Milwaukee wants its port to become the next Great Lakes cruise ship destination

The Great Lakes may not have the shoreline views of Alaska, the warmth of the Bahamas or the history of Europe, but they are quickly becoming a destination for cruising.

These are not the mega ships found in the Caribbean with casinos and waterslides. The experience on the Great Lakes is quieter. The clientele is older. The boats are smaller.

Interest in cruising on the Great Lakes, and stopping in Milwaukee’s port, is growing.

Adam Schlicht, Port of Milwaukee’s director, said cruise ship business for the city’s dock is up significantly. At least 11 cruise ship stops are booked for summer 2019 compared with two to four stops in recent years, Schlicht said.

“Folks are increasingly looking at the Great Lakes as a choice destination,” he said.

Schlicht said he is working to bring more of those passengers to the city’s port. Schlicht said he even made calls to see if any cruise ships were interested in docking at the port during the Democratic National Convention in 2020. So far, no deals have come to fruition, Schlicht said.

Officials across the Great Lakes want to continue to grow tourism with cruises. The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers started a Cruise the Great Lakes Initiative in 2018 with the goal of attracting more ships to the region.

The cruise ships carry between 200 and 400 passengers, limited in size by the Saint Lawrence Seaway. For Milwaukee this summer, that means potentially another 2,200 to 4,400 visitors spending a few hours or a night in the city.

Schlicht, who has worked on the Great Lakes for a decade with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he wants to position the port to capitalize on the growing industry. But not for the money. The port doesn’t make a tremendous amount hosting cruise ships. Each ship that docks at the port pays a $7.50 fee per passenger. The port earns move if its revenues through commercial operations.

Schlicht said it’s part of his charge from Mayor Tom Barrett to increase the visibility of the port. Schlicht started as port director in August. The port has also increased its marketing efforts, launching a new website, portmilwaukee.com, in April.
Great Lakes are ‘known but not discovered’

A handful of companies operate cruises through the series of five lakes. And, Schlicht said, more operators are poised to enter the market in the coming years.

“There are reasons to be optimistic,” he said.

Charles Robertson said his company started offering cruises on the Great Lakes because his existing customers asked for it.

Robertson, who owns Pearl Seas Cruises, said the Great Lakes kept scoring high in customer surveys about what additional locations they would go on a cruise.

“Everyone has heard of the Great Lakes,” Robertson said. “It’s known but not discovered.”

Pearl Seas Cruises started sailing the Great Lakes in 2014 — the company grew as a separate line from American Cruise Lines, which built its business on the East and West Coasts.

This summer, it’s starting two of its cruises in Milwaukee. A seven-night Great Lakes itinerary and an 11-night tour that includes Georgian Bay will travel between Milwaukee and Toronto.

The seven-night cruise stops in Holland, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario; Little Current, Ontario; Parry Sound, Ontario; and Midland, Ontario. It ranges in price from $5,500 to more than $9,000 per person, depending on stateroom selection. In previous years, the Pearl Mist sailed from Chicago.

Robertson said demand for cruising on the Great Lakes is increasing all the time for his company, based in Guilford, Connecticut. Most of the Pearl Mist cruises have sold out, even with the company adding trips each season, he said.

“I expect that will continue,” Robertson said. The Pearl Mist will make another trip in 2020 and then a couple more in 2021, Robertson said. The company is building two more ships to add to its 12-vessel fleet. Robertson plans for one of them to sail the Great Lakes.

New Albany, Indiana-based Victory Cruise Lines is doubling its Great Lakes cruising this summer. The company will now operate two boats — Victory I and Victory II — that each hold around 200 passengers. Victory Cruise Lines is a new area for the business that started with riverboat cruises as the American Queen Steamboat Company.

More than half of its 19 trips on the Great Lakes this summer are sold out, said Victory Cruise LInes Chairman and CEO John Waggoner.

Milwaukee is not on the company’s Great Lakes itineraries traveling between Toronto and Chicago or Quebec and Detroit in 2019. Waggoner said Victory Cruise Lines is talking about visiting Milwaukee in 2020.
Making people say ‘Milwaukee is amazing’

The port is working in collaboration with Visit Milwaukee, the airport and other partners to create an end-to-end cruising destination.

Claire Koenig, communications manager for the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Milwaukee, said Great Lakes cruise passengers are looking for destinations with a mix of natural scenery and urban life like Milwaukee.

The ships dock either at Pier Wisconsin or at the South Shore Ferry Dock. The short travel time to downtown sets Milwaukee apart from other Great Lakes destinations like Chicago, where passengers take a 30-minute bus ride from the dock to the loop.

Koenig said the job of hosting cruise guests is to show them the “wonderfully random, eclectic, hard to put Milwaukee all in one bucket vibe.”

When the Pearl Mist made its inaugural stop in Milwaukee last summer, Theresa Nemetz from Milwaukee Food Tours was there with her team.

Milwaukee Food Tours loaded the boat’s 300 passengers onto six buses for a three-hour tour of Milwaukee neighborhoods, taking them to the Milwaukee Art Museum, North Point Lighthouse and Pabst Mansion.

Her company led about 1,500 tours last year for more than 12,000 participants.

Nemetz said her company started working with cruise lines four or five years ago with the German ship MS Hamburg. For that ship, the tour group organized six land excursion options.

Nemetz said the vast majority of cruise ship passengers she has met coming through Milwaukee had never visited the city before. She sees the new cruise passengers as a great opportunity for Milwaukee to show off.

“We want to take people on these shore excursions so they do say ‘Milwaukee is amazing. I want to come back,'” Nemetz said.

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