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In Focus: Canada's Cruise Ban

Delving into AQSC's vaccination mandate, the Canada ban and sailing in March

PHOTO: ANNE KALOSH CRUISE_John_Waggoner.jpg
'I treat everybody like family, both crew and guests. I need everybody to get vaccinated for their health,' John Waggoner said
Reaction to American Queen Steamboat Co. and Victory Cruise Lines' COVID-19 vaccination mandate has been positive, CEO John Waggoner said.

And though Canada's cruise ship ban is a blow to Victory's Great Lakes program and its inaugural Alaska expedition series, there may be some ways to address that, he told Seatrade Cruise News in a wide-ranging interview.

With AQSC and Victory becoming the first cruise lines to require both passengers and crew to get COVID shots, Waggoner explained: 'I treat everybody like family, both crew and guests. I need everybody to get vaccinated for their health.

'... Our guests are 70, plus or minus five years, so most should have easy access to the vaccine.'

And, based on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that Phase 1c of the vaccination allocation include essential transportation workers, along with the Federal Maritime Commission's urging the Biden administration to prioritize the maritime workforce, vaccinations should readily be available for crew before the July 1 target date. AQSC and Victory have 600 crew across seven vessels.

'President Biden is trying to get the vaccine out there and Johnson & Johnson should be in the market shortly with a one-shot vaccination, so we're very confident that people can make the July 1 date,' Waggoner said. 'We've given everyone plenty of notice.'

Customer and travel advisor support

The company's announcement sparked no cancellations 'but certainly we've had an increase in folks who are looking at booking after July, so we take that as a good sign.'

According to a Cruise Critic poll, 81% of cruisers surveyed said they would feel better traveling on a vessel where people are vaccinated. And travel advisors are supportive.

'With the demographics of the American Queen Steamboat Company guest, 99% of my clients booking a sailing with them will be vaccinated by the July 1 date. I don't know a soul that is eligible and not fighting to get it,' said Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc. in Fort Worth, Texas, a Virtuoso member.

'I think the policy is a great thing to do and provides guests so much assurance knowing everyone on board has the vaccine,' Turpin continued. 'And the idea of not taking a long flight to Europe and instead exploring destinations close to home like St. Francisville and Baton Rouge is so appealing to all of us right now.'

As for the destinations, the concern for most ports when AQSC talked about starting operations for American Countess and American Duchess this spring was whether people will be vaccinated. Small communities don't want their medical systems overwhelmed by an outbreak.

Approvals in place for March cruises

The company's first cruises are on the Lower Mississippi: March 15-22 aboard American Duchess and March 28-April 4 on American Countess, following its christening in New Orleans.

All approvals are in place and ports are 'excited,' according to Waggoner. 'They need the economic benefits. Right now, we are all go.'

As for when the other vessels may start, that's unclear.

American Duchess and American Countess are not subject to the CDC's conditional sailing order because they carry fewer than 250 people (passengers and crew). That's also the case for American Empress in the Pacific Northwest, however it awaits the green light from Washington and Oregon state.

Mississippi grande dame American Queen, though, carries 400 passengers and 180 crew, so it's under the CDC process.

Waggoner said bookings for the summer are strong so he hopes all the boats can sail.

Victory uncertainties and options

Following Canada's cruise ban, the company is trying to sort out Victory I, Victory II and Ocean Victory.

'We continue to see high demand for the Great Lakes but with this recent turn of events, we're disappointed Transport Canada won't let us sail,' Waggoner said. 'We're still looking at a path forward.'

Options may include 'technical' stops in Canada, a Passenger Vessel Services Act waiver and itinerary changes. Transport Canada today told Seatrade Cruise News 'technical' calls with passengers are not permitted, but Waggoner thinks Victory may have a case: 'What if we are 100% vaccinated, does that make a difference? Is 100 [Canada's ship capacity limit] the magic number or are you willing to follow CDC and say 250? There are a lot of options out there.'

Another challenge for Victory is that its first expedition cruises, 10- and 11-night 'Discovery Beyond' adventure itineraries in Alaska, don't comply with the CDC's seven-day limit. David Giersdorf, who crafted those, is working on seven-day routes.

So things are up on the air.

'The good news is bookings are strong for 2022 and people are looking forward to 2022 but we'd like to see if we can still cruise in 2021,' Waggoner said.

Adding marketing/sales talent

Recently the company hired veteran talent: Kari Tarnowski as SVP marketing, Colleen Rodriguez as senior director of marketing, Michael Hicks as director of marketing communications and Scott Sloan as business development director for the Southwest region.

Waggoner explained: 'In a 10-year period, we've gone from zero to eight boats, which is pretty damned impressive growth.' (This counts Ocean Victory, to be delivered June 25 in Seattle, and Ocean Discoverer, a second chartered expedition ship, coming in 2023.)

'Our adding capacity outgrew our marketing team so now we're focusing on adding to our marketing and sales team ... and I wouldn't be surprised if a few others join.'

'Positioned perfectly'

Times are tough for everyone. But echoing Ruth Turpin's remarks, Waggoner said travel advisors tell him: 'You are positioned perfectly. As soon as the world opens up, people will want to travel. They may not want to travel to Europe, though, and they may not want to go overseas. We love your brochure: "Come home to America." We love the tagline. Everybody loves your product."

According to Cruise Lines International Association, 600,000 North Americans take European river cruises in a normal year.

'We need 46,000 people to be 100% full,' Waggoner said.

'We see the rebound coming. We believe we'll be highly successful. We know we have a great product. Customers love our product. We know there's pent-up demand. We see the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccinations are coming. People are starting to travel. So we're excited for the future and what it holds.'

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