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With next year’s debut of the 166-passenger American Duchess, American Queen Steamboat Company will have some much-needed additional capacity. Ted Sykes, president and chief operating officer for the line, says the purchase of the vessel came after the company had been scouring the country for a hull.
“We needed to expand,” he said. “We were seeing customers go to the competition because we don’t have space — this year, 95 percent of our available space was sold, and bookings are coming in twice as fast for next year.”
As of Oct.1, bookings are open for the all-suite American Duchess, which will expand American Queen’s fleet by 25 percent when it makes its appearance next June on the Mississippi River with a number of new features. The ship will also sail St. Louis to Chicago itineraries on the Illinois River, opening up a big opportunity to sell to Midwestern travelers.
Then, there are big advantages to American Duchess’ hull. It was formerly used as a short-run gaming boat and comes with three Caterpillar engines, bow thrusters and generators that executives say have hardly been broken in. American Queen is gutting it and rebuilding it as an all-suite ship because it was constructed with “an embarrassment of space,” according to Sykes, especially when the line add a third deck to the existing two.
David Kelly, who has been associated with Oceania Cruises, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Silversea Cruises, is the project manager in charge of the overall design. American Duchess will emerge as an 83-suite vessel and include some completely new categories, including four loft suites. These two-story, 550-square-foot complexes feature sitting rooms and baths on the first level, and bedrooms and baths on the second. There are also three 550-square-foot owners’ suites. The rest of the accommodations run 240 square feet.
The ship will have an open-seating Grand Dining Room and also an 80-seat Grill Room, available by reservation only but carrying no additional fee. Because the current decks are spaced 20 feet apart, there is ample room for The Gallery mezzanine. This will function like the Mark Twain Gallery, an elegant lounge/library and gathering place on the American Queen ship. The company’s ability to offer unusually high-quality live music onboard will be maintained on American Duchess, with an auditorium or theater with a pitched floor that will be able to accommodate all passengers at once.
Itineraries will include overnight stays in Nashville, Tenn., where the ship will function as a floating hotel and guests will be able to visit the Grand Ole Opry. In addition, American Duchess will operate mostly year-round, remaining exclusively on American waterways.
Sykes says American Queen looked at possible cruises on the Great Lakes and other international options but ultimately decided to stick to U.S. rivers.
“We made a commitment to give employment to Americans and now have more than 500 employees,” he said. “We will add 90 to 125 American jobs with American Duchess and put American mariners back to work.”
He is particularly proud of the enthusiastic responses to the U.S. crew on passenger comment scores — a sentiment returned by the crew, most of which elected to continue with the line after the winter break.
“Eighty percent of the crew came back this year,” Sykes said. “We pay them a living wage and proper benefits, and they get tremendous evaluations. We’ve put to rest the myth of the lazy American.”