Kristin Karst is the cofounder, co-owner and executive vice president of AmaWaterways, a family-owned river cruise company created in 2002 with a fleet of 20 award-winning ships in Europe, Asia and Africa. The successful businesswoman grew up during the Communist period in East Germany, which, she says, has had a huge impact on her career and spawned her two greatest passions: travel and entrepreneurship.
“During the Communist era, many restrictions were in place, making travel a very special opportunity,” Karst explains. Her mother taught Russian language and felt it was important to expose Karst and her brother to different languages and cultures from an early age. Karst was nine when she took her first flight with her family for a vacation hiking in the Caucasus Mountains. “It was with Aeroflot, and to this day I have vivid memories of the experience. The airport was chaotic. We were surrounded by a wide assortment of people and even chickens in cages. I remember so clearly my feelings of excitement and anticipation. That was my first taste of the passion for travel that was to shape the rest of my life.”
The cost of travel relative to salary levels in East Germany at that time was very high. In order to earn extra spending money for their trip, Karst and her brother came up with their first business venture – recycling paper products and selling fresh vegetables from their garden, in much the same way that American children set up lemonade stands to earn pocket money. This experience taught Karst to appreciate how hard work and creativity can make your dreams come true, and inspired her to become an entrepreneur.
As a young adult, Karst worked for a government travel agency, handwriting airline tickets to exotic destinations like Bombay and Shanghai. Later, she completed an undergraduate degree in Economics of Tourism & Business Management, as well as an MBA from the University of Dresden. Upon graduating, Karst was recruited by American Express and officially began her career in international tourism.
In 2000, Karst accepted a job in California working on a new tourism product called European river cruising. “It was love at first sight – not only with river cruising, but also with my coworker Rudi Schreiner, who later became my husband and business partner,” Karst explains. In 2002, Karst, Schreiner and the late Jimmy Murphy, the founder of Brendan Vacations, started their own river cruise company. “We had one goal in mind – create a river cruise company that we ourselves would want to travel with. From the beginning, that meant focusing on excellent food and wine, warm and friendly service, comfortable accommodations and carefully planned ports of call with interesting tours,” Karst says.
Sixteen years have passed since the three entrepreneurs founded their company. Today, AmaWaterways has received numerous honors including being ranked the highest-rated ships in Europe in the 2016 edition of Berlitz: River Cruising in Europe and receiving Town & Country River Cruise Awards in the Best Overall, Best For Food, Best For Onboard Activities, and Best For On-Shore Activities categories.
Karst’s main responsibilities cover sales, marketing, customer service, PR and reservations. In addition, she is closely involved in the development of new onboard services and activities and the recruitment, training and development of all staff. “As we continue to grow into a much larger business, my most important roles in the company are leading by example and prioritizing my time spent with our teams, ensuring that a culture of innovation, quality, respect, and exemplary service is passed on,” Karst says.
Karst believes strongly that there are four values that have guided her to success in her personal life and her career. She calls them her “Four P’s”:
- Passion. “I can honestly say that I am just as passionate about river cruising today as I was the very first time I set foot on a river ship. We recruit our employees with this in mind. Our team of over 1,200 people share our passion for delivering exceptional, personalized service to each guest on every voyage.”
- Partnerships. “We would never have achieved the growth we have had without our belief in developing long-term business partnerships. Our maritime service provider and shipyard owners have developed into lifelong friendships.”
- Positive thinking. “I have always tried to lead by example. I believe that with positive thinking, it is possible to find creative solutions to all obstacles that may appear in your path.”
- Personal interaction. “I place a great deal of importance on personal interactions. Whether that be attending travel conferences, visiting our partners in their offices or sending handwritten welcome home postcards to all our guests, nothing can replace the genuine understanding and trust that builds from the personal touch.”
To other people looking to align their careers with their passion, Karst offers this advice. “Surround yourself with people you respect who share your values in life. Also, do yourself a favor and go that extra mile, taking on extra projects that will allow you to stand out from the crowd and accelerate your learning curve. Any new venture will be exhausting in the beginning and you will face setbacks. However, if you feel invigorated and excited, despite the hard work required, then it’s a sure sign you are heading in the right career direction. In choosing to be an entrepreneur, you have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of so many people.”
MeiMei Fox is a New York Times bestselling author, life coach, and mother to twin toddlers.