How American Cruise Lines is capitalising on a unique position

Charles Robertson tells Susan Parker why American Cruise Lines’ US-based itineraries have enabled it to remain successful despite the pandemic

How American Cruise Lines is capitalising on a unique position

American Cruise Lines

ACL’s vessels take small numbers of guests to destinations around the USA, including places like Boothbay Harbor in Maine

Headquartered in Guilford, Connecticut, river cruise operator American Cruise Lines (ACL) carries mostly North American passengers, which has been advantageous in recent years. “We’ve seen an increased share of Americans travelling domestically on our ships, largely because there’s been a general reluctance to travel abroad because of Covid and the geopolitical situation,” says Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO.

However, the US Government’s relaxation of travel requirements for inbound passengers in June 2022 has altered that landscape, both for North Americans and foreign travellers. Prior to the pandemic the latter accounted for less than 20 per cent of ACL’s source market but pent-up demand means Robertson is “excited about the prospect of having more foreign travellers than ever on our American ships.”

ACL’s success lies in the fact it serves the drive-to, roundtrip market and has multiple itineraries that do not require passengers to fly or bring a passport. This is beneficial for both domestic and foreign visitors. “Even those flying into the country find it pretty easy [once here] as they reap all the benefits of domestic travel,” says Robertson. “They are never really far from shore, always in sight of land, and they can easily get back to a safe port of call without having to immigrate. We can get people back to where we started very quickly.”

These days the company is doing more itinerary planning than ever before. Robertson explains that there are two reasons for this. The first is a desire arising from the pandemic for ships to be closer to home and to visit smaller ports and more intimate destinations. “This means we are opening up new towns, which we haven’t been able to consider before.”

The second reason is due to ACL’s new class of ships, Project Blue, which begin sailing in summer 2023. “They have a broader operating range than any ship we have built before,” explains Robertson. “Plus, they have a smaller, more stable and shallower draught so we can go into places [further up the Hudson] that no cruise ship has been before.”

Although new itineraries have yet to be announced, they will include New York to Boston and Long Island Sound, says Robertson. “We’ll also have a deeper exploration of Maine, starting in Bangor, which has not really been visited by cruise ships for more than a decade.”

In addition, to ACL, Robertson and his family own Pearl Sea Cruises, an affiliated, small-ship cruise line operating foreign-flag ships on the Great Lakes, sailing around Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia and the Saint Lawrence region. “One of our most popular trips is from Portland to Toronto where guests can call at destinations like Prince Edward Island, Baie-Comeau, Quebec City and Clayton or, alternatively, roundtrips from Portland with a Canadian port of call [to satisfy cabotage requirements],” says Robertson.

Discussing itinerary planning challenges, Robertson says he is excited to hear about CruiseMaine’s initiative to use portcall.com to tackle port congestion issues. “We can see the potential in better communication between ports and lines and in having increased transparency. There is a lot of possibility with software systems like that.”

However, he adds, ACL is good at avoiding congestion in part due to its small-size ships. “We try to avoid not only big ships but also the ports built to accommodate them, because we don’t need the same infrastructure or security requirements as vessels calling from abroad,” he explains, adding that, for example, ACL docks in a marina in Boston rather than the port.

ACL’s small ships are also helping the brand to fare well in Bar Harbor, which is constantly reassessing its position vis-à-vis the introduction of caps on daily cruise passenger numbers. “We have a great relationship with the port,” says Robertson. “It is very supportive of our model with small ships, even the interstate, Maine routes. The port understands how our brand and guests are different.”

He points out that ACL operated a full cruise season in Bar Harbor in 2021 with minimal attention from residents. “That’s how spread out our impact is on the town. Locals don’t feel it when we add 100 passengers a day. I think we’ll still be able to operate there around big ships and their schedules.”

When asked about the impact of the Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) on itinerary planning, Robertson says that a lot of the International Maritime Organization requirements are different for ACL. However, for Pearl, he says: “We stack up fairly well as a small ship operator and, with our heavy emphasis on time in port, that is a relevant accolade when calculating CII. We try to reduce the route miles – we are not crossing oceans. And we use low sulphur fuel on all our ships.”

In the future, Robertson hopes to use shore power. “We’re really excited to be working with several ports around the country to try and make that possible,” says Robertson, noting that all new ships will be built with shore power capabilities and some existing vessels will be retrofitted. He adds that much less power is needed for a small ship, and “so in many places it is pretty doable”.

Looking ahead, Robertson believes the greatest challenge will be to continue growing while managing any uncertainty. “The pandemic required every cruise line to be very nimble and adapt quickly, and we’ll continue to harness that willingness to be creative.”

This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

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Susan Parker
By Susan Parker
14 September 2022

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