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American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) is growing by leaps and bounds. John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of AQSC recently hosted journalists to preview the line’s upcoming new riverboat — the American Countess — as well as its expansion with Victory Cruise Lines’ acquired vessels. At Gulf Island Shipyards in Houma, Louisiana, the former Kanesville Queen is being converted into Countess, and Victory I and Victory II are being prepped for new operations.
The process for converting Countess involves cutting what was once a casino boat into two halves. A new midship section is now being grafted onto the bow superstructure before the stern section is reattached to the lengthened hull form. I brought along my dad, Mark Leppert, a building contractor, for some insight. According to Mark, AQSC’s approach is much more akin to his own smaller-scale residential projects than the process at European shipyards. Here, dozens of people are working on the project versus the typical hundreds.
Travel advisors have supported us extremely well, and we couldn’t survive without their help.
The effort is every bit as efficient, however, as the undercover yard allows for multiple shifts and therefore fewer weeks of work. Currently, the project is halfway through vertical assembly of the hull, which will see the addition of two bow thrusters and replaced main engines. Due to the ship’s larger size at completion, higher-horsepower engines are required to power the paddlewheel and Z-drive propulsion.
Countess is set to launch on Jan. 15, 2020 — with traveling groups in mind — and its christening will follow in April. The U.S.-flagged vessel will sail the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, Victory I and Victory II are also on-site at the shipyard. The bulk of the work on the sister ships entails updating wall finishes and soft fixtures as well as updating Victory I to more closely resemble Victory II. To that end, the Deck 4 secondary restaurant on Victory I will receive Cape Cod styling and be enclosed with glass, augmenting its existing roof and railings, to match The Lighthouse Grill on Victory II.
Both ships were originally U.S.-built and -flagged but are now foreign-registered. The intent of AQSC is to bring them back to U.S. registry with U.S. crews, but the process will take a couple of years. Until then, the ships will begin sailing again in May 2019, heading to the Great Lakes toward Montreal and along the East Coast. One will still call in the Yucatan, but the previous owner’s plans to go to Cuba have since been scrapped.
Waggoner shared additional insight into the extensive endeavors with TravelAge West.
Where did you see the market’s need for the group-friendly American Countess?That need came from when we first started American Queen, trying to fill 400 beds. There hadn’t been a boat on the river for three years at that point. So, we were really going to both groups that could fill the boat immediately, as well as our FIT travel advisor and our FIT direct channels. Those are three big sales channels. Then you have foreign, which is a smaller sales channel.
What we found is that groups love the boat, and they kept growing. But then we also found we had to start limiting the number of groups we could have because the agent business was so strong, as well as our direct business. Groups were asking for more space, and we kept saying, “no, no, no.” And finally they said, “we’re going to have to go to someone else if you can’t give us more group space.”
That’s why we said, “hey, we ought to really build a boat that’s more designed for groups.” So, it’s really the demand. They told us demand was there. Now, will we still have FIT agent and FIT direct channels? Of course. That’s still 75 percent of our business.
How is the expanded fleet working out for your travel advisor partners overall?Travel advisors have supported us extremely well, and we couldn’t survive without their help. That’s the biggest distribution channel we have. One of the things that our sales team keeps saying is “look at what we charge for one of our one-week cruises versus selling a much lower product, and look at what your commission will be. Your reward per unit effort is greater when selling our product.”
With the European river cruise market being so big, how do you get people to think about America? Are you finding that to be a hard nut to crack?We’re not. There are 650,000 people in North America that go over to Europe on a European river cruise. We need 32,000 clients to be 100 percent full. So, I think it’s easier to convert them, and I think we’re still one of the best-kept secrets around. People are still just learning about us.
Through word of mouth, travel advisor partners and news articles, people understand us. And once they come, they have a great time. Then they say, “geez, I don’t have to fly overseas. I get a U.S. crew, and I get to pay in U.S. dollars.”
How does the Victory Cruise Lines acquisition fit into your marketing strategy?It’s a very good fit — it’s the same customer. Our customers have been asking for the Great Lakes, so it’s a natural extension for us. And then we’ll get the whole New England eastern seaboard, and hopefully we can work out something with Mexico.
When do you anticipate launching Mexico cruises?We’re trying to plan at least three trips for the end of 2019. And we’ll hopefully start to market those shortly, but if not, we’ll look at 2020.
Where in Mexico will it specifically set sail?It’s the Yucatan. We’ll go into Cancun, but probably not into Cozumel, and we’ll do Campeche. It’s a shallow-water port, so deep-draft vessels can’t come in. It’s a nice thing with 200 guests.
The DetailsAmerican Queen Steamboat Companywww.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com