Susan Shultz-Gelino is the Vice President of Trade Relations for American Cruise Lines. She has been with American Cruise Lines for over 20 years and has worked in Sales and Marketing for over 30 years, beginning her career with the Whirlpool Corporation in Benton Harbor.
During her tenure with American Cruise Lines, Susan has led American’s sales department to record numbers. In 2014, she was integral in expanding American’s U.S. sales force to the Line’s Salt Lake City, Utah office. In 2018, Susan formed a team of Business Development Managers, positioned throughout the U.S., to assist American’s growing network of Travel Advisors. She now oversees all trade partnerships and group sales.
In just the past few years, American has introduced a series of new modern riverboats as well as several new coastal ships; doubling the Line’s river capacity and making American the largest U.S. cruise line. Susan has been expert in developing sales tools and strategies for the Line’s in-house sales teams and Travel Advisor partners across the country to match American’s overall growth.
Susan has also held the position of District Supervisor for Consumer Affairs in Boston, MA and has been actively involved in the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (NCMA), chairing its Marketing Committee and serving on its Executive Board for 3 years. Susan is a native of Louisville, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Management from Centre College, Danville, Kentucky. Currently, she resides in Clinton, CT with her husband.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Hi, Susan. It has been a bit since our last interview with you, and there have definitely been some changes in the industry. How have you been?
Susan Shultz-Gelino (SG): I am doing great, thank you. It has obviously been an unprecedented and difficult year for all of us, but I think we are starting to turn the corner and I am looking forward to the possibilities for the remainder of 2020, and in 2021 for sure.
TRO: You’ve gained a new position over at American Cruise Lines (ACL) since our last interview: Vice President of Trade Relations, which means you’re overseeing teams that reach out to Advisors all over the U.S. How are you enjoying this position so far?
SG: My new position is rewarding, and truly, American has always been such a great company to work for these past many years. Some of what I do has not changed and other aspects are new, but most importantly I continue to build and expand American’s sales teams across the country. We have a really professional group of people, from our BDMs to our in-house salespeople, all working together to build relationships and partnerships with Travel Advisors and industry pros across the country – as well as keeping them informed and up to date on all America’s newest cruises, ships, and developments.
TRO: Remaining in contact with Advisors about the current state of travel, particularly cruises, take the forefront at the moment. How are you and your BDM teams accomplishing this?
SG: I think that most advisors would agree that when we start back cruising it will be domestically at first. So my team has a big job to do. They are constantly training and educating advisors on our product. With over 35 different itineraries in the US there is a lot to learn. We are also giving advisors additional marketing tools such as branded videos that they can send to their guest to show what we offer on rivers and coastlines.
TRO: COVID-19 is a huge concern in the travel industry, as it has shut down many forms of travel around the world. But, ACL was already positioned to be a great alternative to larger ocean liners, and it’s far more pronounced now. Can you tell us a bit about how ACL’s ships were already suited for healthy conditions?
SG: American builds and adds new ships each year, but they all remain small – all are between 100-190 passengers, which our guests love. We also only cruise to domestic small ports of call and always in sight of land, so that helps ease many travel concerns. American’s ships are built here in the U.S.A. and are purposely designed for our very personalized all-inclusive style of cruising. So, we really have no difficulty accommodating new social distancing protocols on board, as our ships already offer a whopping 350 sq/ft per passenger of onboard space at max capacity. And as a voluntary part of our enhanced Covid-19 protocols, we will sail at 75% capacity, providing 450 sq/ft of space per passenger on board for 2020 cruises. We have always had the largest staterooms in the industry, nearly all with private balconies, plus we have no interior cabins on any ships in the fleet. And instead of swimming pools, casinos, and big theatres, our ships are designed with extra spacious lounges, multiple outdoor sundecks, as well as outdoor dining spaces, so there are plenty of places to enjoy fresh air and views while cruising on our ships. Notably, our ships are already built with independent HVAC air systems in all cabins and interior spaces (with no shared duct work). So, in every way possible, all American’s ships offer the additional space and amenities that are so much more meaningful now than ever before.
TRO: Are there any extra steps that ACL is taking to ensure the safety of passengers, since the beginning of COVID-19?
SG: Yes, we have extensive safety protocols and have spent many months planning. One of the nicest things about our plan is that anyone can read all the details in full on our website. We have been 100% transparent. And even though our ships already offer huge space, we will add to that cushion by cruising at 75% capacity for initial 2020 sailings when we are back on the water. We have partnered with Viking Solutions and will have medical professionals and testing available on board all cruises and have enhanced all our sanitization practices. We have extensive plans in place to ensure that, from booking to boarding, we are offering the safest process possible and reducing touch points wherever possible as well. We are mailing PPE packages to all our guests in advance of travel, as well as providing it on board of course. We have all private transportation from airports to ships and on shore to all activities. Our complimentary pre-cruise nights have been moved on board for now as well (normally they are offered in hotels). We really have tried to think of everything both big and small. Our ships offer plenty of space to easily spread out dining, and many ships offer outdoor cafes too – but we will even serve all meals in a guest’s stateroom, to accommodate them, if they prefer that now. Across the board, we are in great shape and very ready to return to cruising.
TRO: American Cruise Lines is continuing to offer up modern, small, U.S.-built ships that carry between 100-190 passengers along the rivers and coasts or the U.S. When does ACL anticipate being back to pre-COVID itineraries?
SG: Well, we truly are ready now, but as you know, some states and regions are a little better off than others. So, we are watching and monitoring the state-to-state patchwork of reopening phases and restrictions. And as Covid-19 abates, especially here domestically, we anticipate nearly all our ships will resume cruising in 2020. American is unique even among small domestic U.S. lines, as only American has so many small new ships cruising in so many different regions of the country. So, we may have some cruises begin in certain areas before others, but we expect to have the whole 12-ship fleet cruising across the country very soon.
TRO: A lot of agents are looking for flexible booking options for their travelers, given the instability of when, where, and how travel is loosened. Does ACL offer up flexible booking?
SG: Yes, we have put together the most flexible cancellation and rebooking offers in the industry this year. In 2020, American is offering full refunds or 125% cruise credit on any cruises we suspend. We are also offering guests a new Cruise with Comfort option, which enables them to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours before the start of their cruise package. If Cruise with Comfort is selected and a guest wants to cancel last minute, they still retain the full value of their cruise as a cruise credit to use in 2021. And for Travel Advisors, their commissions are 100% protected and paid up-front, on all American’s cruises where their clients select the Cruise with Comfort option. This has helped advisors keep selling this year, as it has been tremendously helpful to ease the minds of consumers, and to mitigate this year’s uncertainty.
TRO: ACL is unveiling the 3rd modern riverboat in September, the American Jazz. And in 2021, you have two more going into service. How is the anticipation from the Business Teams you oversee?
SG: Our BDMs and sales people are very excited about American Jazz. Having another brand new ship to sell is especially positive and encouraging in this otherwise difficult year. American’s continued building program is indicative of the company’s strength and long term commitment to providing the finest ships and river cruises, close to home, in the U.S.A. And it is so special and refreshing to work for a Line that has new ships and new itineraries to promote every year which makes selling our cruises that much easier.
TRO: We’ve all been run a bit ragged with the uncertainty in the air, waiting for it to clear. What have you been doing to pass the time during “quarantine days”? (Binging shows, learning a hobby, etc.)
SG: Working! Even though cruising has been suspended this year, we have had lots going on behind the scenes here, in order to help our Travel Advisor partners and our guests keep up to date with all the changes and as well, all American’s new ships coming in 2020 and 2021. Next year, American’s fleet will grow to 14 small ships cruising across the country.
TRO: Is there anything else that Advisors should know about setting up their traveler to cruise with American Cruise Lines?
SG: We have the most new ships and destinations available in the country. So please go check out everything new on our website. We offer a “ships” tab on our website where you can easily view every ship, and take virtual tours of our new modern riverboats and new coastal ships. We also have an excellent Travel Advisor portal where advisors can get all the marketing support and info they need in one place, as well as the training and certification they may need to sell. We also have a new easy-access link (before you sign into our advisor portal), which provides a quick summary on our new Travel Advisor Plan and Cruise with Comfort option, and other useful change & cancellation info. As we navigate this difficult year together, supporting our travel advisor partners in every way possible, is the best way to build relationships, which will last long into the future when cruising resumes.
TRO: Susan, thank you for joining us again.
SG: Thank you as well.