The American Empress riverboat has made its final 2014 journey on the Columbia River, and the president of the cruise operator is breathing easier about a successful season that was by no means a certainty.
The 223-passenger historic-themed riverboat ran on one-week journeys from April through last week between Astoria, Ore., and Clarkston, on the Idaho-Washington border. It attracted almost 6,000 passengers, said Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer of Memphis-based American Queen Steamboat Company, which also offers Mississippi River cruises. That’s less than the full capacity of 7,000 passengers, but it beat expectations, and some of the cruises even had waiting lists, Sykes said. The riverboat operator hired about 80 employees for this year’s cruises.
Early reservations for next year are strong, and customer satisfaction surveys measuring a 1-to-10 scale are coming in between 9.3 and 9.6, Sykes said. “We hit it out of the park from a quality point of view,” he said. The local cuisine, wines and entertainment offered on the cruise all won praise from passengers and travel writers, Sykes said, adding that Northwest wines were a “hidden treasure” that surprised many passengers.
A large percentage of riverboat passengers came from six Western states — especially Southern California and Arizona — and from Florida, Sykes said. Their average age was 57, he said.
The Columbia River, Multnomah Falls and other wonders of nature were highlights of the seven-day voyage. “People are blown away by the natural beauty out there,” said Sykes, of Memphis.
Love for downtown
The city of Vancouver, as the ship’s home port and the launching point for eastbound river journeys, also was popular with cruise passengers, Sykes said. Many took coach tours to Fort Vancouver and took in some of the downtown area’s many summer activities, he said.
“Vancouver was a huge hit for us,” Sykes said. “Passengers loved the downtown in Vancouver.”
Those passengers taking the trip eastbound stayed in the Hilton Vancouver Washington. (Westbound passengers stayed overnight in Spokane.) The steamboat company initially put up passengers at the Portland Hilton, but switched to Vancouver after four weeks. Many said they preferred Vancouver to Portland, he said.
Eric Walters, general manager of the Vancouver Hilton, said the hotel booked 750 rooms for about 1,500 riverboat travelers during the travel season. The visitors, who generally arrived on Saturdays, had high praise for Vancouver, he said.
“They very much enjoyed the hometown feel, the farmers market, the fort, everything Vancouver had to offer,” Walters said.
Kim Bennett, president and CEO of Visit Vancouver USA, said the city’s role as the riverboat’s home port provided the city with “nearly unprecedented levels of exposure to hundreds of travelers from around the world.”
The four-deck riverboat had operated for several years as the Empress of the North before its owner, Majestic America Line, filed for bankruptcy in 2008. The new owners spent $5 million on upgrades in preparation for its rechristening as the American Empress. Sykes said he had worried before this year’s launch that the troubles of the past could create image problems for the new owners. But that fear dissipated as the cruise won positive reviews, he said.
The company’s vacation packages cover a nine-day period, including the seven-day cruise. Standard fares ranged from $3,795 to $6,595 per passenger.