides for Angkor Wat tourists.
“All children are welcome and they bring younger siblings, so we’ve added a kindergarten,” says Karst. “The teachers have the children singing, dancing, learning English, and learning about the world, which will hopefully give them a better life. During the monsoon, they walk up to five miles through the heavy rain to the school. They are so eager!”
Most passengers on AmaWaterways’ “Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong” cruise now visit the village school during their time in Cambodia. Passengers are encouraged to donate school supplies and storybooks and many are also inspired to make tax-deductible donations after returning home.
“I would like to build similar schools elsewhere in the world because there is so much need,” says Karst. Even more than the rest of her work, she says she finds a special joy in promoting the school and orphanage.
“As they say: ‘ Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.’”
AMACELL0 IN PASSAU, GERMANY