A Chat With American Cruise Lines' Charles B. Robertson

With 12 American-flagged ships plying North American waterways this year and 14 in 2021, American Cruise Lines is the largest river line sailing the Mississippi and Columbia/Snake Rivers, as well as other interior and coastal waterways. It plans to add more new vessels in 2022 and 2023, all built at its own shipyard, Chesapeake Shipbuilding, in Salisbury, MD.

But competition looms on the Mississippi River horizon. Viking has invited Travel Agent and other media and trade partners to a New Orleans event on April 7, where it will unveil its long-awaited plans for river cruising in North America. 

Competition and Differentiation

So, what will happen with more competition on U.S. rivers? “I have a lot of respect for Viking,” says Charles B. Robertson, the new president and CEO of American Cruise Lines. But in terms of the Mississippi and Viking’s expected entry, “the market is so big that there’s plenty of room for all,” he believes, citing the strong differentiation of his own product, including the onboard aura, personalized service, size of accommodations (very spacious by river cruise standards), fare inclusions and number of passengers carried. 

Viking’s river ships in Europe all have Scandinavian design, and the Viking Longships are essentially the same in structure and features from ship to ship. The modern Scandinavian look is also reflected in the line's ocean vessels and future expedition vessels' design, too.   

American Cruise Lines operates a mix of vessels on North American rivers, most notably the all-balcony Modern Riverboats. American Song and American Harmony are already in service, with American Jazz setting sail in September. The line also operates other types of vessels too including traditional paddle-wheelers and coastal vessels. 

The Modern Riverboats are spacious inside with 70 percent more space in staterooms/suites than European river cruise vessels typically do. Robertson told us that these vessels, in particular, are now drawing a broader demographic and psychographic that includes many younger Baby Boomers. That said, they also appeal to many of the line's older past guests.

In contrast, the line’s paddle-wheelers tend to appeal more to that older demographic – mature travelers who seek a Mark Twain-era look and feel to the river vessels.  

Ship differences aside, if history repeats itself, Viking is likely to enter the market with a bang – and likely doing sizable television advertising – given its philosophy in that arena. In doing PBS spots and TV advertising for its European river cruise product over the past decade, it’s infused such high demand into the market that all European river lines have benefitted.

American itself began a new marketing campaign last year, “Cruise Close to Home,” which Robertson described as “very impactful.” It’s helping increase market exposure, trade support and bring in new-to-brand consumers. “Ninety percent of Americans can drive to one of our ships,” he stresses.

Increased Ship Delivery Pace

Earlier this year, Robertson took the line’s helm following the death of his father, Charles A. Robertson, the company’s founder and long-time leader. But the new CEO is not a “newbie,” having worked at the company for many years in high-level roles.

One thing that travel advisors can absolutely expect to see from Robertson is a speeding up of the new build pace. He’s already told Travel Agent that he’s asked his shipyard to push harder to launch the new American Melody for a first voyage on June 18, 2021, rather than the September start of service that was originally planned. Robertson said that vessel will sail voyages that ply the Mississippi. It will operate between New Orleans and St. Paul, MN.

American Melody

He also plans to build two new ships a year moving forward and stresses that American Cruise Lines will continue to “incrementally innovate” on those vessels. It won’t simply be business as usual. So, as the newest “sisters” debut, “we’ll bring in new amenities, new spaces and new design,” says Robertson, noting that it's all about enhancing the guest experience.

Since the new Modern Riverboats are helping “move the goalpost” to draw in many more younger Baby Boomer clients, Robertson says the line also has added more active tours and more activities for fitness and yoga onboard to continue to draw those clients. “We’re still learning,” he says, but indicates the line will keep looking for those types of opportunities that appeal to younger guests.

Trade Support

Moving forward, Robertson promises heightened levels of advisor support and trade partnerships. “Agents are better than anyone in the world for selling river cruises,” he says. “Travel agents have been fantastic.”

In late 2019, Susan Shultz-Gelino, a long-time company executive, was appointed vice president of trade relations. Stating “we’re thrilled to have her leadership,” Robinson says his line has progressed from having no business development managers in the field to now having five BDMs with shared territorial responsibilities and "that will continue to grow.”

It’s also clear from chatting with Robertson that American Cruise Lines will “work on [securing] more preferred relationships.”

River Destination News

Another Robertson focus is “making a very conscious effort” to develop partnerships with local communities along the rivers and to “give back” to those communities. Some of those destinations get 100 to 150 ship visits annually, a big economic generator for local businesses.

American Cruise Lines just signed a new 20-year agreement with the city of Vicksburg, MS, according to Robertson. The result will be development of a new docking facility for American Cruise Lines' ships on a portion of the river, plus the creation of a new public access park adjacent to that docking area.

The city and the cruise line will split the costs for the new docking facilities, the line will fund the park creation/development and the city will be responsible for managing the new park. Robertson said that’s just one example of the line’s new thrust of creating community partnerships.

Success Is More Than Hardware

Robertson also says success on American rivers isn’t only about ships, itineraries, docks or other hardware. “Real personalization and camaraderie” are very important to the heart of the line’s river cruise experience, he said.

All his line’s ships are under 200 passengers, which he says allows crew members to interact well with guests, personalize their cruise, focus on the guests' “likes” in dining and even go beyond the norm. That could mean heading to the store to buy something the ship doesn’t have (within reason obviously) that will elevate the guest experience. 

The line also has an inclusive policy related to its fares. Guests can expect such inclusions as complimentary beverages, including wine and beer, with lunch and dinner, a pre-cruise hotel stay, and so on.

Itineraries and Regions

In addition to voyages on the Mississippi River, American Cruise Lines offers voyages on other rivers, as well as along North American coastlines.

For example, it sails the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest with five-, eight- and 11-day itineraries between Portland, OR, and Clarkston, WA. It also sails on rivers such as the Ohio or Cumberland River in the U.S. heartland, and the river cruise line is expanding there.

“We’ll expand on the Ohio River, we’re doubling our number of cruises on the Cumberland River, and we have plans to expand on the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, TN,” he adds.

But, while the line has plans for those rivers, Robertson is adamant: “I believe very much that the Mississippi is where the increase in capacity is going to be.”

One thing is clear. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, demand for river travel on the mighty Mississippi just keeps rolling along.  

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