River cruise lines are adding new ships and itineraries to keep up with U.S. travelers’ pent-up demand to explore their own backyard.
When thinking about a cruise vacation, the first option that might pop into your client’s mind is a mega cruise ship sailing to some exotic island in the Caribbean; the second, a luxurious European river cruise in France or Germany. But river cruising in our own backyard is becoming a popular trend that’s gaining momentum. So much so that North American river cruise companies are adding new ships and itineraries to keep up with the growing demand. As Timothy Beebe, v.p. of American Cruise Lines, puts it, “Paddlewheel cruising on America’s rivers has been getting quite a bit of attention, particularly on the Mississippi and Columbia rivers.”
american cruise lines
It’s because of this growing trend that American Cruise Lines has added new ships to both its Mississippi and Columbia/Snake rivers routes over the next couple of years. Additionally, American Cruise Lines is adding more sail dates to 2015 itineraries.
“People are discovering what a wonderful experience it is to see their own country from its waterways,” says Beebe. But it’s not just U.S. travelers who are enticed by these itineraries. “People from around the world find the itineraries appealing because they offer a true American experience and a great way to see different portions of the U.S. at one time,” he adds.
One of the aforementioned new ships is the American Eagle, which starts service in the spring on 7-night roundtrip New Orleans cruises. The riverboat will feature larger public spaces, more advanced environmental equipment—making it a much greener ship—and be able to travel at higher speeds, allowing it to cover larger portions of the Mississippi River, and affording passengers more time at ports-of-call.
The company realized many of its guests were booking back-to-back cruises and combining itineraries to see certain portions of the U.S. waterways, so American Cruise Lines is now offering longer cruises to accommodate the traveler who wants to set sail for several weeks. One such option is the new 22-day Complete Mississippi Cruise (from $12,550 pp) through America’s Heartland aboard American Eagle.
According to Beebe, American Cruise Lines’ clients are “affluent, highly educated, and well traveled. Our guests are typically 55 years of age or over, and enjoy learning and discovering new cultures and places. They come to us for an enriching, intimate cruising experience in an upscale, personalized setting with like-minded passengers.”
American Cruise Lines’ most popular tours are to the American Heartland, Puget Sound, New England, Alaska, and Columbia and Snake rivers. “We offer a comprehensive shore tour program. Many itineraries offer featured tours, which are available at no cost and
highlight the very best of each destination. We also offer premium and signature tours in each port. These range from guided walking tours and whale watching to fishing charters and jet boat tours,” says Beebe. “We offer a distinct experience—we can tailor a shore program to any group we have onboard—it’s a personalized experience from start to finish.”
While on board, guests can take part in festive meals, cocktails, and various types of entertainment and events such as going into town for an exclusive dinner, a show or wine tasting. Onboard guest lecturers often join passengers at the port to provide added insight about what they’re experiencing. “It’s important to educate U.S.-based clients on the options they have in their own backyard. They don’t have to travel all the way to Europe for an upscale river cruise,” Beebe points out.
“River cruising in the U.S.A.—no need to fly to Europe. We have an incredibly scenic river cruise right here in our own backyard. History, lock transits, winemaking and colorful characters permeate our inclusive river experience in the Pacific Northwest,” says Tim Jacox, Un-Cruise Adventures’ principal and executive v.p.
When it comes to Un-Cruise Adventures’ guests, according to Jacox, they seem to have adventure in mind. “We see a trend in people wanting to actively explore a destination—seeing and doing rather than watching. We are hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, taking skiffs out to watch wildlife. People are getting up close to nature and wildlife,” he adds.
Un-Cruise Adventures has new itineraries for 2015, such as the Ameritage! Four Rivers of Wine & History itinerary aboard the 88-passenger S.S. Legacy, a new wine-centric journey along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Land-cruise combos, such as the Columbia and Snake rivers itinerary, is more inclusive with shore excursions like the Hells Canyon jet boat ride; all premium spirits, fine wines, and microbrews; massage, yoga and stretching classes; and airport transfers.
“Our style of expedition cruising with flexible itineraries is different,” says Jacox. “On our adventure cruises, we make few port calls and instead spend our time exploring and taking time to seek out wildlife. There’s no urgency to be in port at a certain time each day. By keeping capacities below 90 guests, we deliver more adventure.”
Multi-generational families are also traveling with Un-Cruise Adventures, according to Jacox. The Kids in Nature itineraries allow families, with kids under 13, to take part in enhanced kid programming as well as reduced rates for the children. These have become so popular, that in 2015 there will be nine Kids in Nature voyages visiting Alaska, Hawaii, and Mexico.
“It is essential for agents to educate themselves about our adventure and river cruises so they can match clients appropriately. I recommend taking our webinars and becoming a certified Adventurist with us. Besides the learning tools, agents also enjoy benefits such as a listing on our website, bonuses, and discounted FAM rates,” he adds.
american queen steamboat company
It’s all about themed river cruising for American Queen Steamboat Company. These itineraries, according to Bill Diebenow, senior v.p. of sales, are in high demand.
For example, the Bourbon & Bluegrass itinerary sails through Paducha, Kentuky, an elegantly restored river town that’s a UNESCO designated City of Crafts and Folk Art, and features stops at a few whisky distillers: Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill.
After listening to passengers’ inputs, the company has “refined the existing patterns to maximize time in the most popular ports,” he adds. For example, the company has extended its time in Vicksburg on the 8- or 9-day New Orleans to Memphis itinerary; and starting in 2015, the American Queen will feature the port town of Greenville, Mississippi in its itineraries.
Diebenow says that he has seen a trend in cruise combinations “with an extended hotel stay, or with train [travel] such as Amtrak, Pullman or Rocky Mountaineer.” American Queen Steamboat Company includes a 1-night, pre-cruise hotel stay in every cruise fare; and post-stay packages are offered at an additional rate to allow travelers to take in the “you-wouldn’t-want-to-miss excursions in the interesting cities where the cruise terminates,” points out Diebenow.
For instance, the extended stay in Nashville includes a ticket for the post-cruise Nashville City tour, which includes a visit to the
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, plus a show at the Grand Ole Opry. Passengers also receive admission vouchers to the Sun
Studio, and to Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, plus private airport transfers. Due to growing popularity, the company will feature expanded
Premium Shore Excursions in 2015, as well as Post Voyage City Stays.
Although off-board experiences for American Queen Steamboat Company are on the rise, the on board amenities are equally unique for passengers. “The chefs onboard…provide an extremely unique and delicious culinary experience. Culinary director, Regina Charboneau, is a southern cooking icon and provides onboard biscuit-making demos along with plenty of locally sourced and fresh ingredients,” says Diebenow.
American Cruise Lines: (800) 460-4518; americancruiselines.com or americancruiselines.com/travel-agents
American Queen Steamboat Company: (888) 749-5280; americanqueensteamboatcompany.com or americanqueensteamboatcompany.com/Agent-Portal
Un-Cruise Adventures: (888) 862-8881; un-cruise.com or un-cruise.com/extranet
Mary Novak-Beatty, v.p. of marketing for Mayflower Tours, notes that her clients are requesting itineraries along the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes (recommend the 11-day America’s Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River Cruising itinerary aboard the MS Saint Laurent; rates start at $4,399 and departure is Aug. 28, 2015). “Our travelers are always seeking great life-enriching experiences, and more knowledge,” she says. “They always seek more hands-on experiences—everything that brings their senses alive.
“Because our travelers are such experienced travelers…they want comfort, great food and entertainment. Our travelers thoroughly enjoy experiencing local entertainment; local guides and historians; and meeting locals,” she adds.
Another trend Novak-Beatty is seeing is travelers requesting land and cruise combinations. “Having more time in the pre-cruise port city, or the post-cruise port city, offers more experiences, additional leisure time, and extends the holiday for added enjoyment.”
She adds that her clients enjoy the nostalgia of Mark Twain, the history of the rivers, as well as music and history themes. “When you are working with a demographic of experienced, but very curious travelers who know what they are seeking, providing a theme brings even more ‘like-minded’ travelers together, which truly enhances their experiences.”
As for travel agents selling North American waterway trips, Novak-Beatty suggests they should partner with an experienced tour operator that knows the area and its waterways.
“Knowing what is in store in each port allows better education so that the agents can educate their clients on what the experiences will be, and know that the itinerary, and the features, are thoroughly researched, vetted and priced at a value,” she adds.
(800) 323-7604; mayflowertours.com