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At the August christening of American Queen Steamboat Company’s (AQSC) elegant all-suite American Duchess, the company made it clear that it is planning to expand its river and land product in the next few years.
When the bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon smashed on the Duchess’ hull at a moving, familial christening, it not only launched the upscale 166-passenger ship — it also marked the announcement for another Mississippi vessel and a greatly expanded set of onshore experiences throughout the company’s itineraries on the Mississippi, in the Pacific Northwest and in the American heartland.
Children and grandchildren in attendance echoed the pride of godmother Marissa Applegate, daughter of AQSC chairman and CEO John Waggoner. She recalled her childhood when her father came home from taking people sport fishing, and she pronounced it a joy “to stand by him and watch him grow this company from the ground up.”
“The American Duchess is a culmination of our company’s core values and finest attributes, poised to deliver our trademark level of gracious service, first-class entertainment, superlative fine dining and award-winning shore excursions,” said Ted Sykes, president and COO of AQSC.
Despite construction issues and high water on the river that delayed the ship’s launch, the completed Duchess looked like riverboat royalty at its christening, with two-level loft suites, a first for American rivers; colorful Murano glass; and a mix of abstract and traditional art. The vessel was completely stripped down and reinvented from her previous life as a gaming vessel, and her original design gave AQSC some real advantages in creating Duchess. In addition to inheriting a ship wider and loftier than the norm, the company was able to freely construct spaces within the large open rooms with structural support in the exterior walls.
The former casino ship also came with four generators and a huge amount of power, so all Duchess’ accommodations have refrigerators, coffee makers, hair dryers, LED lighting and, surprisingly, irons and ironing boards. Ceilings were so high that AQSC was able to construct an additional third deck. Because of all the benefits of working with such a ship design, it’s no wonder that AQSC’s fourth vessel in the American Queen fleet will also be a converted casino ship.
Executives said the fourth ship, already purchased, will probably be deployed on the Mississippi, too, as the company has had considerably more demand there than space available for some time. However, they want to be sure they are catering to a broad market, so the new ship will likely be positioned differently than the upscale Duchess. Recent demand has come from both Americans wishing to stay close to home and international travelers.
Meanwhile, American Queen is also expanding its authentic experiences onboard and onshore, with an emphasis on signature features such as music experiences in Nashville and Memphis; post-cruise packages such as fishing trips; and expanded offerings with its “riverlorian,” or river lore historian. The company estimates that passengers take an average of 2.7 premium shore excursions weekly and that international guests often travel for multiple weeks, so new and quality experiences are in demand.
Itineraries are expanding, too. The smaller size of American Duchess has allowed AQSC to design an American Heartland itinerary that goes up the Illinois River from St. Louis, Mo., to Ottawa, Ill., about 1.5 hours away from Chicago.
On the West Coast, American Empress will end her 2017 season with new itineraries roundtrip from Portland, Ore., calling in Astoria and The Dalles, Ore.; and Stevenson, Wash.
New itineraries include roundtrip Louisville and roundtrip Minneapolis cruises on the American Queen, which now has four new luxury suites created from eight smaller accommodations to meet demand for larger staterooms. These are also well-suited to the growing multigenerational travel market.
“You can’t just stand still,” Sykes said.
Clearly, AQSC has no intention of doing that.