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Franz Neumeier 04-22-2007 01:56 PM

AMERICAN QUEEN revisited - a report from New Orleans, April 2007
On April 6th we had the chance to tour the AMERICAN QUEEN and talk to David Simmons as well as Keith Tinnin, who showed us around on the boat while she was in port at New Orleans.

The most important lesson I've learned there is that despite all concerns here on the message board there are people responsible for the boats at MAL who exactly know the difference between a "boat" and a "ship", who of course know that there are no compasses in use on a steamboat, who exactly know what unique selling position in the market it is to have steamboats etc. They try their best to do the right things for the boats, hence building up a profitable, stable business.

They easily could bild new boats, like so many other cruise ship companies are doing very successfully. Why buy old boats from a struggling business? Why take this risk, when you don’t have an idea how it will work? I strongly believe that they do everything to make the former DQSC boats a well performing business that makes money - the only basis for keeping the boats on business in the long term.

I’ve discussed some of the issues that had been raised on the message board with David Simmons and his statement to all these issues is very clear: MAL does want all three boats to be successful. Very obviously there are good reasons for doing what they do

Now, why are they doing what they do? Why are they not listening to past passengers and steamboat related people raising their concerns? (Please be aware, the following statements are not David Simmon's but partly my personal opinion and partly result of the assumptions I made after our AQ visit.)

Making business in difficult markets is a tough thing. The cruise industry is a tough business with extremely strong competition. And let's face it: The "Queens" are part of the cruise industry, you can't separate them from the crowd just because they're steam driven. Yes, that's something special, but basically they are swimming hotel resorts, competing with companies ranging from Carnival and Disney up to Holland America and Cunard.

We've discussed the strategy of MAL here many times before and I don't want to start this discussion again. Fact is that MAL has made a decision about its strategy to compete successfully in this market with their boats.

For sure they did a lot of market research. I suppose they've evaluated quality and quantity of target groups, they've analysed crowded places in this market as well as niches, compared high price segments with mid-range and low-price offers, they've compared the quality of the different cruise lines and what passengers their competitors get, and much more alike. Then, they made a decision about their ideal audience and made up a plan on how to reach these people.

Unfortunately for many of us, their major target group is not the steamboat enthusiast any more. This group simply is too small, and with all respect, it may also be too old to give a perspective for a long term future. When I compare the active members of this message board (assumtion: these are steamboat enthusiasts) with message boards like Cruise Critic with thousands of active members, it's clear that there are much bigger, hence more promising target groups out there to address. And don't forget: DQSC was in financial trouble for a long time, not finding a way to make the business successful with the old way of doing things. You can blame it on what or whom ever you want, but it's a fact that it didn't work that way, so there is a need for a new way.

Just one example, which I think very well shows the implications of the new MAL strategy: Is it a "boat" or is it a "ship"? Of course it's a boat, we all know it and MAL knows it, too, of course. But that's not the point. The thing is, if you want to attract new customers, who are used to sailing on huge ships, Holland America ships, Cunard ships, a "boat" for them has something to do with "live boats", "tender boats", "fishing boats" - something you definitely do not want to have a cruise on. And all the sudden a "boat" is not a nice, fancy, positive thing. They’re nothing these passengers would associate with a luxurious river cruise. "Boat" feels uncomfortable, to say the least. The simple solution: Don't call it a "boat". Call it a "ship", problem solved. If this makes such a difference in marketing, isn't it pretty easy for us steamboat enthusiasts to just ignore it? Smile knowingly when you meet another steamboat enthusiast and forget about it! Put your t-shirt or pin on and never ever use these TV sets in your cabin, just to make sure nobody thinks you're one of these "other" passengers.

Let's give MAL a fair chance. Let's give them the time to proof their strategy. New ideas never work from the beginning, especially if you have to change a lot of things. People are not changing fast, new employees have to learn, they’re not perfectly mirroring the company’s look and feel from the first day on. Let's not assume MAL is doing it to ruin the boats. Let's not assume they don't know what they do. It's a million dollar business and they really thing about every step they do intensively. And they're of course monitoring everything and will adjust in case something doesn't work as expected - but this again takes some time. Just because a few passengers complain about xyz, you don't change this right for the next cruise. You wait until you know how the majority of the passengers think about it. You can't do it right for everyone, so you have to make a decision whom to please and whom not to please.

Yes, I have to push my personal regrets aside, too. The new strategy makes steamboating very expensive for a family that in addition has to pay for the flights from Europe, so we won't be able any more to have a cruise once per year like we did in the past. But if the new strategy works, this will save our beloved boats. Good enough for me.

Being a journalist for many years, believe me it's really difficult to fool me. And from what I've seen on the AQ, what I've heard from David Simmons, whom I met the first time but who has been in the cruise and steamboat business for a very long time now, and what I've heard from Keith Tinnin, whom I do know for many years now and from whom I'm absolutely convinced that he is an upright and honest person, my conclusion is: The "Queens" are in good hands and the MAL strategy seams to be well elaborate and promising, though it will take a while until this will be clearly visible in the public.

Give them a chance instead of turning down every little thing they do. Let’s discuss it, but let’s also be fair and keep in mind the full picture, not just the simple assumption that “this or that doesn’t fit into the picture of a historically correct steamboat museum, hence they’re doing a bad job”. Maybe after months of being negative about MAL, we could start thinking about half full glasses instead of half empty glasses?


Pat Carr 04-22-2007 03:43 PM

Thanks, Franz. You gave us something to think about, as far as why some of these changes are going on. That should be helpful as we adapt to the changes.

When I was onboard for the DQ's first trip of the year, there were changes I didn't like, but I kept looking out at the river and reminding myself that the DQ is still running and I'm onboard -- so therefore I'm happy!!! And I did stay happy!

As I prepare to get back onboard Friday, I'm just so excited about getting back to the river and the boat. None of those changes are a part of my thought at all. I have no negative thoughts, just excitement about the trip.

I'm delighted that MAL is keeping the boats running!! That is the bottom line for me. Just put me on the boat on the river and I'm always grateful to be there!!

Bruno Krause 04-22-2007 05:58 PM

Thanks Franz

I think you know me enough by now to realize that I'm a little vocal and hardheaded about my views. Think my German heritage may have something to do with it?

Anyways, you know that I have been Pro MAL since I walked on my beloved DQ in March. We should all live by Pat Carr's philosophy: "I'm on the river, I'm on the DQ and she's cruising..." Powerful words those and I am truly honored to be friends with Pat and some of the wonderful posters on this board that you label as steamboatin' enthusists and MAL further labels as a small group of people, insignificant at best.

Now I'm all for being up on and hearing about the boat's history, but I do not harbor an opinion on what is prettier with the physical boat, old or new. And as long as the boats are making paddlewheel rainbows I couldn't give a damn about the best hull shape, the stack diameter or any of the other DQ historical stuff. With this I semi-agree with MAL if it means the boats are still active, the "boat history" doesn't feed the bulldog. I suspect that even the Blue paint on the AQ I'll learn to love (however, the MAL signboard that replaced the eagle...I got a place they can stick that...) They think they need a Cappachino machine, fine...They think that repeaters are silly, fine... DVD's and big momma TVs fine...premium linen, wonderful, river food, sorry... But...

I draw a line to the stuff that made the DQ so friggin' unique and MAL and DN chose to eliminate. Does anybody miss the trumpet in the band? Does anybody miss bread pudding every night for dinner? Does anybody miss a 3 member entertainment group, entertainment in the Texas late at night, the pajama party, 11 at 11, the sing along, trivia, kite flying, gumbo, seafood bisque, Vox Calliopus, second line? And I could go on...

None of this stuff costs any money, or cost very little. The way I see it is that they changed the flavor of the boats in a misguided effort to, according to thier "marketers", encourage the younger cruiser to cruise. That is the reason WHY A PERSON, ANY PERSON, YOUNG OR OLD CRUISES ON THESE BOATS... the country's history, the river history, the entertainment, the river food, the river itself...I mean, if what I'm hearing and have seen, if there is to be no American history or river flavor why not pick Disney then, it's cheaper, alot cheaper...

What they need to do is encourage the baby boomers, that just had kids leave the nest, to cruise...the 45 and older crowd, that truly wants a slower pace and has no need to climb a rock wall like the one Carnival is pushing so hard. And you ain't going to do that with the infamous Boutiquey flavor, no "steamboat" and literially NO advertising. You do that with a heavy word on AAA and AARP and Expedia about a very UNIQUE product. Come on Franz, you have said it yourself that you will no longer cruise the boats because of the cost, i.e. the cost to you does not justify the value gained even with its unique flavor. But it used to, there was a time when the uniqueness of the DQ made you part with more dollars than you would for Princess. Which cruise line did you just cruise on and was that because it was "boutiquey"? And was there anything unique about it? And, let us all not forget that the boats are filled right now with a significant portion of passengers who got their staterooms at prices much, MUCH LESS than Delaware North or even ACV charged for rack rates. What the hell does that say about the value of their "Boutiquiness"/ ban the steamboats theme? Does boutique mean higher prices are justified...please...I can see higher prices being justified for THE uniqueness, right, the same uniqueness that MAL is now trying to hide? As stated above all of us have paid more money per night just to cruise the DQ over Carnival and Princess...It's just that lately the prices are astronomical. But did you notice I just booked again, think it might have to do with the cost? It certainly wasn't because I missed the cappachino machine. Think a thirtysomething with kids is going to pay MAL's rack rate when they can cruise on Disney lines for alot, ALOT less? And MAL expects he and his family to give up that oh so enticing rockwall?

MAL needs to ask themselves why Bruno and Debbie were attracted to the MQ in the first place when we were 46. And I was skeptical then, what was IT that made the decision for me? And I paid rack rates for that one and the next one for that matter, we're talking big bucks in 2000 and 2001, because I perceived "IT", the river uniqueness, was going to be worth it, and then I wasn't into the steam issue or the DQSC history issue either, they became an interest a little later, that further developed into an addiction....

MAL needs to ask themselves when was the last time a Thirtysomething said: " Yeah, I've always been interested in taking a cruise on the DQ".
But how many times have all of us heard a fiftysomething say that...

And if MAL is trying to attract a younger crowd, is that because they want these people to repeat until the end of time? Why else would it be? And yet they ignore us, the dedicated group of rabid diehards. Did anybody notice that MAL no longer asks if you are a return customer on the fill-in-the-blanks on the tickets? Why would any company not want to know if you are one of their better customers? This makes no sense...And Franz, you talk like this "better customer" base that frequents this board is just too small for MAL to care about them. To that I offer to MAL: that for every single person/repeater that posts on this board, I speculate that there are at least a hundred other DQSC repeaters that have never heard of this forum.

Attract a younger crowd? Why is that such an all important deal, it has never been an issue in the past. The new older crowd just eventually replaces the previous older crowd, that has been happening without "marketers" since 1948. And another thing...which age group of USA citizens is the largest and...wait for it...the most affluent...right now? MAL, do you think that is the group of people, the huge pile of dollars you want to target?

I will add by edit that my post is probably the exact thing that you didn't want to see, Franz, and I apologize. But, I need to add one more thought:

Wasn't the DQ profitable in 2001 before ACV went belly up? And before you answer I'm asking about only the DQ, not the DQ/MQ/AQ/CQ group as a whole...for that matter wasn't the DQ doing very good up to the last week of August 2005? MAL needs to ask the question why was that, and what was different then that brought the bucks in with that "old boat"?

Bill knowles 04-22-2007 07:41 PM

Dear Bruno,
May I congradulate you on a precise and insiteful presentation of the situation at MAL. Before I left the Empress I was introduced to David Giersdorf and David Simmons, I also had the pleasure to know Tom Carmen, the President of American West Steamboat.
Without stating sources, before the sale to Ambassadors, it became clear that launching the Empress had created a competitor for "The Queen of the West",
when "The Columbia Queen" appeared on the Columbia River, the problem of finding enough Steam"boat' people became acute.
As you know this is what is called reaching the point of diminishing returns. All that has happened since is logical from a marketing MBA perspective. Many times I was previe to conversations about the advancing age of the client base. Also ,due to a lack of "child" activities, I mean video-games, the cruises were seen as over 60 ventures by the travel agent crowd.
I have been hoping MAL through economics of size would be able to offer the cruises at a lower rate to the AARP and retirement crowd.
All I can assume from the recent moves is MAL has a short time line. I am sure you see the fallicy in this thinking. The "baby boomers" are only now reaching the point in life where they have disposible income and a desire to discover history.
There is no need to attract the 35 year old with 2 kids. There are hundreds of thousands of folks in thier 60s ,ready to retire and ready to find out about American history. All you have to do is review th New York Times best seller list.
All that said, if you get a chance to "do" Alaska meaning the southeastern trip, Juneau to Sitka and through Wrangell Narrows, then Ketchikan and back to Juneau, please do the trip.
Nothing in the Inside Passage compares.
PS, if you are looking for a good read try, Jonathon Rabin, Passage To Juneau, a book for water, steamboat and history people.
Another aside, I apoligize for our dustup on Maureen's thread. My fault, but the news here in the northwest does give one pause.
Keep writing ,you do good stuff
Bill K

Elaine Santangelo 04-22-2007 07:57 PM

Hi Bruno and Franz,

You are both right in many ways even with your contradictions. I was going to avoid this too because I don't want to stir trouble. Also, I for one, cannot afford the boats but I had never heard of them when I could afford them prior to 2001. That says something about their marketing efforts way back when.

Prior to 2001, the success factor got diluted with the purchase of the Hawaiian boats and the expansion plans on the east coast. That is not saying either of those markets are wrong. The Pacific Northwest has also been struggling to be successful or it would not have had the changeover of owners in its history.

Yet, even if I cannot afford the cruises, I do tend to agree slightly more with Franz and his journalism world of what the facts really are. Making a profit on these boats is dependent on so many factors: retaining dedicated help that keeps a consistently good product, retaining passenger loyalty to encourage repeat passengers and evangelizing for new converts. These are just some of the things that need to be considered.

From a former crew member who loved her time aboard all three boats, I also feel that even if I wanted to get back on board as a crew member that I cannot afford to. This is especially true if I stuck to being a bartender. Something as simple as giving away the softdrinks cuts into the earnings for a bartender. Yet, from a marketing standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to do that.

The live entertainment was and is top notch. They are part of the "draw power" for the boats. You cannot tell me that listening to Phil, or Jazzou, or Jackie, or Annie, or Paul or any of the other performers (who will now beat me with a wet noodle for omitting them) are not the best that money can buy. They know the product well and they are extraordinarily talented. Do I think the band should have complete brass section?- hell yes. Same with banjo players and I am still too young to consider the banjo or the calliope for that matter to be great music. But it is to many people and I appreciate that.

I do think trying to consider a small percentage of the market is false thinking. Franz, how much has your board grown in 7 years? Come on- a person does a Google search and where do they land? But I also think that unifying those voices so that they are supporters and not just critics is crucial.

Recently, I was the featured topic of a journalism class on people with unusual occupations. The criticism or re-write was to include more facts about how many overnight steamboats there were and are on American rivers.

But in answer to Bruno's last question: "MAL needs to ask the question why was that, and what was different then that brought the bucks in?" Even our economy was different then. I think MAL is trying to cater to the people that they feel can afford the boats (ships)- that 45 year old empty nester or on the verge of an empty nest. I think they are also aiming at the affluent singles crowd although cutting a break for the single traveller might help on that.

But I too am willing to want to say let MAL try things their way. I wish them only success. Let's pray that we don't have more disasters like 9/11 or Katrina that had profound impacts on the boats and the economy.

My two cents. . .

David Dewey 04-22-2007 10:00 PM

Amen, Brother Bruno!!

I believe it has been speculated that the DQ carried the MQ many years--but I have no facts.
David D

Bex Carter 05-02-2007 06:25 PM

I am just glad to see them still running on the rivers. I am afraid that someday it will all stop and then no one....young or old...will get to see the beauty, peace and history that our rivers offer. Yes, a lot of things will be missed, yes a lot of things are different....But I want to see it continue, to see new people on the boats and see what it is about steamboating that the rest of us love. Thanks Franz, for seeing the half full glass.

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