|American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi gets fitted with a paddle wheel in preparation for its August 11 inaugural.|
The spirit of the Mississippi River and its 19th-century heritage is deeply engrained in America’s psyche. Images of steamboats, King Cotton, western expansion and Mark Twain survive and prosper even in the 21st century. This year, agents have two new stern-wheeler products to sell on America’s heartland rivers.
Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Company will launch the newly revitalized Steamboat American Queen next month. Formerly the American Queen, the revitalized riverboat will operate its first cruise on April 13 roundtrip from New Orleans. The ship will be christened in Memphis on April 27. Separately, American Cruise Lines, a well-known small ship operator based in Guilford, CT, launches the new Queen of the Mississippi this year. Its first voyage is August 11 from New Orleans to Memphis.
“I am really excited to have the Mississippi River product back,” emphasizes Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX. Her agency booked many groups onboard the former American Queen and Mississippi Queen riverboats, and, Turpin says “many of these clients are ready to go again.”
Rollin’ on The River: Selling these heartland cruises is really all about the river, stresses Phyllis Dale, co-owner, Great Escapes Travel/Phyllis Dale Travel, Lake Mary, FL. “My perspective is that people just plain like river travel,” says Dale, who’s been a travel agent since 1998. She’s already sold a 150-person group cruise, 30 small group cruises and hundreds of individual bookings on the Mississippi this summer.
Dale has written a song about the Mississippi, which talks about the moonlight dancing on the ruffles of the river and the paddle wheel splashing in the quiet of the night, and she says agents who deliver that special feeling to potential guests may close a sale. So paint a picture with words. Anyone can see the river from a river town on a drive tour or by flying into a destination but “being on the river looking at a river town” is something truly special, Dale says.
Proximity and Patriotism: Turpin says “this product is a natural for us to sell to our clients who no longer want to make long flights.” The cruises are being offered not just on the Mississippi from New Orleans north to St. Paul, MN, but also on other rivers such as the Tennessee and Ohio.
Those driving to their cruise might select a roundtrip cruise, or just drive to the embarkation point, and depending on itinerary, take the line-offered motorcoach ride option back to the embarkation point, once the cruise is over. Dale says the train is another option; she’s taking Amtrak to several cruise embarkations this year.
Tap into people eager for a close-to-home river experience. “A lot of people have traveled to Europe and they now just want to stay in the U.S. and may not want to take flights, Dale says, noting “they’re tired of the airline shenanigans.” Brian Robertson, owner, Robertson International Travel Consultants, Santa Barbara, CA, says mature travelers who want to see more of the U.S. are a good bet.
Diverse Onboard Experiences: Both products are essentially premium. Both will provide a steamboat-style experience, southern cuisine and riverboat entertainment and enrichment. Both have big red paddle wheels. Dale, who has sold numerous cabins on both lines, says, when considering all factors, the two lines’ products are “pretty comparable in price.”
|Period-inspired stateroom aboard Great American’s Steamboat American Queen.|
But Dale says most other comparisons are “apples to oranges.” Steamboat American Queen serves a maximum of 436 guests. It’s big, bold and brash with grand steamboat features, American Victorian architecture and magnificent public spaces, including a two-level Grand Saloon showroom. As a river vessel built in the 1990s, now revitalized, its stateroom sizes are typical of others from the same era. Guests might choose a suite with private balcony. Many staterooms have a window or accommodations with French doors that open out to a public deck with chairs; guests may enjoy those chairs just outside their doors, but it’s not a totally private experience. They’ll also watch other guests walking around the deck, but that’s a plus for guests who want to socialize or watch people as they enjoy the river scenery. Steamboat American Queen also has category SI single cabins, all inside.
Queen of the Mississippi has a grand, but bit more intimate atmosphere as it accommodates just 150 guests. Staterooms average 300 square feet. Third- and fourth-deck staterooms have sliding glass doors that access private balconies. Cabins on the Main Deck have picture windows, but 85 percent of all staterooms have private balconies. Queen of the Mississippi has numerous single A or AA cabins, all outside and most with balconies.
Cruise lengths also are a differentiation point. American Cruise Lines’ voyages are all seven-night cruises, starting at $3,995 per person double. Great American Steamboat offers three- to 12-day voyages, with the shortest voyages starting at $995 per person double.
Great American Steamboat Company includes standard shore trips in the cruise fare, with other optional excursions available for a fee. In contrast, American Cruise Lines does not include shore trips in the cruise fare; it offers excursions for a fee.
History and Heritage: “Our clients are more interested in history, which includes the culture that goes with it,” says Robertson. So tap into the nostalgia. Great American Steamboat Company is running half-page ads every other week in USA Today. “Clients are calling,” he says. “They see the ads and want to go.”
Some clients may be motivated by a love of southern culture, the music, the cuisine, the southern way of life including gorgeous antebellum homes. Other guests might be enticed by a New Orleans experience, the chance to explore Appalachian culture or the thrill of Kentucky Derby week.
American Cruise Lines is offering a seven-night Mark Twain-themed voyage roundtrip from St. Louis on September 15. The cruise will highlight many of the most important places and events in Twain’s life. Expect a Mark Twain impersonator onboard.
Both lines offer Civil War-themed sailings. Great American Steamboat’s nine-night Civil War itinerary is set for August 29 from Vicksburg, MS, to Louisville, KY, and includes one hotel night and an eight-night voyage. Fares are expected to begin at $2,295 per guest.
Another line, Blount Small Ship Adventures also offers sailings on the Mississippi this year with its 96-passenger Grande Caribe.
Will all the attention to new Mississippi River sailings be too much? Our agents said absolutely not. From Dale’s perspective: “I want all agents to sell these cruises. We’ve got wonderful river cruising right here in the U.S. There’s a demand for this.” Robertson concurs, stressing, “In this case, the competition is great! The more we put the steamboating ideas out there, the better.”