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Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer of American Queen Steamboat Company, has an enviable problem: He wishes the company had more capacity.
On June 4, American Queen will launch its new all-suite, 166-passenger American Duchess on the Mississippi River, and Sykes says the itinerary is selling out, while the company’s other ships are already full. Although Duchess will operate year-round — its next regular refurbishment will be in July 2018 — American Queen is already seeking more capacity.
Sykes says Duchess’ 23-day Mighty Mississippi cruises from New Orleans to Red Wing, Minn., are already nearly sold out. New cruises out of Nashville, Tenn., in November and December are filling quickly, as are the new itineraries between Chicago and St. Louis. Pricing on the all-suite Duchess is 7 to 8 percent higher than on American Queen, and Sykes believes the company has found the right balance across the board, avoiding discounting late in the game.
A native Chicagoan, Sykes is especially proud of the line’s emphasis on art and architecture in the city. Its Illinois River route calls in several notable Midwestern towns, including Alton, famous for the final 1858 senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas; colorful La Salle (known as “Little Reno”), famous for its historic gambling clubs and saloons; and Peoria, which has beautiful parks, Peoria Riverfront Museum and a top art fair. The schedule includes overnights in key ports, where guests can go onshore for dinner or to sample local nightlife.
The luxury element is being emphasized across the board: With fewer passengers, Duchess guests will spend their pre-cruise stays in hotels too small to accommodate American Queen travelers, such as The Drake in Chicago and The Peabody in Memphis, Tenn.
In addition to new turnaround ports, Duchess’ all-suite design has drawn a quick response.
“We always sell from the top down,” Sykes said.
Duchess’ top includes four 550-square-foot loft suites that sleep as many as four, with upstairs and downstairs bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a dining area and private balconies.
“These have a lot of appeal for repeat passengers who want to try this smaller, all-suite ship, especially since it involves domestic travel in this geopolitical environment,” Sykes said. “And I swear, people underestimate the attraction of our all-American crew. Guests come just to be with them.”
He says that after this year, the strength of the U.S. dollar will most likely limit international guests, who represent approximately 10 percent of the company’s passengers.
“The people who booked last year found the British pound dropped considerably against the U.S. dollar, but they didn’t pull out for 2017,” he added.
Sykes finds that FIT sales are crowding out the company’s groups, which work far in advance.
“This is the story of our company,” he said. “The groups support us, and then the FITs start to take over. We really do need more space.”