Exclusive: American Cruise Lines Is Mississippi Bound
September 28, 2011
By: Susan Young
A Conversation with Charles A. Robertson
|The Queen of the Missippi// Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines|
Next summer, the Mississippi River will have a new American-flagged river boat plying its waters – the 149-passenger Queen of the Mississippi sternwheeler.
Owned and operated by Guilford, CT-based American Cruise Lines, the new boat is under construction at a Salisbury, MD, shipyard, and was "floated out" just a few weeks ago.
We spoke one-on-one with Charles A. Robertson, American Cruise Lines' president, about the new sternwheeler. Here is a synopsis of the news, gleanings and highlights of that conversation for agents.
What’s the ship's status now? How is construction going? When will it launch?
Just over 100 people are working on the boat at the shipyard in Salisbury. The ship will get under way for the first time in May -- for sea trials.
Right now, we’re still doing a lot inside. The steelwork is virtually complete, all the major piping systems are in and all the air conditioning equipment is in.
Most of the electrical equipment is in, the generators are going in, and the paddlewheel itself is about half built. The joiner panel work has also begun.
When will Mississippi River cruises begin? Still starting on Aug. 11, 2012? What are your embarkation cities?
Yes. We’re quite a bit ahead of schedule, actually, but Aug. 11 is still the first cruise. We may do a travel agent cruise or something like that ahead of our first revenue cruise. The boat will get to New Orleans
early as well.
In terms of itineraries, we’ll embark passengers in New Orleans, LA, Memphis, TN, St. Louis, MO, Pittsburgh, PA, St. Paul, MN, Cincinnati, OH and Nashville, TN.
This ship sails at a faster speed that former Mississippi River boats, so how will that impact your operations or itineraries?
Yes, it’s faster, but you won’t have to hang onto your hat. It will go 14 mph.
The big difference is that Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen all [traveled] at 8 miles per hour. That’s no problem when you’re going down river, but when you’re going upriver against a 5 mile-per-hour current, those boats only would go 3 miles per hour, and we’ll be able to cover eight or nine miles per hour, in contrast.
So what that means is that we won’t have to travel so much at night so people will see a lot more of the countryside. And we’ll be able to do our shore trips very reliably. We'll be able to do the shore stops at the right time during the day, at a time when they make sense. And yet, we'll still travel a lot during daylight hours.
Have you hired any former Delta Queen people? Or, are you using your own staff, given that you have other river/coastal products throughout the U.S.?
I did not hire any ex-Delta Queen people although I think we got applications from about 40 of them.
On the American Cruises side, we have 55 people already at our headquarters here, as well as a several people at a small office in Portland, OR, and a small office in Maryland. We’ll probably also have a small office in New Orleans.
Size-wise, how big is the boat, and what type of accommodations are you offering onboard?
Our sternwheeler's length is 295 feet, it’s 55 feet wide and it can carry up to 149 passengers. There are 80 staterooms and suites onboard.
We also have quite a few single staterooms. We made a last-design minute design change and added four more of those -- for a total of 11 singles.
What will guests enjoy about the ambience and space onboard?
Queen of the Mississippi is intimate in terms of ambience. The decoration onboard will be what I describe as “Riverboat Victorian.”
So it will have a fair amount of trim and gingerbread on the outside and then some fairly extensive trim, joiner work and paneling and so on the inside.
The biggest thing about the ambience is that there is just a lot more room. The available square footage per passenger on Queen of the Mississippi is about twice that of the former Mississippi Queen or American Queen.
So the staterooms are nearly twice as large, and almost all of those have private balconies; there are only a few on the main deck where we couldn’t [add a balcony].
|Here is a glimpse of one of the new balconies under construction onboard Queen of the Mississippi.// Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines|
Is the private balcony increasingly becoming a "must have" for river cruisers?
It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge [from a consumer desire perspective].
For all of our staterooms, you enter from an inside corridor. So you have dividers between the balconies. So nobody can walk by your stateroom. They truly are private.
In talking about ship’s ambience, one of the things that scored very high when we surveyed people was the dining service on the balconies, particularly breakfast. People seem to like the idea of being able to go out there in their robe in privacy, read the newspaper and have breakfast.
So, we’re have what we’re calling Riverboat Service, which is basically butler service so you can have breakfast brought up to you on your balcony.
Are potential clients just Americans and former Delta Queen cruisers, or also folks from across the globe – perhaps those who have previously sailed on a European river cruise?
At American Cruise Lines in general we have had an increasing trickle, so to speak, of western Europeans
. The U.K.
have also been producing quite a bit of tickets in the last couple of years, and increasing all the time. Also, Australia
has been a very big provider [of small ship clients].
A lot of those international clients just want a genuine American experience. And the Queen of the Mississippi as well as our Queen of the West [sailing in the Pacific Northwest] both are very appealing to them. They also like the idea of an authentic sternwheeler.
What would you tell an interested agent about the planned entertainment?
It will be generic to the region, so there will Dixieland jazz, blues and that kind of music but no Big Bands or that kind of thing. The musical entertainment will mostly be small groups of four or five musicians, or piano players and solo artists. And there will be vocalists as well. But it’s not intended to be [like] the Tommy Dorsey Band.
We’ve surveyed our own American Cruise Lines passengers. We also purchased the old Delta Queen past passenger list and we surveyed those people about two years ago. What we’re doing for entertainment is very much based on what the suggestions were from both groups.
As a small ship line, American Cruise Lines is known for its strong onboard enrichment programs. I assume that will continue on this product as well?
That’s a big part of American Cruise Lines and we’ll continue it on Queen of the Mississippi. On every trip there will be environmentalists, historians, naturalists and cultural experiences. And that’s different than the entertainment.
So there will be two things going on all the time. One facet will be some form of entertainment, the other will be enrichment, consisting of lectures, study guides and [programs for] bird watchers, for example.
We’ll also have guest lecturers on lots of other topics including investments and cooking. There will be a lot of that.
We’ll also have high tea in the afternoon. And we’ll also have themed cruises.
What will clients discover about the onboard dining? Will it be fixed or open seating? How would you describe the cuisine?
The dining is pretty special. Number one for agents to know is that the dining room is very large, so we can feed everybody comfortably at once.
So for example, people will be able to come into the dining room for dinner at any time they want between 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. They can eat where they please and they sit where they want. There is more than enough seating for everyone.
I would describe our food as American cuisine but there will be regional dishes for sure. But it will be mostly American cuisine.
What’s the typical client who will book this Mississippi River product?
It’s a pretty wide range of people. I would say 55 might be an average, but they tend to be more mature. We’re probably going to carry very few people in their 20s, though.
The passenger [make-up] will probably look somewhat like the former Delta Queen passenger group did except a little younger.
But what about families? I understand you’re seeing more families onboard your other vessels?
Yes, we’re seeing more families onboard. We don’t encourage infants, but we’re getting a lot more families comprised of grandparents, parents and grandchildren.
The grandchildren typically are teenagers anywhere from 12 to 20, and we have added more stuff on the boats – movies, for example – that’s geared more toward these younger family members.
Today's passengers are techies. How will they stay in touch onboard? Any WiFi, Internet or other technology?
All the staterooms will have satellite, flat-screen televisions. All staterooms will have WiFi accessibility.
In addition, there will be WiFi throughout the ship and we’ll also offer an Internet Café.
How would you describe the décor inside the staterooms?
I would describe that as "Riverboat Victorian" with crown moldings, chair molding and paneled doors. A lot of effort is going into the window treatments.
The fourth deck staterooms all have sliding glass doors out to their balconies. The balconies are recessed in from the side, sort of like a big ship balcony if you look at any of the big ships. The sliding glass doors have both an opaque curtain and a non-opaque curtain.
Is this ship environmentally friendly?
The Queen of the Mississippi will be entirely environmentally-friendly. It meets all of the most stringent EPA requirements. It’s the first vessel ever on the Mississippi River to do that.
We find people are more and more interested in that. We’re getting a lot more questions about [environmental responsibility] and we never used to get any.
Competitively, what sets you apart from any past or current competitor on the Mississippi? How do you see it?
From my perspective, I think it’s a just a higher level of ship, a higher level of service and more amenities. I think that’s part of it.
But also our strong belief is that people would rather go in smaller groups, so 149 people we think is an ideal size. I don’t think we would be able to be as successful if the ship were larger.
The former Delta Queen ships were what I would call high-density ships with small staterooms and dining that required two seatings, all that kind of stuff.
What we’re doing is very low density, and that’s true for all the public spaces, dining rooms, lounges, and everywhere.
What about sales? What are you doing with agents?
We’ve been open for bookings since February. The response from travel agents and consumers has been tremendous.
We’ve had a lot of interest from American Cruise Lines customers, but a lot of new folks as well, as well as those former Delta Queen Steamboat passengers.
We’ve done Webinars, and we’ve done travel agent training at trade shows and trade advertising.
We obviously sell a tremendous amount of tickets to travel agents, and we communicate with them all the time. It’s a huge part of our business.