Demand exceeding expectations for Mississippi River launches

By Michelle Baran

AmericanQueen-relaunchNew life is being breathed into Old Man River.

As the finishing touches are being put on two ships for the Mississippi River’s big cruising comeback this year, the ships’ owners report that bookings are ahead of projections and that the outlook for the rebirth of Mississippi cruising is very positive.

Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. will relaunch the 436-passenger American Queen in April, and Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines (ACL) is building a 150-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, which is expected to set sail in August.

Together, the vessels will essentially bring back to life a Mississippi River cruise market that has been dormant since Majestic America Line ceased operations under Ambassadors International at the end of 2008.

Since opening its reservations call center on Sept. 30, the Great American Steamboat Co. is averaging $250,000 a day in sales, six days a week, according to the company’s CEO, Jeff Krida.

He added that the Great American Steamboat Co. has a $46 million revenue plan for 2012 for the American Queen and is currently tracking at $54 million a year in sales. Additionally, the American Queen is about 54% full for all of 2012, and 76% full for the first three months of the season.

Charles Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, was not as forthcoming with ACL’s sales figures but said it was about 40% ahead of its projected 2012 sales for the Queen of the Mississippi and that “a number of cruises are already sold out.”

So why is the product seemingly poised to do well now, when it was run into the ground by Majestic just three years ago?

The people running Majestic “had a lack of passion for steamboating,” Krida said. “They saw it as an economic play, a conglomeration of different vessel assets, rather than an opportunity to create and sustain an iconic American vacation experience and stay focused on that. They didn’t love it like the people that ran the company in the early 1990s did.”

Krida was a previous president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which ran a vibrant Mississippi River cruising business during the 1990s.

“We knew and understood who the profile of customers were that loved this product and hoped for it to be brought back in a high-class way, and would be willing to pay full rate for that experience,” Krida said.

Robertson asserted that “the market’s been there all along.”

And yet the two firms are bringing it back with a slightly different twist on the way it was done before. ACL’s Queen of the Mississippi will be a lower-capacity newbuild with larger cabins, greater energy efficiency and a higher price point than the American Queen.

The American Queen, on the other hand, will be similar to its original incarnation with some notable changes.

The ship was built in 1995 and purchased by the Great American Steamboat Co. from the federal government for $15 million, with an additional $6 million invested in renovating mechanicals.

“About 80% of it will be the same,” Krida said. “The physical plan, the hotel, looks the same with all its Victorian furnishings.”

One factor driving the changes, he said, is that Americans over 50 today are up for a slightly more active lifestyle.

“While enjoying sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch of America and reading a great book will still appeal to a lot of customers,” Krida said, “there are others that want to do things like mountain biking on the levy when the vessel stops, yoga and Pilates classes led by our fitness director onboard, and a full salon with massage therapy.”

The American Queen has also added an alternative dining venue, having converted the al fresco Calliope Bar on the top deck in the back of the vessel to the full-service River Grill, where people can have a more casual lunch and dinner.

As they gear up for their first season on the Mississippi, both companies already see an opportunity for adding capacity both on the Mississippi and on other U.S. inland waterways.

“There are other rivers in America that river cruising can expand on,” Krida said. “There are even still some other vessels that can be brought back into service, and there are newbuilds that can be done.”

Correction: The Queen of the Mississippi will have a capacity of 150 passengers, not 140 as previously reported. Single staterooms have been added as construction of the ship has progressed.

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