The luck came in 1978, when Anderson, disillusioned with a government social services job, had started teaching golf lessons. One of her golf students suggested that she might be happier at the travel agency he ran.
“I’d never even gone to a travel agent,” she said. But she gave it a try, and soon fell in love with the art of helping travelers plan out the perfect trip.
In 1985, Anderson and friend Patty Horst co-founded Sunshine Travel & Cruise Co. But it wasn’t until 2000 that their business found its current niche.
“We were contacted by the person who owned the Queen of the West, the one on the Columbia River, and he asked us to represent his cruise line,” Anderson said. “At the time, no companies were doing that. We loved it. Then he had another ship, Empress of the North, and we represented that.”
A company that also ran ships on the Mississippi River bought those Northwest cruise routes, and USA River Cruises – then a small part of the larger Sunshine Travel – started booking trips on the Mississippi as well.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, river bookings soared.
“After 9-11, a lot of people didn’t want to travel outside the country,” Anderson said. “We had just gotten into the business of doing small ships in the USA. All these travel agencies started closing, but ours went crazy.”
So did others in the river cruise niche. Viking River Cruises, with its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, is the best-known cruise line on rivers today. The company recently expanded its geographic reach, adding trips across Europe, Vietnam and China. It is launching six new ships in 2012, and has been heavily promoting its offerings by sponsoring PBS television broadcasts across the country.
Even though demand keeps skyrocketing, USA River Cruises recently decided to cool the pace of growth.
“We want to maintain relationships,” Anderson said, describing a recent meeting of the company’s board. “We don’t want to become a call center.”
Looking ahead, Anderson, who is now in her mid-50s, hopes her hard work and business success will allow her to take a young semi-retirement. She is the majority shareholder in USA River Cruises, and hopes in the next few years to sell her stake in the company while continuing to find ways to work in the travel industry.
Anderson said she looks forward to watching USA River Cruises as it continues on its journey.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity for growth,” she said. “And we have a new, younger generation coming into our business now.”