Why Cruise Lines Are Flocking to the Pacific Northwest

American Empress’  Portland-Clarkston sailings include a stop at Stevenson, WA, home of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
American Empress’ Portland-Clarkston sailings include a stop at Stevenson, WA, home of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.

Earlier this year, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC; www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com), the Memphis-based line that operates American Queen on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, expanded westward with the 223-passenger American Empress, the former Empress of the North. That refurbished vessel is just completing its first season of sailings between Clarkston, WA, and Portland, ME, on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and will begin again with those voyages next April through November.

Several other small-ship river and oceangoing lines (see below) also sail on these rivers, while large cruise ships also call in Astoria, OR, during coastal voyages in the region.

What’s the draw for the interior sailings? “The Columbia River cruise itinerary is by far one of the most beautiful river cruises in the world,” says Phyllis Dale, vice president/co-owner of Great Escapes Travel, Lake Mary, FL, who’s an experienced river-cruise seller and has put FIT and group clients on both AQSC and American Cruise Lines’ voyages. “From mountains and vineyards to the colorful rock formations, the scenery is spectacular,” says Dale. “One year cruising into Portland, we saw four magnificent snow-covered mountains—Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.”

In fact, much of the territory appears today as it did when viewed by Lewis and Clark in 1805. Dale says clients can relive that historic era via onboard lectures, tours ashore and entertainment set up by the lines. The region is also highly popular for viniculture, including winery tours and wine tastings. “Having chartered vessels and escorted many groups on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, I can say that this cruise should be a must on everyone’s ‘bucket list,’” Dale says.

Travel Agent recently spoke to Bill Diebenow, AQSC’s senior vice president of sales, about the line’s expansion and the launch of American Empress. Based in Memphis, TN, he just joined AQSC a few months ago but brings past small-ship experience with Intrav, Clipper Cruise Line and Preferred Hotel Group, which also represents European river boats.

Diebenow says the Pacific Northwest itineraries are attracting a younger clientele—baby boomers in their 50s and 60s—than what AQSC is seeing on its Mississippi River itineraries, which tend to draw a more mature clientele. In addition, “a surprising number of passengers [in the Northwest] are coming from California,” he says. Thanks to a strong relationship with Pleasant Holidays, a AAA preferred supplier, “that’s given us a lot of exposure and been very beneficial.”

Guest and social media feedback reveal “we’ve had a successful inaugural season,” he says, noting that the line is continuing to build Pacific Northwest momentum with a product philosophy of “bringing in the local.” For example, it’s rotating different Willamette Valley vineyards onboard for wine tastings and pairings, and taking guests off the boat to local wineries and vineyards.

Maryhill Winery overlooking the Columbia River is well respected by wine connoisseurs, while the Walla Walla Wine Trail in what’s called the “Napa of the North” offers the tastes of Canoe Ridge, Cayuse, Leonetti and Five Star Cellars, among others. California residents, in particular, are highly familiar with wineries and vineyard in their state, but now are happy to travel a bit further north for similar programs in a new region, says Diebenow.

In terms of shore tours, AQSC offers a complimentary hop-on hop-off motorcoach touring program at every port stop. Plus, it has specialty shore trips that may be longer, more detailed and carry a fee. Diebenow tells agents that baby boomers and even younger travelers will find the Pacific Northwest “a little more active” in terms of regional shore activities, including zip-lining and jet boat rides in Hells Canyon.

For river cruising throughout America, Diebenowsays “the simplicity of getting there is a big plus with all the drama going on abroad.” Agents can also tweak the nostalgia angle, enticing clients with a cruise that pampers with modern amenities yet harkens back in style to a prior, more simplistic era.

Clients may visit the International Rose Test Garden in Portland and peruse artifacts on the Nez Perce Reservation, tour a millionaire’s Victorian home in Astoria or admire the engineering achievement of the Bonneville Dam.

An American Empress stateroom with large windows offering panoramic views
An American Empress stateroom with large windows offering panoramic views

One of the best opportunities for agents, he says, is to promote themed experiences on America’s rivers. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, clients might delve into the region’s Lewis and Clark heritage, wine-theming or pioneer adventure. “It’s important to bring these differences to life through a theme,” Diebenow says, as this is what drives some of the tourism in these remote towns and regions.

On the marketing front, AQSC has recently launched a new website, www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com, with an agent portal that has tools and information designed for travel agents. In the field, agencies are assisted by four sales executives, including Hy Cooper, western regional VP-sales, based in Dana Point, CA; Mark Cronin, in Boston, MA, who handles the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada; Pamela Harding, in Mukilteo, WA, who covers the northwestern U.S. and western Canada; and Rick Simonson, in Trinity, FL, who takes care of sales in the southeastern U.S. In addition, AQSC is in the process of hiring a fifth sales representative, to be based in Chicago, and a new division has been added within the reservations team to deal solely with customer service.

Agents earn a 10 percent minimum base commission for AQSC bookings; that rises on a graduated scale to 17 percent, based on productivity. Travel agents with a group of five cabins will be offered group incentives including a special commission bonus; there is also an earned tour conductor policy.

In terms of print marketing, the line has developed a “Slim Jim,” what Diebenow describes as a narrower mailing piece; the line will work with agencies on co-op programs and customizing the mailer.

Demand for North American river cruising is growing, but many Americans don’t understand the interconnections of America’s waterways.  “In fall 2015, we connect the dots [on five separate segments] from St. Louis to Nashville to Chattanooga and then back to Nashville, to Memphis and to New Orleans, all the way on a 400-passenger riverboat,” says Diebenow. “I don’t think Americans really understand that.”

More than 2,300 agencies have booked the American Queen or American Empress since the first 2012 season that the line operated. Diebenow strongly believes agents will have more clients and the line will add even more agencies as travelers return from a similar river vacation abroad: “There is so much potential coming off the European rivers, an enormous base of travelers who are very satisfied with a riverboat experience and want to try something in North America.”

Top Pacific Northwest Itineraries

From April through November 2015, Un-Cruise Adventures will operate seven-night river cruises on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers roundtrip from Portland, OR. Clients will sail on the 88-passenger S.S. Legacy, a steamer-style small ship with a strong product focus on the heritage and culture of the Pacific Northwest. Historians, crew in period uniforms, experts and onboard living history presentations provide enrichment, while some voyages focus on Lewis and Clark or music.

In September and October 2015, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s 62-guest National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion will sail week-long voyages between Clarkston, WA, and Portland. There’s plenty of time for eco-exploration, as well as viniculture.

American Cruise Lines sails a robust schedule of paddlewheel-style voyages on the Columbia and Snake Rivers with the 120-passenger Queen of the West; guests embark either at Portland or Clarkson, WA. This vessel has many staterooms with private balconies and free Wi-Fi.

Big-ship ocean lines also call at Astoria, OR, during coastal Pacific Northwest voyages. For example, Royal Caribbean International’s Jewel of the Seas sails an eight-night cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles on September 18, and Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess sails a five-night cruise from Vancouver to San Francisco on September 16.

An Un-Cruise ship crew in period uniforms
An Un-Cruise ship crew in period uniforms


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