"Conversations With" Top Great American Steamboat Execs


Left to Right: Jeff Drew, senior vice president of sales; as well as two of the principals interviewed for this story: Christopher Kyte, president; and Jeff Krida, CEO // All photos courtesy of the Great American Steamboat Company


Travel Agent recently interviewed top officials from the new Great American Steamboat Company. The trio included Jeff Krida, CEO, Christopher Kyte, president, both of whom were previously with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, as well as Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales, marketing and product development.

The line begins its first Mississippi River voyage roundtrip from New Orleans on April 13, prior to its April 19 cruise from New Orleans to Memphis. Here’s a collective look at how the team responded to our questions: 

Tim Rubacky, senior vice president 

What’s the ship’s schedule pre-launch? What’s happening now?

We’re handling the Steamboat American Queen’s renovation in three stages; the first two stages are completed.

Heavy mechanical renovations including the rebuilding of all engines were completed at Sulphur, LA. Then the vessel moved to Morgan City, LA, where the entire hull was sandblasted, painted and repaired. The rudders also were lengthened to give the vessel more steering maneuverability.

All mechanical systems have been rebuilt and inspected on budget and on time. The major event is that we now have U.S. Coast Guard approval of that mechanical work.

Earlier this month, the vessel sailed across the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Mississippi and up to New Orleans. It’s now docked at the Perry Street Wharf in Gretna.

During this period, we’re working onboard to replace the carpeting and do other soft goods and cosmetic work. Onboard crew training is expected to begin around April 5.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates virtually everything we do as a U.S. flag carrier, will then again inspect the vessel and examine crew training and procedures. It's not just the physical plant of the vessel it’s also the crew’s proficiency in running the vessel to Coast Guard standards.

At that point, we will receive a certificate of inspection of the vessel allowing us to operate the vessel in passenger service.

How many crew members are you hiring for Steamboat American Queen?

Steamboat American Queen has 172 crew members at any one time onboard, and it takes us about 260 crew members in our employ to handle that with relief rotations.

As far as officers, there is the master who is the captain, and there are two other captain-rated crew members onboard at any one time; they act as watch-standing pilots, so they work four hours on and four hours off, actually driving the vessel.

Whether the vessel is stopped or operating, there is always be the master or a captain-rated pilot in the bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether they’re steering the vessel or not.

The captain is the overall captain, navigation, engineering and hotel manager onboard. Then we have many other crew members, including first, second and third mates, as well as a chief safety officer onboard.

A number of our crew are actually paid a bonus to be first-responder trained, because we don’t carry a doctor onboard, given that the vessel is so close to shore.

There is also the hotel director, chief housekeeper, food and beverage manager and executive chef, all of the same types of positions you’d have in a fine resort hotel. So there is both an operational/engineering/safety organization and a hotel organization onboard. 

Given the recent Costa Concordia situation, safety is increasingly top of mind for some clients? What can you tell us about safety procedures?

We will always complete pre-cruise safety drills and our Steamboat American Queen guests will be instructed and know what to do in the event of an emergency. Guests have a muster station and life jackets are available for all.

We carry one escape boat designed for the crew to use to secure help, if needed in an emergency. Once again, you’re always within a few minutes of being able to beach the vessel on the shore. And it’s a sandy, muddy bottom most of the way.

We don’t carry lifeboats to evacuate passengers, because the main boat is the best vehicle to do that. With river boats, you’re in pretty calm water most of the time, always within sight of shore and actually this fact has enhanced people’s view of taking a river cruise.

The cruise industry is so predominantly made up of oceangoing ships, that people don’t really think of the huge difference between a Mississippi river vessel and ocean cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. We’re always within a few minutes of bringing a boat to shore.

How do bookings look thus far? What’s hot? What’s not?

We’re pretty thrilled with the occupancy rate, and more thrilled that it’s being done without discounting and without two-for-one deals. The first two revenue voyages in April are sold out. Candidly we had a very late start before opening up bookings for the first voyage.
Virtually every voyage in summer and fall is booking well; two voyages in June are sold out as well and there are only a few cabins left on the New Year’s Eve sailing.

The voyages that are doing exceptionally well and have been doing so for decades [on Delta Queen in the past] are the fall colors cruises from St. Louis and St. Paul on the upper Mississippi.

One voyage that’s been poking along a bit is the Kentucky Derby cruise, which is a six-day roundtrip sailing from Cincinnati voyage departing May 4. But we expect that to change. 

We have always included basic seating in the voyage fare. But now we’ve secured about 100 more of the really great clubhouse seats, which can transform the event into a really extraordinary one for guests.

What trends are you seeing with agents who book these cruises? Are most former Delta Queen sellers? Are you using the former DQ name list?

We do not have the former Delta Queen passenger name list. But early on, we allowed former Delta Queen travelers to sign up on our Web site to receive offers. Now, that opportunity is open to everyone.

Our consumer marketing includes e-marketing to both agents and consumers. In the e-mail campaign to travel agents, it’s simply an email that they can take and send to clients and put their call-to-action on. We’re doing a lot of co-op work with select agents.

We’re running half-page ads in USA Today every other week. We also have some agency partners that do the same. And we do direct mail to our own lists.

What are you hearing from agents about the return of Mississippi River cruises?

The American Queen was laid up in 2008, and that occurred just as there was a boom in demand for river cruising worldwide. As the river cruise market was building in Europe the past four years, there was nothing on the Mississippi.

Agents tell us they and their clients are glad to see the river boat back on the Mississippi, because they do see a need for their European river clients as well as blue-water cruise clients.

So, the timing is very good, and it’s really made people think that 2012 could be the year of American river cruising.

How to you build a sense of teamwork and motivate a new employee group?

We work to do this in small ways. Here's one example. Our reservations team is likely the only one in the industry with a 21st floor view.

Instead of putting the six-member reservations team in the interior windowless spaces, as many companies do, our reservations agents all have beautiful views. They look out glass windows over the Memphis city center and they can even watch our vessel sail by. We and other executives, in turn, are in those interior offices.

How is your sales support network developing? Anything new?

Yes, we’ve just hired Rolf Freedman as senior vice president of sales for the western region. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, he will report to Jeff Drew, our senior vice president of sales, also based in St. Louis.

We have a team of regional sales directors available to assist travel agents. If an agent wants to work with us or needs information on how to get in touch with their sales representative, just contact [email protected].

What will your arrival in many port cities mean economically to those cities?

When the American Queen was removed from service, it left a big hole not only in the hearts of these cities where the river boats had been stopping for decades, but also in the local economies of those cities.

Now once again, we’ll be bringing 436 affluent guests into these towns and cities.

Passengers often purchase a meal ashore or buy souvenirs. They pay admission fees to attractions, whether in the line’s included shore trips [part of the guest’s cruise fare] or optional shore excursions available at a fee.

And at embarkation and debarkation cities, passengers will also pay [included within their overall cruise fare] for hotel rooms. It’s a tremendous impact.

Pre-cruise at Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans, for example, we’ll be buying 200 room nights as part of every cruise operated.
In Memphis alone, 22,000 passengers a year will come through the city, and roughly 80 percent of them take advantage of the hotel nights. That’s tens of thousands of dollars.

In our hotel buys, we also include breakfast, so again, that’s money being spent in the community. The direct and indirect economic impact also extends to everything from tips for the hotel bellman to taxi fares and more.

What do your “included” shore trip options encompass? Are you considering customized shore trips, as many ocean lines have done?

We have detailed information about shore trips online at www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com. Just pull up the voyage the client is interested in, click on Itinerary and when the day-to-day itinerary loads, you’ll see the included tours and the optional tours with pricing in that itinerary.

As for customized shore trips, we really haven’t looked into that as we’re focused on building the core product. Also, keep in mind that our port calls are in the heart of downtown areas.

During an ocean voyage, when the port call is in a destination like Civitavecchia, which is 90 minutes or so from Rome, a customized shore option may make sense. But river cruisers, for example, are already accustomed to walking off the river boat right into a downtown area and exploring independently.

What’s the extent of your agency relationships? Why only one preferred consortium?

We have a significantly sized core group of agents we work with, and that will now increase especially with our new preferred consortium relationship with Signature Travel Network.

By way of background, we had decided about a year ago to have only one preferred consortium. Some of these suppliers choose eight preferred consortia/agency groups and, our feeling is that if eight are preferred essentially no one is preferred. 

Signature seemed an ideal fit and they were very keen on it. The West and California are still heavy generators of river boat passengers and Signature is very ‘weighted’ in their number of agents within the western U.S.

So it all fell into place pretty quickly, and became effective Feb. 1. It’s the one and only national agreement we have on a large scale. For Signature agents, we will offer training, fam trip opportunities, Webinars and a pretty compelling list of support programs.

But while we have designated only one preferred national consortium, we absolutely do embrace agents from all organizations. So, yes, we will still work with individual agencies affiliated, for example, with such organizations as Cruise Planners, Virtuoso, Ensemble or an American Express agency.

Keep in mind, we have a couple hundred of so-called ‘preferred accounts’ (different from a preferred consortium). These are individual agencies, perhaps one affiliated with a larger network or even a franchise agency owner.

Half of our biggest producers are not part of any consortium, to be frank.

In terms of strong sales territories, we see the most interest from the West Coast, the southeastern U.S. and Florida, Texas (Dallas and Houston) and the northeastern U.S.

These areas have plenty of affluent clients who are over 50 years of age with time and money.

For any clients who think they can’t afford a voyage with us, we tell agents to suggest our three-to-four-night cruises that start at $995 per person.

What about agent training opportunities?

We did extensive road shows to major cities last fall. We supplemented that with breakfast for agents in other cities in November and December. Our sales directors across the country will continue to conduct trade training.

We’re also doing both agent and consumer Webinars on a regular basis, and then we replay those, as appropriate, on our Web site.

That’s an agency opportunity, if agents reach out to their clients and tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a Webinar about Mississippi River cruising this evening. You should go.’ 

Can agents expect to see the “Today Show” or another national network covering the re-launch of these Mississippi River cruises? How will you create 'the buzz'? Will jobs be a hook?

The first cruise is April 13 roundtrip from New Orleans and then the boat will cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, and its first trip arriving in Memphis will likely attract national media attention

[Editor’s Note: The executives weren’t yet willing to specify what kind of attention.]

It’s not just a boat on the Mississippi, there’s history and heritage there. It’s also an American icon that’s back in service with a cruise team comprised of veterans and newcomers. And, we’re starting up a new venture in mid-America, that’s employing hundreds of Americans.

The regulations for an American-flagged ship is that we must employ by law at least 75 percent American citizens, but we expect that number to be 100 percent. We’re in the process now of hiring 300 people.

You’ve announced a series of Civil War cruises? What clients should agents be considering – beyond the normal Civil War buffs – for those cruises?

The people interested in Civil War era themed cruises are very affluent, very well-educated travelers with lots of discretionary income. They belong to the National Trust. They’re big donors to PBS. This clientele is every travel agent’s dream.

Many reside in big East Coast cities or are on the West Coast, for example. They’re not just from mid-America or the South. They want to learn about the Civil War from very different points of view.

They want to see how wealth was created and maintained in 1800s America. They want to know how the locals – a mix of Cajun and Creole in some areas – prepared and ate their food. They want to know about the music of this region. They want to know about the African-American perspective.

Put another way, people travel on cruises to Europe to see the Roman Coliseum or to visit the D-Day landing beaches or Vietnam. It’s history – not only to see sites but to immerse one’s self in the culture and perspective of the time.  

The Great American Steamboat Company has three eight-to-10-night Civil War voyages planned this year. The three departures on Steamboat American Queen sail between New Orleans, La.; Vicksburg, MS.; Chattanooga, TN; and Louisville, KY.

In addition, PBS came to us and took the first of these Civil War voyages as its own epic voyage – in partnership with "The American Experience’s" Ric Burns.

Burns began his career collaborating on the celebrated PBS series, "The Civil War" (1990), which he produced with his brother Ken and wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward. Burns is also co-author of the companion book to "The Civil War."

There has been a tremendous response to that PBS voyage. "American Experience" typically doesn’t do anything with a start-up company. They have a reputation for seeking quality and we’re honored they selected our sternwheeler. 

During these Civil War-themed cruises, our guests will enjoy 1860s style entertainment, there will be a historian onboard, and we’ll have two gentlemen who will play Grant and Lee, who will not only provide dialogues on stage but also guide certain of the tours. 

What about kids onboard Steamboat American Queen? Are you planning any family-themed cruises? Is the boat right for kids?

No, we’re not doing family-themed cruises. Adult passengers are the best judge about whether their children are appropriate for our cruises.

We have no organized kids’ activities, but if children love history or love exploring sites ashore, then we have many programs right out of Mark Twain that help create that living history experience.

Also, for example, if parents would take teenagers on a historic Greek Isles voyage, those same teens might enjoy our cruises. We do have many multi-generational family groups interested in our cruises.

What’s next prior to the April 13 voyage?

The former Delta Queen Steamboat Company had very loyal clients; some 24 percent of those who sailed in the 1990s were repeaters. Some people sailed on that line dozens of times.

Everyone likes to be recognized for their loyalty. We do expect to soon announce a new loyalty program for guests and a new incentive program for agents who book multiple clients. We’re working diligently to finalize that.

A lot of past guest loyalty programs are based on special amenities and recognition as opposed to dollar-off discounting. That’s what we anticipate here.

Look for one or two more remarkable partnerships to be announced soon.

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