Life in the age of pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but as U.S. residents take the first steps out of quarantine, there’s hope we can return sooner rather than later to some semblance of normalcy. That holds true in the group river cruise industry, too, as companies like the American Queen Steamboat Company, Emerald Waterways and Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours get ready to hit the water again. Their staffs have been hard at work in the past few months of shutdown, not only managing cancellations for groups — and taking brand-new bookings — but figuring out how to gear back up, including what new safety procedures to implement.
American Queen is getting some of its plush paddle-wheelers back out on the rivers soon, with what the company’s president, Ares Michaelides, called “a phased-in approach on two of the four ships.”
“It’s like a light switch that is on a dimmer,” he said. “We can’t just switch it back on.”
The American Empress, which follows in the wake of Lewis and Clark’s explorations of the Columbia and Snake rivers, will return July 6. On the Mississippi, the American Duchess will set sail for the first time since the shutdown on July 20. Michaelides said the company’s other two vessels, the brand-new American Countess and the American Queen — the largest steamboat ever made — will not sail until at least mid-July.
Emerald and Scenic’s voyages on the waterways of Europe have been postponed until the end of August, according to Ann Chamberlin, vice president of sales for the USA Scenic Group, which oversees both cruise companies.
“Our first priority is to take care of our current guests who are booked on a suspended sailing,” she said. “That’s No. 1 — to make sure we’ve accommodated them on a future sailing and to find out what their future plans might look like and what they’re comfortable doing.”
The USA Scenic Group, which is planning to operate its full itinerary into 2021 and beyond, is offering a 110% future travel credit, across brands, through 2022 or into 2023, depending on the date of the canceled cruise. At the end of this time, if group passengers have not yet rebooked the cruise, they are eligible for a full refund. American Queen is also providing refunds, as well as a future-cruise credit worth 125% of the value paid that group travelers can apply to sailings through 2021.
“We’re giving them flexibility,” Michaelides said of customers who hold tickets for canceled cruises. “We’re not pushing anyone. You have a percentage of the people that say, ‘Time out. I want to put my travel on hold for a second.’ Then there’s the other spectrum that is comfortable and wants to sail right away on this date, on this ship. And then there’s the majority in between that say, ‘Thank you. We appreciate your flexibility; give me a little time to see how the dust settles, and I’ll get back in touch with you to figure out what I’m going to do.’ But if someone calls now with reservations, we are taking bookings.”
Scenic is also taking new bookings for the ships that carry the company’s name and for Emerald Waterways. A lot of those bookings are coming from this country.
“The net new bookings are highest in the United States,” Chamberlin said. “So that shows us that people want to travel; they want to get out; they’re planning, they’re dreaming, and they’ll be ready to go when we’re ready to resume operations.”
But jockeying new group reservations with rebooking group passengers who were on canceled voyages may not be easy, according to Anne Davis, president of Cruises and Tours Worldwide.
“It’s interesting because, before the pandemic, the cruise lines were selling 2021 cruises,” said Davis, whose company sells exclusively to group leaders. “A lot of us had already blocked out group space. So now, when one of our 2020 groups wants to move to 2021, a lot of that space is already gone. We’re hunting around for suitable replacements for them.
“We had to cancel every spring and summer trip that we had,” she said. “Our last cruise that went out was February 25, and I think it will be just about the exact same date next year before our next cruise goes out. We did 73 trips last year, and we had more than that on the books for this year. We had a great first quarter, which is helping us get through the first several months of the pandemic. So we’re basically canceling trips; but almost all of our group leaders have asked us to reschedule them for next year. We expect that if we can get through this pandemic, that we will have a really busy year next year.”
While Davis works to reschedule her groups, cruise lines are figuring out ways to keep their group passengers as safe as possible from the virus. American Queen has even partnered with Ochsner Health, a New Orleans-based regional medical facility, to come up with a new set of policies. They include temperature screenings at check-in, COVID-19 testing for crew, increased cleaning of high-touch areas and reducing the seating capacity of the dining room and entertainment venues. Scenic, which faces the added challenge of maintaining compliance with the safety regulations in the various foreign countries where they dock, has yet to announce its own measures.
“The industry is resilient,” Michaelides said, when asked what he thinks the future holds for group river cruising. “We have a lot of smart people in the cruise industry. We’re going to come back, but it will be a slow, phased-in approach. You can’t put all the ships back on at the same time. I think if you take the training of the crew one-by-one, with all the new protocols, that will get the confidence level back. And slowly, we’ll get back into what at least is a new norm.”