|Agents may recognize the American Queen, soon to sail for the new Great American Steamboat Company as the Steamboat American Queen.|
Travel Agent interviewed three top executives of Great American Steamboat Company this week about the new company’s plans for re-launching the 436-passenger American Queen in April 2012.
The U.S.-flagged river boat, now renamed Steamboat American Queen, will offer 3- to 10-night journeys through America’s heartland from Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Chattanooga with stops at historic towns and cities.
The best news for agents? The highly inclusive product will have “no non-commissionable charges or NCFs. Steamboat American Queen’s fully commissionable fares will include multiple specialty dining venues, shore excursions, a pre- or post-hotel stay, all bottled water, soft drinks, wine and beer with dinner.
Travel Agent talked briefly this week with Christopher Kyte, president; Jeffrey Krida, CEO; and Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales, marketing and product development, about details of the new product. Here are the highlights.
World’s Largest Paddlewheeler
Built and originally launched in 1995 by the former Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the 418-foot-long Steamboat American Queen is the world’s largest paddlewheel steamboat. The vessel has been laid up for a few years, under the supervision of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. MARAD took over the vessel after Delta Queen’s successor company, Majestic America Line, defaulted on a loan.
Currently, Great American Steamboat Company is spending more than $5 million to update the vessel. Steamboat American Queen is currently being “refreshed” in a Louisiana shipyard, where its propulsion systems are being upgraded for better fuel economy and to meet environmental emission regulations.
Not that much is needed inside from a décor standpoint, according to Krida. “One thing we’re thrilled about is the hotel part of the boat is well preserved,” he said. He noted that all exterior doors and openings were covered with something similar to "speed tape," referring to a heavy duty material used in the aviation industry to protect airplanes.
So the river boat has been well-protected, as well as continually dehumidified inside, and, as a result, the soft goods are in perfect condition, Krida said. Currently, the exterior of the ship is being pressured washed and painted, to give it a refreshed look.
“We’re right on schedule and moving full speed ahead with the boat coming out in mid-April,” says Kyte. "We own it." While the company – headquartered in Memphis, TN -- has been in business for more than a year, he said things really began to move after the principals finalized the purchase of the boat.
When the ship begins overnight voyages on the Mississippi River and other heartland waterways, it will sail from Memphis’ revitalized Beale Street Landing. The line says its itineraries aren’t hurried; it wants to give guests time to linger in port and have an immersive experience. “It’s all about culture and history, and we’ll spend some late nights in port, but our calls aren’t overnight in destinations,” Rubacky noted.
“You’ll also find that we have a much greater range to our ports of embarkation,” says Kyte. Three-night cruises begin at just $995 per person double, a lower price point than competitors whose shortest trip is typically seven nights. A short voyage is helpful in assisting agents to entice clients to try the vessel and get a sense of it; later, they might book a much longer cruise.
Great American Steamboat Company has tapped veteran Russ Varvel as senior vice president of sales. Many reservations and field sales employees have also been hired; many are former Delta Queen employees. D. Kendall Grigsby is the line’s new vice president, product development and tours, while Renee Mouras has been tapped as vice president of reservations.
Agents who call will reach a voice from America. “In an age where [an American airline] has its reservations center in Bangalore, India, everyone doing reservations for Great American Steamboat Company is American and employed right here at headquarters in Memphis,” says Kyte.
The line expects to have a final stamp of approval from MARAD the week after next. Once that happens the line may begin selling cruises, and will reach out to agents with information and training. The re-launch of Steamboat American Queen and its subsequent voyages on the Mississippi and heartland rivers will create over 300 U.S. jobs. The estimated annual economic impact is $89 million.
More Choices for Guests
Look for the onboard product to have many attributes of the former Delta Queen product, but also expect many more guest choices. For example, Steamboat American Queen will carry 20 mountain bikes on the top deck. The line will lower those to the levees for guests who wish to bike along. Wi-Fi will be free in public areas (but not in the cabins), and cabins have flat-screen TVs. The dining experience will be “more prominent with subtle upgrades,” according to Rubacky.
Chef Regina Charboneau has joined the executive team as chef de cuisine. “She’s a celebrated American chef, a native of Natchez, MS, and she’s really doing a great job with the menus,” said Rubacky. Expect comfort foods, American classics and unexpected twists. For example, guests might order crème brulee French toast or bananas foster French toast for breakfast.
The line is expanding and upgrading the outdoor Calliope Bar area. So at lunch and dinner, guests may skip a semi-formal dinner in the main restaurant, and instead choose to dine at this casual venue for burgers, ribs and barbecues. It will stay open through 10 p.m.
Also, guests will enjoy a New Orleans Jazz Brunch. New onboard snacks include the traditional southern “Po Boy" sandwich. Southern afternoon tea will reflect standards of service at a stately antebellum mansion. Individual staterooms will have individual coffee makers with Starbucks coffee, said Kyte. “We’re adding a hundred little things,” Rubacky added.
Guests and agents alike will appreciate the shore trips being included in the cruise fare. The goal is consistency in the experience from start to finish,” said Rubacky, noting that 55 new motorcoaches will follow the ship’s by road and then operate the shore excursions at ports of call.
Drivers and guides will becomes well acquainted with guests, who won’t have to take local buses, which can vary in quality by destination. The new motorcoaches, described by executives as “steamcoaches,” are being painted to resemble Steamboat American Queen.
Client and Agent Protection
With the demise of Cruise West last year, understandably some agents may remain skiddish about booking any start-up line. Great American Steamboat Company says it “absolutely, positively” will escrow 100 percent of guest fares and commission “from day one.” So both the consumer’s investment and agent commission will be totally protected. Consumer funds will not be released to the line from escrow until the consumer’s cruise is completed.
The line also hopes to join USTOA, which has a $1 million consumer protection program, and says that process is in the works. Kyte also stressed that “the company is very deeply capitalized – from letters [of credit] from the City of Memphis to private investors to international investors. We have a very deep cushion of capital.”
Plus from a capacity perspective, the new line has the benefit of returning only 40 percent of previous Mississippi River capacity to the river. Great American Steamboat Company also believes there is plenty of pent-up demand from American consumers who have discovered European river cruising.
But why would someone sail on Steamboat American Queen versus the competition? American Cruise Lines will launch a new 140-passenger sternwheeler, Queen of the Mississippi, on the Mississippi River next year.
First, Krida stressed that “everyone involved with Great American Steamboat Co. has a long reputation of being agent friendly, and in putting in policies and procedures that are agent friendly.” He thinks that attitude and the retention of many Delta Queen staffers will go a long way.
Second, “the more competition on this river, the more operators that drum up interest, that only serves everyone,” said. Rubacky. “More competition is better.” He believes the two lines are also different and create different experiences.
For instance, the Queen of the Mississippi is much smaller than Steamboat American Queen. Based on size, it likely will offer guests a more intimate experience, while, in contrast, “Steamboat American Queen is the grandest, largest, most opulent steamboat in the world,” Rubacky stressed.
Getting to the River Boat, and Back Home
Sixty percent of the American population reside within a one-day drive of Steamboat American Queen’s route structure. “Because Jeff [Krida] is very clever, he’s also found an easy way for guests to get to and from their cruise,” emphasized Kyte.
Great American Steamboat Co. has partnered with Hertz for one-way rental deals. It also has a new partnership with Amtrak. Guests won’t have to go anywhere near an airport, unless they choose to do so. In addition, the river line will offer guests deluxe motorcoach transport back to the cruise’s embarkation point.
So if guests park their car in the designated parking area before boarding in St. Louis, then sail from St. Louis to Cincinnati, they may debark in Cincinnati and board a deluxe new motorcoach for the return road trip to St. Louis. Or, through the new deal with Hertz, they might opt to drive back one way.
Trolling for Customers
Yes, former Delta Queen and Majestic America customers will likely be good prospects for travel agent promotions, but Kyte says two new trends also come into play. He says Americans who have taken a European river cruise are also good candidates for a Mississippi River voyage close to home. And so are clients who have booked a deluxe, escorted or hosted tour program within the United States.
Krida believes Americans over 50 years of age will comprise about 90 percent of his line’s market, but he expects to see some customers from Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, noting that Germans love barbecue, cowboys, Native American culture and blues music. And the newly developing product with many inclusions should broaden consumer interest, he said.
For more information, contact Great American Steamboat Company, One Commerce Square, 40 South Main Street, 21st Floor, Memphis, Tenn. 38103.
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