Riverboats Return to the Mississippi River

Victorian charm and 21st-century amenities create a recipe for success By: Marilyn Green
Bookings for the American Queen are ahead of schedule. // © 2012 American Steamboat Company
Bookings for the American Queen are ahead of schedule. // © 2012 American Steamboat Company

The Details

American Cruise Lines

Great American Steamboat Company

When the distinctive profile of a classic American steamboat sails into port, flags flying and calliope at top volume, it’s hard to know who is more excited — the people onboard or the people on land. For four years, the paddlewheelers passing up and down the huge rivers that define the country’s interior have been silenced, as regular overnight service came to a halt. However, this year will see the return of the great riverboats, churning the waters of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers from Minneapolis, Minn., to New Orleans and St. Louis, Minn., to Pittsburgh, Pa.

The two companies launching sternwheelers this year, American Cruise Lines and the Great American Steamboat Company, are seeing the result of the pent-up demand, both from consumers already addicted to American riverboating and from the dramatic growth of the lines’ target market of mature travelers.

Guilford, Conn.-based small-ship company American Cruise Lines is building the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi for service starting in August, while the newly formed Great American Steamboat Company, with cruise and river cruise veterans at its helm, is adding modern technology and amenities to the largest steamboat ever built — the 436-passenger American Queen.

Both cruise lines are reporting strong bookings, spread evenly among the Central, Eastern and Western states. American Cruise Lines is drawing from its past passenger base and from the Delta Queen passenger list, which the line purchased two years ago. Great American is partnering with high-recognition travel industry professionals and high-end product lines while it establishes its reputation in addition to creating relationships with companies such as Go Next, a substantial organizer of alumni and museum groups that has already booked groups on 18 American Queen departures this year. The cruise line has also announced its partnership with Signature Travel Network.

American already operates along the inland waterways and rivers of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the East Coast. In addition to its 40 to 50 percent repeat clientele rate on an average cruise, president, Charles Robertson, said that American is attracting new customers on the Mississippi River. The cruise line is also working with agents in Webinars and at trade shows.

Great American, with executives from Delta Queen’s heyday, Uncommon Journeys, HMS Global Marine and Oceania Cruises, has barnstormed the country to educate agents about its plans for the line, drawing applause with agent-friendly policies such as eliminating non-commissionables and placing fares and commissions in escrow as well as providing paper documents. Great American includes an impressive number of complimentary shore excursions. However, its optional paid excursions are commissionable. Executives are very happy with the results: During the last week in December, Great American had to hire more reservations staff to deal with jammed phone lines and, the Monday before Christmas, which is traditionally dead as the proverbial doornail, was the cruise line’s biggest day yet.

The company had an onboard credit offer that expired Dec. 31, but in view of the volume and the pileup of reservation calls, Great American extended it through the first week in January, earning gratitude from both agents and clients. For the first season, Great American has booked a surprising amount of group business, even in April and May. Many group clients were those who had initially planned Mediterranean cruises that were not drawing well. Although the ship is nearly three times the size of Queen of the Mississippi, the cruise line had a number of cruises 70 percent sold by mid-January.

Both cruise lines are finding that the higher-priced staterooms are selling first. Great American executives said that the tendency to sell the more expensive staterooms is so strong that their projected average per diem of $402 has turned out to be $538, which is good news for the level of agent commissions, as well. The cruise line places the average commission at $500-$700 and also provides a bottle of wine to each client, compliments of the agent, plus a free overnight hotel stay before each cruise, taking arrival anxiety out of the equation.

American’s biggest producing states are California, Texas and Florida, and the line is stressing the size of its accommodations. Queen of the Mississippi’s highest-priced staterooms are the same size as lower priced ones; the difference lies in a private balcony or a sliding-glass door. The line is selling quite a number of connecting rooms, either to multigenerational groups or to people on back-to-back cruises who would like to enjoy the river from Louisiana to Minnesota. American will even change the furniture in the connecting room and bring in living room furnishings if notified in advance.

American Queen
The 436-passenger American Queen’s $5 million refurbishment is carefully walking the line between preserving as much as possible of the original decor while offering the bells and whistles that today’s river cruisers demand. The ship’s original wool rugs are being restored, and Victorian wall covers look as beautiful as when she was new. Bedding and bathroom amenities are luxurious, and the  natural lighting is being preserved in staterooms and public spaces.

Accommodations are highly individual, and some have special features such as a screened-in porch. Antiques are authentic when possible and duplicated in mahogany by Indonesian craftsmen when necessary, and the warm colors, Tiffany-style lamps and polished dark woods give a very warm, inviting look to the interior. There are nine accessible rooms and some of them are extremely spacious. There are 11 single staterooms and a few triples. Connecting rooms A or AA connect with smaller G or AA plus F suites catering to multigenerational groups. Suites are lovely, particularly the Delta Queen Suite. All staterooms, with the exception of the inside cabins, have a tub and a shower, and all have flat-screen televisions. There is Wi-Fi access in the public rooms, and there is elevator access to all decks.

Among the most beautiful of the public rooms is the Ford Theater-inspired Grand Saloon, whose box seats are for suite guests, and the gracious Mark Twain Gallery, with its huge windows overlooking the light-filled J.M. White Dining Saloon, where guests will enjoy dishes such as hot beignets and Bananas Foster, designed by celebrity chef Regina Charbonneau at two seatings (watch out for those butter biscuits). Special dietary needs will be lavishly catered to — nobody will feel deprived on this vessel. Those who can tear themselves away from the dining room can enjoy regional alternative dining (barbecue, po’ boys, etc.) and al fresco meals in the River Grill and, if someone is still peckish late at night, there’s the 24-hour Front Porch of America, or the Moonlight Supper in the charming Engine Room Bar — all without charge. Complimentary soft drinks, specialty coffees and bottled water are included in the fare, as well as complimentary wines and beers at dinner. With the announced emphasis on food and drink, passengers may be relieved to find bikes for guest use, a pool, a fitness room and a wellness instructor onboard.

Queen of the Mississippi
Queen of the Mississippi, newly designed with traditional lines and modern amenities, has six lounges and 78 staterooms, 85 percent of them with private balconies. The 15 main deck staterooms don’t have balconies and the next category offers conventional hinged doors for balcony access. There are a dozen spacious single rooms, all with double beds and 11 with private balconies. Six Owners Suites can accommodate three passengers. Each room has satellite television and a DVD player, plus coffee makers and telephones, and Wi-Fi access is available shipwide. Queen of the Mississippi’s balconies are 12 feet by five feet; passengers can opt to have breakfast served there. There are large windows offering excellent views of the river and the shoreline, and the decor will be in light colors and traditional riverboat Victorian style.

Elevators offer access to all decks and single-seating dining will be offered in the Grand Dining Salon with its crystal chandeliers and surrounding windows. The menu includes dishes from bayou-style gumbo to peach Melba and the Top Deck Cafe will provide hot and cold beverages, snacks and pastries throughout the day. The panoramic views from the Paddlewheel Lounge are expected to make this a preferred gathering place, but there are also small lounges for groups. Complimentary bottled water, wine and soft drinks are included.

Entertainment and Enrichment
Both companies are going all out in terms of entertainment; if there’s an act performing today that was popular in the heyday of the cruise lines’ target audience or a regional group of great skill, guests may find them onboard these boats at some point. American has names from Connie Frances to Glenn Leonard’s Temptation Revue, while Great American has released a list of performers, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Lovin’ Spoonful and the New Orleans Jazz All-Stars. The onboard lecture rosters are very impressive and Great American has revived the original concept of the Riverlorian on American Queen to bring the rivers’ colorful history and legends to the passengers.

American Queen’s cruising speed is about eight miles per hour; Queen of the Mississippi’s will be approximately 13 miles per hour, which her owners explain will allow more time in port. Once there, shore excursions for Queen of the Mississippi are additional to the cruise fare. American Queen fares include complimentary daily shore excursions using the company’s own motorcoaches and drivers. Passengers will have no difficulty finding the coaches; they are painted to look like the boat itself. Premium additional choices on shore are commissionable. Both companies are capitalizing on themes, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, holiday cruises, the Kentucky Derby and the associated Great Steamboat Race.

Both vessels will cruise the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers. American Queen will sail three, 10-night cruises from April into December. Queen of the Mississippi offers seven-night cruises from August through December. A mid-December cruise sailing roundtrip from New Orleans onboard the American Queen starts at $1,995 per person, based on double occupancy ($2,995 single). Queen of the Mississippi fares for a seven-day roundtrip sailing from New Orleans in mid-December are priced from $3,995 per person, based on double occupancy ($4,685 single).

Which company will do best on the Mississippi? Most observers think that they will both do very well. Their combined 2012 capacity is less than 50 percent of what it was in the 1990s, when Heartland river cruising consistently sailed full with high per diems, and the target market is growing by leaps and bounds. In any case, the agent and the consumer will certainly win with a very strong domestic river product coming in at the perfect time for value-conscious travelers and opening up more drive destinations in the center of the U.S.

Adventure Travel JDS Africa Middle East JDS Destinations