Staycations on North America's Rivers and Waterways: The Snake & Columbia Rivers

by Lynn Elmhirst
Staycations on North America's Rivers and Waterways: The Snake & Columbia Rivers

Growth in small ship and river cruises on the Snake & Columbia rivers between Idaho has been on the upswing. Photo: 

It's an open secret there's a boom in cruising on the inland waterways of North America, and for savvy travel advisors, it's a ripe opportunity to sell staycations to cruise clients.

Maybe your clients want a vacation, just not a flight or jet lag. An “easy button” is close to home, especially if there are group or family logistics. Some clients have done it all abroad and are seeking unique travel experiences that they've missed. And some new-to-cruise clients can try river and small ship cruising in their own backyard before venturing overseas.

For advisors with clients looking for a holiday close to home, Travel Market Report has prepared a three-part series about suppliers, itineraries, and tips for selling cruises to each of the three North American river or small ship inland cruising destinations: The Snake & Columbia Rivers in the West, The Mississippi in America's heartland, and The Great Lakes out to the East Coast.

The recent resurgence in interest in the Lewis & Clark Northwest expedition, as well as the increase in award-winning Pacific Northwest wineries, has spurred growth in small ship and river cruises on the Snake & Columbia rivers between Idaho, through Washington State, to Oregon.

With so many Western and West Coast Americans and Canadians within driving or short flight distance of cruise departure gateways (usually Portland or Idaho), there is a lot of opportunity for travel advisors based in the west especially, to introduce outdoor, history, and wine-focused clients to this staycation cruise option.

In Part 1 of this 3-part series, here's what all travel advisors need to know to increase their business selling cruises on this epic American river system.

UnCruise Adventures
Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures is a Pacific /West Coast specialist. Its small ship coastal cruises sail along the West Coast from Alaska, now all the way to Central America, and year-round in Hawaii. The company name says it all, and they are focused entirely on active outdoor exploration by small ship.

Tim Jacox, president and COO of UnCruise Adventures, is still surprised by how few people know that “North America has great rivers. Some of the most magnificent scenery in the U.S. is in the Columbia River Gorge.”

That's just where UnCruise Adventures operates the company's only dedicated river itinerary. Its “Columbia & Snake Rivers” 7-night itineraries have weekly departures September through November; and they sail through Oregon, Washington state, and Idaho. 

September-October cruises highlight the connection the route has to the Lewis & Clark expedition; as well as nature; and soft adventure, including rafting, hiking, a jet boat ride into Hells Canyon, kayaking, and even a cycling/winery excursion.

November cruises are themed “Rivers of Wine & Culinary,” and feature the Pacific Northwest's increasingly well-known AVA's. The company integrates its onboard culinary program with shore excursions featuring UnCruise Adventure's own sommelier, other wine experts, winery tours, wine-pairing dinners, and local scenic highlights.

Guests experience a relaxed atmosphere onboard and the unrushed approach to exploration; as well as fares inclusive of wine, spirits, shore activities, and equipment.

Travel Advisor Tips: Tim Jacox says UnCruise Adventure clients are “older than agents might think” for an adventure company. Ranging from their mid-50s to mid-70s, clients share a focus “on outward experiences,” even if they have different levels of activity, which can be accommodated on UnCruise Adventures. The company also has a Family Discoveries program, with savings of $500 per child 8-13 years old — providing multigenerational families with that outdoor, active vacation experience that will appeal to everyone, while also remaining cost-effective.  

Currently only about 11% of guests are Canadian. And only a couple dozen Canadian travel agents are UnCruise-certified “adventurist” agents (compared with over 600 U.S. agents), and are eligible for reduced fams, advance notice of initiatives, and a $100 bonus on every booking on top of commission.

American Cruise Lines
American Cruise Lines (ACL) sails not one, but three, styles of vessel, all built in the U.S. They include Victorian-style paddle-wheelers. But in recent years, the cruise line has also commissioned fully-stabilized small ships for both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts; and it has launched a new era of river cruising in North America with the first and only modern riverboats.

Its first modern riverboat, American Song, is the flagship of the line's new series; and it sails on its Columbia & Snake River itineraries. That gives its 190 guests a contemporary river cruising experience in the Northwest they might not expect anywhere stateside.

American Song includes “triple the glass of other riverboats,” private furnished balconies, lounges 40 feet above the water for maximum views, and a four-story glassed-in atrium. Complimentary room service is available during select mealtimes; as well as the line's fleetwide features, including all-inclusive fine dining, complimentary evening cocktail hours, pre-cruise hotel stays, included gratuities, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, complimentary onboard entertainment and lectures, and many included featured shore excursions.

The itinerary includes the scenic Columbia River Gorge and a local-expert-led visit to Mount St. Helens, with Lewis & Clark, as well as local food- and wine-themed cruise departures.

Travel Advisor Tips: Susan Shultz-Gelino, American Cruise Lines' director of business development, says their best clients are 65-plus and well-traveled; and “wanting to cruise close to home” with the same conveniences of river cruising in Europe — unpacking once, a personalized and all-inclusive service, and an outstanding travel destination experience.

According to Shultz-Gelino, advisors can do very well booking ACL, with its tiered commission structure as well as a “very generous onboard booking program. We have a very high rebooking rate — a truly great advantage for the travel advisor, as once booked, so many guests travel again and again with us for years to come.

Shultz-Gelino said: “ACL has a group policy that makes it easy to book groups large and small, so agents can find great success in booking groups as well as cruises for their individual clients. And we also have a great agent portal on our website where agent advisors can go for easy online booking, as well as managing their clients' cruises top-to-bottom. There are many selling and marketing tools in the agent portal designed to help agents be successful.”

American Queen Steamboat Company
American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) continues the tradition of gingerbread-trimmed, paddle-wheel riverboats sailing the country's two great river systems, even with its new builds. John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Company, explains, “For many, traveling on our authentic paddle-wheelers is the trip of a lifetime.”

One of their three boats (with a fourth launching in 2020) is the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi. The American Empress sails along the Lewis & Clark trail on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Along with a traditionally elegant atmosphere, the riverboat features an unexpected and extensive collection of historical artifacts and artwork of the Native Alaska, Russian, Gold Rush and stern-wheeler eras, making the boat's interior rival the dramatic scenery outdoors for guest attention.

AQSC has a unique approach to shore excursions, many included in the fare, and which is very popular with guests. Deluxe coaches, complete with complimentary WiFi, drive the itinerary's route in tandem with the boats. In port, they provide hop-on hop-off service, continuously making the round of major local attractions, so guests can select the attractions they most want to see, and enjoy them at their own pace.

Travel Advisor Tips: The cruise line's travel agent portal gives advisors the opportunity to enhance their knowledge with a deep dive into the Columbia and Snake River destinations and itineraries; American Empress information and sales collateral; marketing pieces; voyage schedules; transportation and port information; as well as the bon voyage gift order form. ACSQ offers live or on-demand webinars, site inspections, travel agent rates, and fam trips.

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