Staying the course with American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines’ new CEO Charles B. Robertson discusses the growth of domestic and river cruising in the USA with Allan Jordan

Staying the course with American Cruise Lines
ACL began introducing the USA’s first contemporary-style riverboats in 2018

The USA has a long heritage in coastal and river cruising that Charles A. Robertson sought to tap into when building his unique brand. A long-time advocate for small-ship cruising, Robertson first launched American Cruise Lines (ACL) in the 1970s but sold it. In 2000, he relaunched it to great success with the 50-passenger American Eagle.

“My father created the vision and we’re following the same strategy, offering a premium product focused on the destination,” says Charles B. Robertson, who joined the family company in 2003, became vice president in 2014 and assumed the role of CEO after his father passed away in February 2020.

ACL has grown and evolved with the market over the past 20 years. Starting with small ships sailing on coastal voyages, the company now has three business segments: operations on the Mississippi River, voyages on rivers such as the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, and coastal cruising ranging from New England to Alaska. ACL operates 13 ships including classic paddlewheelers, modern riverboats and small coastal ships, each accommodating 100 to 190 passengers. They offer 35 itineraries ranging from 5 to 22 days in length.

“Domestic travel has taken off in the USA,” says Robertson. “We offer a very cultural experience with a focus on history, natural beauty and ecology.”

One key to ACL’s growth has been its unique approach. “We control the product cycle by building our cruise ships at our yard,” notes Robertson, adding that this was his father’s strategic decision. “We build ships tailored to the destinations. The riverboats, for example, have shallower drafts with opening bows and retractable gangways, while the coastal boats are stabilised and look more like a mini cruise ship.”

ACL is bringing a mega ship level of service and design into small-ship cruising. For example, the newest riverboats have standard cabins over 300 square feet (among the largest rooms available in river cruising), and suites ranging from 400 to 900 square feet. All the rooms have a sliding door leading out to a private furnished balcony. “We went from 2.5-foot balconies on the older ships to five-foot balconies on the new ships which give us space for a table, chairs and chaise lounge,” says Robertson.

The line also overcame significant regulatory challenges to create a five-storey atrium, a unique design element for a river cruise ship. “We transformed the standard vestibule into a gathering place,” says Robertson. Behind the scenes, the newest ships are also advancing the company’s environmental performance – they are EPA Tier 4 compliant on emissions and use green technologies such as LED lighting. ACL’s new coastal ships also employ eco-friendly technology and advanced safety and navigation equipment.

Guests on the new ships enjoy features including an outdoor casual cafe, fine dining in the grand dining rooms and room service. ACL also enhanced its shore programmes in partnership with an operator that provides ACL-branded buses that follow the ships along the Mississippi River to provide comfortable excursions in ports. ACL plans to expand this service to the Columbia River.

ACL attempted to restart cruises in the Pacific Northwest and along the Mississippi in June and July 2020, but new regulations introduced due to a resurgence of Covid-19 forced it to postpone. Robertson believes ACL’s disciplined management approach will help it to weather the current situation. “We’re prepared to operate but ready to wait,” he says, adding that he hopes ACL might be able to resume limited operations in New England this autumn.

River cruising, which makes up most of ACL’s business, will be a priority for growth, with five new contemporary-style riverboats and two coastal ships added between 2017 and 2022.

“River cruising has become a mainstream segment of travel in many parts of the world,” says Robertson. “But there is still a lot of potential to expand the domestic US river and small-ship coastal market.”

He expects to grow the line’s drive-to-cruise business, with 90 per cent of Americans living in driving distance of one of the company’s ships. ACL has also begun to build an international market. “UK guests like the idea of experiencing Mark Twain’s America and our long Mississippi River cruise provides the opportunity to see the whole American experience,” says Robertson. “Our tailored destination experiences, personalised services and our ship enhancements mean we’re well-positioned for growth.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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By Allan Jordan
01 December 2020

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