Staying afloat in a turbulent market
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Staying afloat in a turbulent market

The operator of Chao Phraya Princess cruises remains nimble through unique partnerships and customer attentiveness

A Chao Phraya Princess cruise floating along the river.
A Chao Phraya Princess cruise floating along the river.

With tourists from around the world flocking back to Thailand, tourism operators are competing by upgrading their quality and offering unique services to capture strong demand.

In Bangkok, a popular activity for many first-time visitors is a sightseeing trip along the Chao Phraya River, the main artery of the country. Many river cruises offer the option of a dinner while looking at attractions along the waterway.

Chao Phraya Princess, one of the largest river cruise operators, has survived many crises in the past, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cruise operators have to constantly adapt to attract tourists, offering a unique experience and ensuring quality services, said Chatree Wangpanitkul, director of Tristar Floating Restaurant Co, the operator of Chao Phraya Princess cruises.

This year, the company hopes to recover to 80% of the customers served in 2019, which aligns with the Tourism Authority of Thailand's forecast.


Tristar Floating Restaurant was founded in 1990 by several people, including Mr Chatree's father. It began as a floating restaurant business before evolving into a dinner cruise.

Mr Chatree said 30 years ago, the company started with only one cruise and there were only 2-3 cruise competitors at the time.

Chao Phraya Princess and other pioneers in the market spent many years building up this market until dinner cruise packages gradually became popular, listed as a necessary activity for visitors to Bangkok, he said. Roughly 10 cruise operators now ply the Chao Phraya River.

Chao Phraya Princess offers the most cruises, with eight boats in the fleet and a carrying capacity of 150 up to 450 passengers, operated by more than 300 staff.

The pandemic halted the flow of tourists in 2020, as the company closed down for a whole year because of pandemic restrictions and border closures.

"The Covid pandemic caused the most severe impact to our business, worse than the spread of the SARS virus or political uncertainty," said Mr Chatree.

The company decided to keep on its staff in the initial stages of the pandemic, hoping it would end soon, while keeping up maintenance for all boats, he said. But as the pandemic dragged on, Tristar eventually had to lay off some employees, hiring part-time workers when it could resume operations.

Domestic customers formed the majority of business during the early period of the border reopening.

To adapt to a market that was still stagnant, the company had to train its staff in multiple skills, helping to control costs amid a labour shortage in the tourism industry, said Mr Chatree.

"What allowed our business to survive is the quality of service and attentiveness to our customers. We also partnered with trustworthy travel agents, both of which led to repeat customers," he said.

Chao Phraya Princess regularly reviews customer feedback both online and offline, paying attention to small details, including about the food and staff service as it seeks to maintain its reputation for the long term, said Mr Chatree.

Mr Chatree says the cruise company hopes to recover this year to 80% of the customers served in 2019.


Independent tourists surged following the pandemic, especially people looking for unique activities and valuable experiences, he said. Independent bookings have soared from 20-30% prior to the pandemic to 60% at present for Chao Phraya Princess.

To capture more of the individual market, the company created new offerings apart from dinner cruises. The latest project is a partnership with online travel agent Klook and Michelin Guide's Bib Gourmand vendor Jeh O, whose famous dish is Mama tom yum noodle.

The collaboration started with a special event last week, bringing the dishes on board to enjoy along with the night view on the river, said Mr Chatree.

"We saw this project as a new unique offering for our customers," he said, adding it was the company's first collaboration.

Although the preparation and advertising window was tight, the campaign received satisfied bookings from more than 80%, said Mr Chatree.

Tristar is reviewing the feedback and may launch another collaboration soon, seeking a similar unique offering, he said.


The competition among cruise services has become fiercer, attributed to more operators in the market. Soaring operational costs, such as food and energy supply, have contributed to a lower margin, said Mr Chatree.

Some customers exercise more cautious spending when there is economic uncertainty, such as purchasing only a buffet package without alcoholic drinks included, he said.

To maintain consistent bookings, the company believes in attentive services, training all staff to actively respond to customers, said Mr Chatree. Keeping experienced employees on staff, an attractive atmosphere and safety protocols on boats are the fundamentals for its cruise services, he said.

Chao Phraya Princess also emphasises minimising errors by regularly reviewing guest feedback and fixing those weaknesses, said Mr Chatree.

"If we cannot maintain quality, customers may not return as they have plenty of choices. There are plenty of operators, unlike in the past," he said.

Sales and marketing services have shifted towards online channels, targeting both direct bookings and online travel agents, said Mr Chatree.

Chao Phraya Princess offers five to eight boat trips daily, depending on customer demand per period.

The company may operate with a full fleet during some weekends or national holidays, also offering bookings for private events and banquets.

He said the government should continue to promote Thailand as a tourism hub to foreign tourists, with a wide range of unique activities to explore, along with developing new tourism attractions.

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