Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Mississippi cruising to return in 2012


Mississippi cruising to return in 2012

By Michelle Baran
Two companies next year will attempt to revive the Mississippi River cruising market, which has been dormant since Majestic America Line ceased operations under Ambassadors International at the end of 2008.

Operating contemporary river ships up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries has proven to be a business challenge that has eluded several cruise companies in recent years.

When their operations launch next year, Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines and the newly formed, Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. will approach the challenge in very different ways.

American Cruise Lines is building a new 140-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, from the ground up, while Great American Steamboat is in the process of resuscitating the 436-passenger American Queen.

"I don't think it's possible to take one of the older vessels, like the American Queen ... and construct it into what people want today," Charles Robertson, CEO of American Cruise Lines, told Travel Weekly earlier this year when explaining why his company had decided to build a new paddlewheeler rather than buy one of the existing Mississippi vessels.

"The older boats are not at all efficient," Robertson said. "They're not fuel-efficient [or] maintenance-efficient."

The freshly assembled executive team at the Great American Steamboat Co. would politely disagree. News leaked last week that the company had purchased the former Majestic ship the American Queen and was preparing to relaunch it in April 2012, four months before ACL's Queen of the Mississippi will set sail.

"I think not only is the American Queen hugely appealing, it's what people doing a Victorian-era riverboat want," said Christopher Kyte, president of the Great American Steamboat Co., which was formed in November. "But the market will tell."

Great American Steamboat is being led by CEO Jeff Krida, who was president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. "in its heyday in the '90s," said Kyte, who is also chairman of Oakland, Calif.-based Uncommon Journeys, which sold into the American river cruising market.

Great American Steamboat's parent company is New Albany, Ind.-based HMS Global Maritime, an operator of U.S. ferries and passenger vessels headed by President and CEO John Wagonner.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. launched the American Queen in June 1995. The vessel ultimately ended up under the ownership of Ambassadors International's river cruise brand, Majestic America Line. It was turned over to the U.S. Maritime Administration in August 2008 after Majestic defaulted on a guaranteed loan.

American QueenWhen the American Queen was put up for sale by Marad in 2009, it was valued at between $25 million and $30 million.

Kyte would not disclose how much Great American Steamboat paid for the vessel or how much it is investing in upgrades. But he asserted that "if you built it today -- if you could find a shipyard to build it -- it would cost $100 million to build."

Likewise, ACL's Robertson did not divulge how much his company would be spending to build its Mississippi vessel, but he said that he felt that the cost of renovating one of the existing paddlewheelers "would be a little bit more" than the cost of building a ship from the ground up.

Great American Steamboat does not plan on making many changes to the American Queen, Kyte said.

"The boat was carefully laid up by the federal government and literally could run in a few weeks if you wanted it to," Kyte said.

Nevertheless, the company will make some changes and upgrades to the product, including converting some of the public spaces to alternative dining venues, among them an open-air venue on the upper deck and possibly a more casual, New Orleans-influenced eatery. There will also be additional entertainment venues, such as a jazz lounge.

To accommodate active boomers, there will be a fitness program that could include exercise classes, plus shore excursions that will feature biking and hiking.

To instill confidence among consumers and travel agents concerned about the health of the U.S. river cruising market following the demise of Majestic, Kyte said that all deposits and commissions for American Queen bookings would be deposited in an escrow account.

The American Queen will sail three-, four-, nine- and seven-night cruises along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The Queen of the Mississippi will sail seven-night cruises along the same rivers, though itineraries have not yet been finalized.

Robertson said the Queen of the Mississippi would be faster than a ship like the American Queen by about 3 or 4 mph, which makes a "huge difference in itinerary," enabling the ship to make longer stops at ports.

While the differences are many between the Queen of the Mississippi and the American Queen, Kyte said that the more overnight passenger vessels sailing the Mississippi again, the better.

"Even with the ACL operation, there will be one half the number of beds that there were five years ago on the Mississippi River," Kyte said.