Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer of American Queen Steamboat Company // © 2016 American Queen Steamboat Company
Feature image (above): The river cruise line is reporting double the bookings over last year. // © 2016 American Queen Steamboat Company
“We’re pinching ourselves,” said Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer of American Queen Steamboat Company.
The river cruise line is selling out its cruises on the Mississippi River and in the Pacific Northwest, and it is now pressured to increase capacity and expand its network or itineraries.
According to Sykes, as of August, American Queen bookings for future cruises have more than doubled the numbers from last year, and last year’s bookings during the same time were more than double the year before. By this summer, October 2017 was already sold out.
“What drives this is agented FITs,” Sykes said. “We’re an agent’s product: high-end, sophisticated and a complex sale, and agents have sent such a volume of FITs that we don’t have space for our large groups that supported us when we launched. We really need more capacity. Practically everything is going out 100 percent full.”
American Queen is working hard to get that capacity, scouring the country for hulls that can be built out to American Queen quality. Cabotage laws require that an American-flagged ship must have a crew and a board both 75 percent American, and that ships be built in American shipyards with 75 percent American components, including engines. Since most American shipyards are not suited to river cruise shipbuilding, this limits the possibilities, and American Queen will be expanding with ships considerably smaller than its 436-passenger American Queen vessel. By staggering the drydocks, American Queen can then spread out its season year-round and offer much more variety in terms of ports.
Smaller ships would give the company considerable flexibility in itineraries and open up the possibility of full-ship charters, but executives want to ensure that features such as open-seating dining and luxurious accommodations remain in order to retain the line’s enthusiastic base of repeat passengers.
“We’re keenly aware of others before us who grew too fast and have failed,” Sykes said. “And we have to be sure that our timing is right and the product level is right. We added Empress in the Pacific Northwest a year earlier than we’d have liked, but by the second year, it was sailing full, and 2017 is completely full. We think we’ve found the sweet spot in terms of pricing, and people love sailing close to home, but it’s the crew that top the guest satisfaction comments, and we are doing all we can to take care of them and keep them coming back.”