With the rollout last week of Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. and ongoing advancements in testing, domestic river and small-ship operators are increasingly optimistic about the year ahead. River cruise editor Jeri Clausing spoke with American Queen Steamboat Co. CEO John Waggoner about his company's newest timeline as well as the expansion plans of its parent company, the Hornblower Group.
Q: 2020 was a chaotic year for domestic travel companies, with a lot of almost-restarts. How are things looking for a return to sailing in 2021?
A: We were going to operate in November and we had to cancel that. And then we were shooting for Jan. 18. Now we've moved everything to March. We are planning a March 15 start for the American Duchess. Shortly after that we'll have the March 21 christening for the American Countess. And April 5 is the American Empress. We're still looking at the American Queen. But because she carries 420 passengers, we've got to follow the CDC guidelines. So I still don't have a clear idea of when that date is. For Victory 1 and Victory 2 [on the Great Lakes] we're still waiting on Canada, but we hope May 5 for the Victory 2 and shortly thereafter for Victory 1. And we hope to launch the Ocean Victory in [Alaska] May 22.
Q: How is demand for spring travel?
A: We're not seeing strong demand for the early sailings. We're just like everybody else. We're seeing more for June, July, August, September. But even when we were shooting for a July 2020 start, we had bookings just 30 days out and we filled the boats up. Even for January there were people traveling. And we're limiting capacity for the first six trips. We're looking at 100 people for the American Duchess and 150 for the American Countess. So if you looked at that slightly differently and you said, "John, do you think by March you can get 250 people?" Oh my God, yes.
Q: The last time we spoke you were making plans with your partner, Oschner Health, to do preboarding Covid-19 testing. Is that still the plan?
A: We'll require that our passengers get Covid tested before they get on an airplane. And then they check in the night before, and we'll go ahead and have Oschner Health do a test then so that we know, when everybody gets onboard, everyone [tested negative] is Covid free.
Q: Earlier this year, Hornblower purchased American Shore Excursions. Do you have any other expansion plans?
A: There will probably be a few announcements in the next couple of months of us acquiring a few other shore excursion operators and really starting to expand our reach. As you know, my partner, Terry MacRae, and I combined companies three years ago. We brought in some private equity that allowed us to buy Entertainment Cruises, Boston Harbor Cruises, City Cruises in London. So now I think that you'll slowly start to see us spread from inland a little bit to other shore excursion providers. And in the grand plan, you might even see us acquire a tour and travel group that will help expand our reach.
Q: Is this something that's been part of the vision or are you taking advantage of opportunities as companies struggle to survive the pandemic?
A: It's option C: all of the above. We've recently signed a contract in Puerto Rico to run their ferry service. When you look at all the cruise ships that dock in Puerto Rico, and we have a ferry service, we're looking at how we can provide shore excursions to them.
And when you look at what we have in New York with the dinner cruises around the Statute of Liberty and we say, hey, if we start pairing things with Rockefeller Center, the [Edge] observation platform, some of those things, we can actually bundle and expand the opportunities.
And then, if we can acquire a tour operator or something else that can help sell our product, that would be great. There are some folks for whom this has been devastating. Some are just saying, "Hey, I was going to retire anyway, but this is forcing me to retire." So I think it has created a bunch of new opportunities for us.