These were among the key topics that emerged at Seatrade Cruise Global last week during the ‘Small but Special: A Focus on Small Ships and River Cruising’ conference moderated by Gabriele Bassi, editor in chief, Cruising Journal.
Explained Filippos Venetopoulos, CEO, Variety Cruises, ‘We want to be the first cruise company to accept cryptocurrencies, we want to add artificial intelligence to our systems.’ The CEO of the third-generation family run business, who alludes to the line as being ‘new kids on the block,’ went on to say, ‘It’s 300 million people that are playing with crypto right now. It’s a market…a form of currency that maybe most of us in this room don’t understand. But it’s real money and there’s a way to transform and exchange it…’
He described a lack of wider understanding of cryptocurrencies versus traditional currencies and said the aspiration was not ‘to invent the wheel,’ but that ‘this Metaverse we’re going to live [in] very soon is coming around the corner, so we’re just accepting a currency that’s internationally accepted.’
Immersive experiences and expedition sailings
In the last two years, American Queen Voyages has grown its fleet from four boats to eight and is similarly expanding its product portfolio to offer Mexico and Southeastern Seaboard sailings, Jacksonville roundtrips, more Great Lakes sailings plus Alaska.
Among its major milestones this year has been entry into the expedition market with 342ft Ocean Victory – which the line took ownership of at the end of last month – set to operate 12- and 13-day cruises through the less-frequented regions of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
‘The expedition project is very exciting… It [Ocean Victory] is a very unique vessel, it’s very small, with 186 guests,’ remarked Shawn Bierdz, COO, American Queen Voyages, before going on to describe activities available onboard, such as retrieving water samples alongside scientists and hearing from experts while onboard. ‘We have scientists from St. John’s College that are going to be there doing science projects. You’ll be doing…whatever that scientist is working on. It’s an immersion product from that perspective.’
The expedition segment is in direct contrast to the line’s earlier immersive experiences, as outlined by the American Queen Voyages COO, ‘Most of our US river cruises are an encounter – you’re not going to a destination, you’re going into an experience. I always use Angola [Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary] as my example, where you get to talk to someone on death row… It’s our number one selling programme on the Lower Mississippi Civil War [cruise].’
‘Stretching’ vessels was another area discussed, with Christopher Prelog, president, Windstar Cruises noting that while the ‘last two years were on steroids,’ they were also ‘bittersweet’ for allowing lines the time to undertake major projects. ‘For taking your fleet out of service for some time to do a major project – that was the time to do it.’
He continued to describe Winstar’s vessel stretching project as the ‘most ambitious’ task undertaken by the line. In addition to adding 84ft to its three vessels, it involved ‘inserting new engines into a 20 year old ship. You’re talking about integration and getting an existing system to talk to a new system, and getting the pipes all connected… There’s a need to create more capacity but there’s also the need to be sustainable.’
American Queen Voyages’ also completed a stretch programme on American Countess during the pandemic; the ship was launched to the domestic market in March 2021.
Asked about maintaining COVID-19 health and hygiene protocols, Bierdz questioned the economic feasibility of doing so over an extended period of time. ‘I would love to keep it but it’s extremely expensive to maintain testing, cleansing… I want to get away from testing, but I’m sure everyone feels that way… I’m not talking today or tomorrow or next year, but three-, four- or five years from now, whether we still have this diligent level of cleanliness with sprays and so forth.’ The line was one of the first to require 100% vaccination of passengers and crew.
Enhanced hygiene levels and improved air quality were elements he described maintaining well into the future.
Said Prelog, ‘I think COVID has been a great teacher and a lot of things will stay… [but] I agree with you, I hope testing goes away eventually.’