Ted Sykes Outlines American River Trends & What's Ahead

The American Queen, a traditional paddlewheeler, calls at Dubuque, Iowa. // Photo courtesy of AQSC

Consumer demand is strong for America's rivers this year and next. "We're topping up a few sailings for 2016, but we're sailing full," said Ted Sykes, president and COO, American Queen Steamboat Company. "We've had loads like we've never seen before -- the ships are coming in full and going out full."

Sykes says the line is trying to ascertain whether the booming interest is because cruisers are seeking something closer to home this year, rather than a European river cruise, or whether it's because the line has now been around for five years so it has better awareness, is getting good word-of-mouth and has an in-demand product.

He believes it's a bit of both. Whatever the reasoning, he'll take the results. Last year 18 voyages sold out, and this year the numbers are similar. In addition, "we’ve actually got some dates in 2017 that are sold out,” he adds.

The Memphis-based American river line operates the 436-passenger American Queen, the largest cruise ship sailing the Mississippi and other heartland rivers including the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. She is sailing her fifth season this year. 

A-Category accommodations on American Queen. // Photo courtesy of AWSC

The line's second vessel, the 223-passenger American Empress, is currently sailing its third season of 36 departures along the Columbia and Snake Rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Port calls include such destinations as Multnomah Falls, Mt. St. Helens and the Walla Walla Wine Trail, as the ship navigates between Portland/Vancouver, WA and Clarkston, WA.

Trend-wise, the line is, anecdotally at least, seeing more families and multi-generational families traveling together,” he notes. “We’ve had people renewing their wedding vows and bringing along parties along for that, multi-generational groups traveling together or grandparents bringing their grandkids," Sykes stresses. 

Refreshing the Fleet

Both vessels will (as normally is the case) be laid up this coming winter and will receive fairly substantial updates. That said, “we spent a lot more [money] on the American Queen this past year," he adds, noting that the exterior was refreshed with yacht white paint and mahogany doors and the brass were replaced.

Gangway of American Queen // Photo by AQSC

In addition, "we’ve put mahagony railings on the American Queen so we’ve lifted the appearance a lot and we’ve invested a fair amount mechanically," Sykes says. "Both vessels are running fine." 

Even more is planned for American Queen early next year during a drydock update. "We're going to build out the River Grill, which will give us a third full dining venue," Sykes emphasized. 

In addition, the line will add more luxury suites next year to the American Queen -- combining some insides with some Triple A cabins. "We'll build out more luxury suites because we have a lot of demand at the high end of the market," he says.

To serve suite guests, the line added Commodore Service for all luxury suites on both American Queen and American Empress.  “We allow them to board early and we have a lot of special amenities," he notes.

Those perks include 24-hour personalized butler service includes private check-in, laundry services, shoe shines, afternoon in-suite tea, breakfast and dinner service, in-suite canapés and post-dinner sweets along with a personal escort to reserved balcony seating in the Grand Saloon theater.

Wine, Brews & Coffee

Increasingly popular are wine-themed cruises on American Empress in the Pacific Northwest. These attract wine enthusiasts who've taken a European cruise as well as Americans interested in exploring the region and sampling its vintages on shore excursions. Many are also Californians who say, "We should do that," according to Sykes.

The line has added these wine-themed voyages at the beginning and end of the prime sailing season. In fall, guests see the autumnal grape harvest. In spring, the ship sails roundtrip from Portland, OR, so the line is able to add a lot more content.

Many wineries vie for the chance to come onboard and showcase their vintages -- as the line's onboard programming focuses on wine, cuisine and food-and-wine paired dinners. "All are fighting for space to come on," he emphasized. 

But it's not just about wine. Sykes reports AQSC has also added experts and products from small batch breweries and boutique regional coffee roasters in the Pacific Northwest.

America's Heartland

AWSC offers several Civil War themed sailings. // Photo by AWSC

On the Mississippi and other heartland rivers, American Queen operates dozens of itineraries this year including the Antebellum South, Music of the 50s and 60s, and the Civil War. “The historical set is a different crowd than the antebellum South crowd," says Sykes.

For 2017, the line also plans one "Mighty Mississippi" sailing; it had two of those this year and both sold out. The three-week itinerary covers the entire length of the Mississippi River. 

So why just one for next year? Sykes says: "We also have other things going on – we’re going back to Nashville and we’re going to Chattanooga next year so we could only squeeze in one. We’re actually doing a Nashville to Memphis itinerary this year."

In addition, the line offers Civil War themed voyages, such as the October 15, 2017 sailing from Nashville (Clarksville) to Chattanooga.  

Holiday Themed Cruises

AQSC is also running holiday-themed cruises again this year. "It works well for the European lines and we started that last year and actually sold out because of the [special included] attractions," Sykes notes. 

Ballroom dancing at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana // Photo by AWSC

For example, guests are taken off the ship to attend a ball at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. Plus, at five river ports, the line has organized craft vendors to come and set up craft tents -- somewhat akin to the European Chistmas markets.

"We got really high ratings on that last year so we’re doing it again this year, and they’re selling really well," he stresses. "People like that idea of being able to go the first couple weeks of December and buy Christmas things from all these arts and crafts purveyors in Natchez and Greenville MS, at Nottoway" and elsewhere. 

Plus, American Queen will be decked out with holiday decor and carolers will entertain onboard. Skyes says more vendors are planning to participate this year as local destinations are also promoting the craft tent days to their own citizens.  

Trade Talk

The line is doing more pre- and post-cruise city stays, as it found that while it provided one night pre-cruise for guests, the guests were getting off and staying in the disembarkation port on their own.  

"Sixty percent of the guests who get off the ship in New Orleans stay two days,” he said, noting it’s the same for Memphis, TN, Spokane, WA, and Portland, OR. 

In addition, 10 percent of AQSC's guests hail from English speaking overseas countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, so Sykes acknowledges that “a week isn’t long enough for them for vacation so we’ve added the pre- and post-cruise stays.” 

The line appreciates its travel agent partners, says Sykes, acknowledging that the highly inclusive product is “an expensive sell and a sophisticated sell.” It takes skilled agents to paint the picture for potential guests and to explain the inclusions and experiences.

Space permitting, the line offers travel agent fam trips 45 to 60 days prior to sailing. It also has a travel agent portal and a loyalty program.

In non-turnaround ports, it often sets up a breakfast with agents who can bring on past or potential guests to tour the ship. “People get a taste of buying,” says Sykes.

For more information about AWSC, visit www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.