Tauck World Discovery introduced its new 118-passenger Swiss Sapphire riverboat in Antwerp last week where she was christened by Lee Tauck, matriarch to the third generation of the Tauck family to lead the family-owned company.

The Swiss Sapphire was built in Hardinxveld Giessendam in the Netherlands and is sister ship to the Swiss Emerald, which entered service two years ago. Both are marketed exclusively by Tauck, a Connecticut-based upscale tour operator, under charter agreements with owners Scylla Tours of Switzerland.

Attending the christening ceremony were members of the Tauck family and the Reitsma family, owners of Scylla, the vice mayor of Antwerp, Philip Heylen, and invited travel agents and press.

The festivities started in Brussels the day before, with guests treated to a reception and tour of city hall -- the Hotel de Ville -- on the Grand Place by Mayor Freddy Thielemans.

The launch of the Swiss Sapphire marks Tauck's sixth year offering European river cruises and its continued expansion in this market.

"We plan to continue to grow (in the riverboat market)," said Tauck CEO and Board Director Dan Mahar. "We need more capacity for the big rivers, and we would like to be in France and Russia as well.

"We will be building more vessels; we clearly have a need for two more boats in the next two years. The goal is to offer a consistent product platform."

According to Mahar, Tauck is not interested in investing in fixed cost assets, hence the charter agreements with Scylla.  "There are enough people who build hotels and transportation products," Mahar said. "We focus on the experience instead."

The business model is to have others take care of the transportation and hardware part, while Tauck concentrates on the experience, ensuring that the customers are happy so they will come back.

Last year, Tauck enjoyed a 54 percent repeat rate, according to Mahar, and a 30 percent referral rate among new customers. He described the product as five-stars at a four-star price.

Operating at what Mahar called more than 100 percent of capacity, the customers are primarily from North America, but also from the U.K., Australia and Germany. Tauck, which also offers ocean-cruises on small ships and a variety of land tours, operates in some 65 countries, and is sold in 38 countries.

The Tauck river cruises are all-inclusive and the new boats offer large, outside cabins, a dining room as well as a small Lido area, a lounge, work-out area and a massage room.

According to Mahar, the riverboats cost in the range of $20 million to build.

The 361-foot Swiss Sapphire has 59 staterooms including 14, 300-square-foot suites, with floor-to-ceiling windows, walk-in closets and marble bathrooms with full size tubs.

Other staterooms range from 150 to 183 square feet. All are equipped with plasma TVs, mini-bars, safes and other amenities.

The crew counts 29.

Tauck's 2008 river programs include sailings on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, as well as on the Maas and Moselle and the Albert Canal. Several cruises are also offered aboard the Swiss Diamond. River cruises are from 10 to 24 days.

Founded in 1925 and privately-owned, Mahar said that 2007 had been a record year for the company and that Tauck has no debt, financial reserves and diversified tour programs at sea, on rivers and land.

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