American Cruise Lines CEO: The Evolution of U.S. River Cruises

Increasingly, American river and coastal cruising – offering “closer to home” scenic itineraries and avoidance of overseas travel hassles – is soaring in popularity with North American and international consumers.

Case in point? By year's end, American Cruise Lines, headquartered in Guilford, CT, will have 10 vessels plying North American rivers and coastal waterways. Two of those vessels are new and will begin sailing this spring and fall.

Most notable is the 184-passenger American Song, the first in the line’s highly anticipated new “Modern Riverboat Series.” Look for an innovative, cutting-edge design that may draw in new customers, many who've sailed on European rivers. 

At the helm of the small-ship, American-flagged line is Charles A. Robertson, chairman and CEO, who founded this river line in 1991, although he’s been involved in the maritime industry since the mid-1970s.

Travel Agent spoke with Robertson one-on-one late last week in advance of the annual 2018 Seatrade Cruise Global conference, kicking off today at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

American Song

The modern American Song with all-balcony accommodations is coming to American waterways this fall. 

American River Cruising Evolves

What’s changed for American river cruising over the decades? “I think the passenger expectations are a lot more and they’ve continued to grow and continued to increase,” says Robertson. “And we’ve been designing new vessels to keep pace with those increasing expectations on the part of passengers.”

Most notable is the sleeker, modern and upscale American Song, which will begin service on the Mississippi River in early October, before shifting to the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest in 2019.

At 60 feet across the beam and a length of 345 feet, it will offer more space than many European river vessels. It’s also higher than many European vessels, given the river geographic features, and will have a four-story glass atrium and a Sun Deck with a putting green, bocce and other games.

The ship also will have six lounges, a grand dining room, library and much more. The line has an ambitious plan to build four more vessels like American Song, which floated out seven weeks early in late November 2017; that vessel is now undergoing interior outfitting. 

“The second will come next year, and we’ll build one or two a year until we complete those five,” says Robertson. It’s a move that’s bringing a new sailing experience to America’s rivers, something fans of European river cruising have been eager for, say agents.

“It’s mostly different because it’s not another Victorian-style vessel, which certainly has great appeal to a lot of people,” says Robertson, who added that the design embodies a more modern look, larger staterooms, a lot more glass and more.

American Song Stateroom

Spacious accommodations on American Song, include the 455-square-foot Owner's Suite, shown above.

All accommodations will also have private furnished balconies of at least 60 square feet, some larger. Staterooms start at a roomy 250 square feet for single occupancy cabins, 304 square feet for the minimum double occupancy stateroom, 455 square feet for an Owner's Suite and up to 900 square feet for the Grand Suites, which also have a massive wraparound balcony.

The new style of vessel also has many high-tech and environmentally friendly features. Two ultra-low-sulphur diesel engines are expected to guzzle less fuel and produce lower emissions than other engines in use today. Another intriguing feature will be a modern, retractable bow.

“Once it’s deployed, it works very much like the traditional bow staging on a traditional river boat,” says Robertson. But it’s neatly withdrawn and concealed in the bow, and “guests walk through a center line corridor from the main deck vestibule, up through a corridor and out onto the bow on the main deck.”

Guests walk inside the Main Deck to the American Song's retractable bow, which makes going ashore easy.

Will the evolution into a more modern American river vessel series of ships entice more traditional European river cruisers onboard -- those who hadn’t in the past considered an American product?

“I think that may happen,” he says. “We’re seeing some significant interest in the modern riverboats, as well as continuing interest in the Victorian ones [which the line also owns and operates], and I think that’s a good mix for us and a good mix for our customers.”

Potential clients now have a choice of vessels within the American Cruise Lines fleet, based on their personal tastes and interests. All the line’s vessels, regardless of style and size, are American-crewed.

As for a new vessel with the more traditional styling, “we’re just finishing one now, American Constitution,” he says. With a capacity of 175 guests, American Constitution will debut on the “American Revolutionary” itinerary on Chesapeake Bay.

Then it heads to New England for the summer, then the Hudson River in fall, before returning to the Chesapeake Bay. American Constitution is a sister to American Constellation, which launched last year.

American Constellation

American Constitution, which begins cruising this spring, is a sister to American Constellation (see above).

When the line builds new vessels, it does so at Chesapeake Shipbuilding, its own shipyard in Salisbury, MD. Building your own ships does have its perks, according to Robertson: “It certainly streamlines the process and there’s never an argument with the shipbuilder.” 

Industry-wide, river lines operate with smaller vessels that necessitate, by their very size, higher price points based on cost of operations and amenities provided. In looking for new passengers, the line is turning – as Viking River Cruises did several years ago with the “Downton Abbey” and other subsequent sponsorships – to PBS for river cruise prospects.

American Cruise Lines is now sponsoring “Washington Week.” Certainly, PBS’ viewers tend to be reasonably well-traveled and well-educated. In general, “TV is working well for us,” notes Robertson, adding that the line also advertises on such news channels as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and others and “we’re very pleased with it.”

Who are the line's typical guests. “I think they’re reasonably well-traveled, well-educated and affluent,” Robertson says. In addition to North American travelers, the line is increasingly attracting international guests.

Australia has become very important,” Robertson says, and “Germany is another one that we’ve seen a significant growth in.”

While this line’s guests are seeking an upscale experience, they also want personalized service and a vacation delivered with an intimate, casual cruising style. “The best way I can describe it is a country club feel,” he says.

Robertson also stresses: “They love the huge staterooms and they love that the bathrooms are more like hotel bathrooms.”

Most guests are “generally 55 plus,” and as with other river lines, that’s lower than in past decades. It varies by voyage, of course, but often “we’re carrying more two- and three- generation families,” he says. Usually that includes grandparents, parents, teens and tweens, rather than infants or very young children.  

American Cruise Lines American Constellation Golf Sundeck
American Constellation's bright, cheery Sun Deck appeals for lounging, golf putting and soaking up the sun.

Itinerary-wise, the line now has more than 35 different itineraries on North American rivers and coastal waterways. The line has tripled its capacity in Puget Sound “and more than doubled capacity in Alaska,” he notes.

“Those are very popular itineraries and certainly Mississippi River, the Canadian Maritimes” and other regions too are doing well. “That’s why we’re building more ships,” he says.

The line also offer themed cruises, and also holiday cruises over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Robertson says the line has offered those holiday voyages for a long time, but “we don’t market them real extensively because they’re usually pretty much bought by past passengers.”

When asked about what his favorite itinerary is, Robertson called that “a hard question,” noting that he really doesn’t have one favorite as he likes them all. “I think Chesapeake Bay is a fabulous itinerary,” he said, also citing the Grand New England cruise that goes to both the Maine coast and southern New England.

“Certainly [I like] the Columbia and Snake rivers as that’s a fascinating itinerary,” he stresses. “You start that out on the Columbia River, which is very lush and green. Then the Snake River is high desert county. It’s like you’re in the Grand Canyon."

Stay tuned to for more news about the line and American river cruising in general. 

Related Stories

The Five Coolest Cruises Aimed at Curious Millennials

Construction Begins on American Cruise Lines’ Second New Riverboat

Queen Latifah Named Godmother of Carnival Horizon

Preview: Celebrity Edge’s Dining Venues