Merchants, American Cruise Line representative put heads together as to how to better serve riverboat passengers

Published 10:39 am Thursday, February 2, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Downtown Natchez merchants packed Natchez Coffee Co. Thursday morning to have a conversation with a representative from American Cruise Lines.

The meet and greet was set up by Mickey Howley, executive director of the Downtown Natchez Alliance.

“Natchez, you mean so much to us,” said Shelly Hartfield, senior manager of product development for American Cruise Lines.

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One of her jobs is to develop experiences for American Cruise Line passengers.

“Your smiling faces and warm greetings when our passengers walk into your stores make for a wonderful experience. Downtown Natchez is an experience in itself,” she said.

Most of the discussion involved how to make passengers aware of what Natchez offers before they arrive in the city.

Merchants offered creative ideas, ranging from a better map that includes the locations of shops to producing a video that would play on a loop on the motor coach or on the boat itself.

Hartfield said she was working to develop a pre-excursion meeting of sorts with passengers the evening before they arrive in Natchez and suggested merchants get any information they want communicated to passengers to her to include in that meeting.

Devin Heath pointed out the newly-improved Visit Natchez website has video highlighting Natchez points of interest, including downtown.

“The average age of our passengers is 70, but people that age are very technologically savvy these days,” Hartfield said.

She said, while passengers continue to be interested in the city’s historic homes, they also want to hear more about Natchez during the Civil Rights movement as well as more information about indigenous people like the Natchez Indians.

Hartfield said one bit of negative feedback she hears from passengers about every community they tour, is that stores are not open at 9 a.m., when passengers typically begin their day.

“Most of our guests are more active in the morning,” she said. “They come into town. They are ready, excited, energetic and sometime local merchants aren’t open.”

Hartfield said Natchez is the most popular destination on the lower Mississippi cruise.

“Natchez is one of the highlight cities on the entire river,” she said.

During the springtime, which is the peak riverboat cruise season, Hartfield said American Cruise Lines brings five vessels into Natchez each week for what are weeklong tours. American Queen Cruise Lines brings two vessels each week into Natchez and Viking now brings one a week.

She said the low water levels in the Mississippi River in 2022 put a damper on riverboat traffic.

“River cruises took a big hit. We hope that’s not the case this year,” Hartfield said.