One-on-One Interview With American Cruise Lines' Charles B. Robertson

One bright spot in global cruising this year has been American Cruise Lines' (ACL) return to Mississippi River and U.S. East Coast cruising, which is proving popular with Americans seeking close-to-home voyages.

Travel Agent caught up with Charles B. Robertson, who took the helm of the family-owned, small-ship line in early 2020 after the death of his father, Charles A. Robertson.

The elder Robertson founded the family-owned line in 1998, and also founded affiliates Pearl Seas Cruises and Chesapeake Shipbuilding of Salisbury, MD. That shipyard designs and builds all the ACL ships.

Today, ACL is the largest American small-ship line -- sailing to 30 U.S. states on both U.S. river and coastal waters. It currently operates 13 ships, each carrying 100 to 190 passengers, with a 14th to be delivered in 2022.

American Melody

A rendering of the new American Melody, showing its modern look and retractable bow design. 

A Passage to Leadership

So, how has Robertson fared in completing his first year, given that he took over in a pandemic era?  “Certainly, it was a challenging year and ‘trial by fire’ in a lot of ways,” he acknowledges, but he’s also upbeat about the future

“It was also a year for us to focus on the long term, so we got a lot of work done,” he says. “We’re coming out of this with a lot of lessons learned,” among them to “focus on what you’re best at, not lose sight of that. That’s the largest mission.”

From an early age, Robertson grew up around small ships, spent summers and school breaks on the water and, over time, learned not only the cruise business but the shipbuilding business from his late dad. In 2003, Robertson became a deck hand on one of ACL’s vessels.

From there he moved up through the operation, holding several key management positions. In 2014, he became ACL's vice president of marketing, and he led much of the line’s brand expansion.

Today, Robertson, who holds an MBA from Columbia University and a USCG Master’s License, leads the team at ACL’s Guilford, CT corporate headquarters, which is home to operations, marketing, recruitment, sales and customer service. A separate Utah operation is staffed with reservations, sales and customer service as well. 

2021 for ACL

While ACL was unable to restart in 2020, given pandemic shut-downs, state requirements and closures, Robertson says the line has continued building its fleet -- moving forward with a “significant growth plan." It plans to take delivery of one or more ships a year, including both Modern Riverboat-series ships and coastal vessels.

For example, in 2020, ACL took delivery of the 190-passenger American Jazz, its third new Modern Riverboat-series vessel featuring a signature, U.S.-patented retractable bow. That means the ship can “pull in” most anywhere and passengers can walk directly from inside the ship to the riverbank. No docking is needed. 

American Jazz

The new American Jazz, a Modern Riverboat-series ship, is now sailing the Mississippi River. 

While that ship didn’t sail in 2020, it’s now sailing the Mississippi River, as are two other ACL ships, the 185-passenger America and the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi.

The line’s fourth new Modern Riverboat-class vessel, the 175-passenger American Melody, will begin Mississippi sailings in August 2021, and a fifth, yet-unnamed modern riverboat will begin sailing the Mississippi in 2022.

ACL is now doing more than sailing the Mississippi, though. East Coast cruising began earlier in the year, and the 175-passenger American Constitution recently called at Washington D.C.’s southwest waterfront, The Wharf, on the line’s popular 11-Day “American Revolution” cruises.

New Itineraries, New Waters?

Mississippi River Bridge Photo courtesy of Visit Natchez. Editorial Use Only.

American Cruise Lines will have four ships on the Mississippi River in 2021. The bridge over the river at Natchez, MS, is shown above.

“The Mississippi is certainly the focal point for river cruising in this country,” Robertson says, but he also believes there are opportunities for new itineraries too. “There are tributaries off the Mississippi River that we see some additional demand for,” he says, referring to the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

On the Cumberland, ACL operates four or five cruises there annually, but Robertson would like to see more – perhaps 20 cruises a year on that river, based on burgeoning consumer demand. 

“I’d like to do more of the Tennessee,” he also says. Recently, ACL added more “Music Cities” cruises on that river between Nashville and Memphis, and the line now has 12 of those. Simply put, “that itinerary is possible because of the increased capacity in our fleet,” he adds.

Along the U.S. coastlines, Robertson says this about potential itineraries: “There are some we’re eyeing right now. We want to go further and explore further, such as along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, as we keep building coastal itineraries."

He also sees potential for deeper exploration of the Chesapeake Bay—more robust sailing within a particular area -- such as what ACL has done in New England this year with the new “Cape Codder” itinerary.   

When one talks about new itineraries, “geographic expansion is one way to look at it, but enrichment is another way to look at it,” Robertson points out.  

So, ACL could design one itinerary but offer totally different focuses on history, ecology or another topic, which Robertson points to as creating “three very different itineraries even though the geography is the same.” 

What’s Robertson’s “personal” favorite region of operation? “When I worked onboard, I spent most of my time on the East Coast as a deck hand” he notes, citing summers there and “I absolutely love our Maine itineraries.” He particularly enjoys being in Penobscot and “I believe Maine is best seen from the water.”

He also is partial to the Columbia and Snake Rivers of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, given the scenic/topographic diversity and the Lewis and Clark history: “You start at the Idaho border, cruise through what looks like the Grand Canyon, and then into vineyard country, then you see the Cascade Mountains. It’s incredible.”

Patchwork Reopening 

This month, the line will operate eight vessels along the East Coast, Mississippi River and in the Pacific Northwest. It also soon will begin sailing in Alaska.   

“Alaska has been selling very well and we believe we’re going to have a terrific season there,” he says. That said, he echoes the philosophy of other small ship leaders who are hopeful that big ships will eventually sail to Alaska this summer too.

"It’s really good for everyone,” Robertson stresses, citing the important of those big ships to southeast Alaska’s tourism/cruise-focused economy.

While regulations for visitation or safe cruising vary from state to state, creating what Robertson calls “a unique challenge to work through,” he also believes: "It’s wonderfully American to have a patchwork of states,” each handling the pandemic in their own individual way.

So, ACL is tailoring its reopening plan to each state. Currently, Robertson reports that his ships are sailing under a voluntary 75 percent capacity maximum, but says that could be adjusted upward as the year progresses.

But how can ACL's ships sail from U.S. ports while many other cruise lines can't right now? Two important factors are allowing the ACL restart.

  • Given that ACL's ships are all American-flagged, they don't need to make a call at a foreign port to begin sailing in Alaska or elsewhere from U.S. ports. In contrast, big ship lines – and some small ones too – operating foreign-flagged ships must include a foreign port call in their itineraries, per U.S. law, when sailing between U.S. ports. 
  • Because ACL’s ships are small, they also don't fall under the authority of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Conditional Sail Order” and the detailed rules that process requires for a cruise restart from U.S. ports. 

The line’s first voyages of 2021 sailed with all vaccinated passengers, “but [as a corporate policy] we do not require them,” he says. So, the line's policy is ship-by-ship and designed to follow individual state guidelines.

He mentions that Florida actually has a new law prohibiting businesses for asking for proof of vaccination.

New Interior Design

While ACL's ships are modern in their hardware, ACL is partnering right now with Miami's Studio DADO to create a new interior design/style for American Melody, which Robertson calls “the biggest aesthestic evolution that we’ve ever had."

American Melody rendering, American Cruise Lines, Studio DADO design, Aft Lounge

The new interior design look for American Melody -- including the small ship's aft lounge, shown above in a rendering -- is by Miami's Studio DADO

While still retaining casual comfort, he believes the design shift to a more contemporary look and design flair will help demand. “It’s really resonating with Baby Boomers,” Robertson says.

While the partnership is specifically for American Melody, “it’s been a terrific partnership,” he says, expressing hope that ACL and Studio DADO can work together on future new ships too.

As for the existing vessels, “we do intend to bring in elements of the design package into the fleet over the next two years.” Since the riverboats have a seasonal lay-up in January and February, that “really gives us a nice window to be able to do any maintenance and cosmetic work,” he says.

In addition, Robertson adds: “Most of our fleet was built after 2014, so it’s easy to bring in a modern design aspect.”

Generally, Robertson says the line’s demographic is 50-plus, although it attracts some younger folks too. But, "the Modern Riverboat really opens us up to that market [younger guests], as they want to have a more cosmopolitan, more contemporary, more sophisticated experience, with more active excursions, a culinary focus and a sustainability focus," he stresses. 

While history remains an important element for the line’s voyages, “we weave other elements” into the experience, says Robertson.

Booking Trends

As for booking trends the line has seen during the pandemic? “The vaccine is a game changer,” he believes. “As more people become fully vaccinated, and as the case volume [of COVID-19] nationally is tapering down, all the different state restrictions are easing up a little.”

ACL is feeling that in its forward bookings, and “we’ve seen it come back very strongly," says Robertson, but "we believe there’s more room for it to come back." He’s seen many small groups of travelers as people feel most comfortable traveling with people they know and with their family members.

“Everyone is more concerned about personal space and distance too,” he adds, and that’s “a bit more so than in the past.” One plus with ACL's ship design is that on all vessels, ACL offers 350 square feet of overall space per guest. 

Prior to the pandemic, at the end of 2019, ACL launched a “Cruise Close to Home” marketing approach. That turned out to be an unexpectedly relevant theme for consumers as COVID-19 impacted the country and the world. So, “we kept running it through the pandemic and it became the core tenant of our marketing campaign,” he says.

Cruise Competition

Also sailing the Mississippi and Columbia/Snake rivers this year is small-ship, American-flagged American Queen Steamboat Company, and in 2022, Viking will enter the Mississippi River market with a new ship.

“Competition is welcome,” says Robertson. Addressing the Viking marketplace entry, he stresses that the products will be very different, most notably by ship size. Viking's ship will carry 386 passengers, nearly twice the number of guests carried by the largest of ACL's ships. 

Robertson says ACL believes a ship such as the 170-passenger American Melody is right-sized for personalized attention. Going ashore too, "we run a lot of tour group sizes of 12 and 20,” he adds. 

Even with more competition on America's rivers, "we haven’t seen a change in our growth plan,” he emphasizes. "We believe very much in our ability to read the market.”

Moving forward, Robertson says: “We bring new small ships. That’s absolutely essential. New ships raise the bar for the cruise industry in this country and make it able to compete with rest of the global fleet.”

People are often surprised to find out that the line’s ships are all completely American, he points out: “We build them here in America, operate in America and crew them with completely American staff. It’s incredible. People almost don’t believe that.”

Then, he says, guests also see the builder’s plaque on the ships that says they were built in Salisbury, MD. 

Moving through 2021, Robertson wants people to know that ACL’s ships are “new, small, modern and American," and that the line is back sailing from U.S. ports this year in a big way.

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