Demand for domestic river cruising has soared in the past year as “drive to” options for a vacation are highly desired by many Americans. Many seek to avoid international air hassles. Others simply want to discover what's in their own backyard.
River lines have responded by creating more berths. Case in point? This morning, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) and Gulf Island (also known as Gulf Island Fabrication) announced an agreement to build a 245-passenger river boat, the fourth vessel in AQSC’s American-flagged fleet.
The paddlewheeler, American Countess, will be built using the existing hull of the Kanesville Queen, a former gaming vessel built in 1995.
AQSC said that vessel soon will travel under its own power from the Marine Builders shipyard in Jeffersonville, IN, to Gulf Island's facility in Houma, LA, where construction by 150 skilled workers will begin later this year.
They'll strip this existing vessel down to the hull and totally re-build it -- creating what's essentially a new ship.
“We continue to break sales records and incredible demand remains for more capacity on the river with each of our boats continuing to sail full,” according to John Waggoner, chairman, American Queen Steamboat Company.
He also said the new vessel will continue “to raise the bar on domestic river cruising.” Currently, AQSC’s American Queen and American Duchess sail to/from such destinations as Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Minneapolis.
In the Pacific Northwest, American Empress sails the Columbia and Snake Rivers between Vancouver, WA (a suburb of Portland, OR) and Clarkston, WA.
L to R above: Kirk Meche, president and CEO, Gulf Island; John Waggoner, chairman, American Queen Steamboat Company; and Christian Vaccari, senior vice president, Gulf Island.
“American Queen Steamboat Company has led the market in a renaissance of domestic river cruising and our skilled team is honored to carry on the legacy of shipbuilding in U.S. building the American Countess,” said Kirk Meche, Gulf Island's president and CEO
“We look forward to constructing this magnificent vessel and fulfilling John’s vision by providing the best in marine manufacturing and construction," Meche said.
AQSC said details about a delivery date as well as itinerary details will be announced at a later date.
Booming on America’s Rivers
Travelers heading to America’s rivers are seeking new places to explore in America. They may have sailed European rivers and wish to have a similar experience in their own country. Or, they just may desire a U.S. vacation that can showcase multiple destinations without overseas air travel.
Travel agent sales reflect those trends. “In the last two years alone, sales from domestic river cruise brands have more than doubled,” says Michelle Fee, CEO and founder, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, Coral Springs, FL.
“They don’t have to fly to Europe or other locations farther afield,” says Muffett Grubb, a Cruise Holidays agency owner in Knoxville, TN. “For some it’s a drive-to market and it’s an opportunity to visit parts of the U.S. they may not have been before.”
Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance, CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc., also shares that the American river cruise product gives people a glimpse into life on the U.S. rivers in past centuries.
Simply put, "the paddlewheel provides an adventure similar to what you would read about in an adventure of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” says Daly, who also serves as chairman of Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA's) Strategic Trade Advisory and Review Board.
Strong River Competition
AQSC's expansion is part of a robust American river cruise rebirth. Competitor American Cruise Lines is also building its fleet of American river boats at a shipyard it owns in Salisbury, Maryland.
Debuting in October on the lower Mississippi is the 184-passenger American Song, the first of a new class of Modern Riverboats; this new vessel successfully completed sea trials in late August.
With contemporary design inside and out, it will offer everything from a four-story, glass-enclosed atrium to 900-square-foot Grand Suites. American Song will begin sailing lower Mississippi itineraries, between October and December, before re-positioning in 2019 to the Pacific Northwest.
Another new sister ship, American Harmony, will set sail on both eastern and western U.S. itineraries in 2019. The line recently released details on its 2019-2020 itineraries.
Among other competitors on U.S. rivers are UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and Blount Small Ship Adventures.
Viking River Cruises, a big player in Europe, had previously indicated interest in entering the U.S. river market, but that's not materialized.
Examining the Market
Who make the best clients for an American river cruise? Daly believes these products still appeal greatly to an older clientele due to the rich history, onboard atmosphere and unique ports, as well as the higher pricing and, at times, the length of product.
In addition, "as we mature in age, we have a greater interest in travel and in U.S. travel, specifically," he adds, noting that "clients also feel comfortable knowing they can transit home easier."
Fee also notes that “because the river cruise ships have to be ADA compliant, there is a big draw for special needs travelers, which European river cruises can’t always accommodate, so that may appeal to an older demographic.”
Although many mature travelers sail, though, it doesn’t mean they’re coming alone. Increasingly, agents report more groups of mature adult siblings or even parents traveling with their adult children onboard.
In summer, Fee’s CP franchise agencies also are seeing multi-generational or “Skip Gen” cruises during which grandparents bring their grandchildren along for the cruise.
That's showcasing America's rivers to other generations, which include tweens, teens, Millennials and Generation Xers, depending on the age of the grandparents.
From Muffett’s perspective, the question as to whether the average age of an American river cruiser has dropped a bit over the last decade depends mostly on the river and itinerary.
She sees a younger audience, ages 40s to 60s, on the Columbia and Snake Rivers because shore excursions are more active. In contrast, on the Mississippi River, she says clients are mostly in their 60s or up and they take tours that are either leisurely walks or by motorcoach.
Showcasing the Benefits
When talking with her clients about benefits of U.S. river cruising, Muffett focuses on such elements as “savings on air, no jet lag and overall travel time.”
She also stresses the English language ease of a domestic journey and use of U.S. dollars. Clients don’t need to worry about exchanging money in a foreign land.
Plus, Muffett says “they don’t have to fly to Europe or other locations further afield. For some it’s a drive to market and it’s an opportunity to visit parts of the US they may not have been before.”
As for the higher pricing of American river products, keep in mind that “customers don’t have to pay overseas air, so at the end of the day, pricing seems to compare,” says Fee.
U.S. river cruising appeals to clients who've seen the sites of the world and now are looking to explore American history – particularly the Civil War, Lewis and Clark and the Mark Twain era.
A good hook is to tell clients it’s a way to get close and personal with destinations in their own backyard. “We sometimes forget how beautiful our own country is and what it has to offer for a vacation,” Fee emphasizes.
Travel Agent recently did a two-part series, for example, on Natchez, MS. Agents can read Part 1 - Cruise Port Report: Historic Mansions in Natchez, MS and Part 2 for more detail on shoreside activities in a popular southern port of call.
Certainly, the robust development of the European river market and U.S. advertising for that has also done much to introduce Americans to what a river cruise experience is all about.
If clients have sailed on a European river cruise and loved it, that's also helpful for agents, stresses Daly: “Most people who have done a river cruise in Europe or Asia get the bug and now are open to the domestic experience.”