Expanding its capacity by 25 percent, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), owner and operator of American Queen and American Empress, will add a third vessel – the new American-flagged, 166-passenger American Duchess – to its U.S. flagged fleet in June 2017. It's the first "all-suite" river cruise ship on the Mississippi River.
Current capacity is 654 berths, so this will take the line up to 820 berths. Travel agents have told Ted Sykes, the Memphis-based line’s president and COO, that there's a need for more capacity and particularly high-end suites, as those often sell out.
So more berths and more bit suites on a second Mississippi River vessel should be welcome news for agents. Those high-end suites can be big-ticket items with high commission as AQSC’s fares are highly inclusive. For example, Owner's Suites for the Memphis to New Orleans sailings in September are $9,499 per person double.
After five years of operations, "we have been really wildly successful,” said during a one-on-one phone interview with Travel Agent magazine on Monday afternoon. To what does he attribute that? "We like to think people know who we are and that we have a high quality product in dining, entertainment, shore trips and accommodations," Sykes said.
In addition, Sykes said there is simply more demand for American river cruising close to home -- on the Mississippi and other U.S. rivers. Given world events, many Americans this year prefer not to travel overseas.
More High-End Suites
American Duchess will offer three Owner’s Suites of 550 square feet. In addition, the vessel will have four two-level, 550-square-foot Loft Suites – a first for American rivers. Scenic has a similar concept in Europe.
Sykes said the Loft Suite’s upper level will have 200 square feet including the sleeping area and bathroom, while the 350-square-foot lower level will have a spacious seating area with pull-out couch (for third and fourth berths), as well as a dining table and guest bathroom.
Deluxe suites will encompass 450 square feet and veranda suites will have 240 to 330 square feet. In addition, those seeking value can book interior suites of 180 to 200 square feet.
The all-suite ship will feature the largest suites on the river in every category, according to Sykes. Higher end suites will have private balconies and the ship will also have promenades.
Price points will be “slightly above the American Queen,” he said. A fact sheet provided by AQSC showed that fares for a nine-day July 16 sailing from St. Louis to St. Paul will range from $2,699 to $8,499 per person double occupancy.
The line's fares are highly inclusive, though, with such included features as a pre-cruise hotel night, complimentary wine and beer with dinner and shore excursions in every port as part of the cruise fare.
Interior Design & Facilities
The four-deck American Duchess will have open seating for all guests within two dining venues, the Grand Dining Room and The Grill Room. Menus will offer regionally inspired cuisine similar to that of the American Queen.
Entertainment-wise, Sykes says the ship will have an auditorium capable of seating all passengers for a show, lecture or musical entertainment.
As for interior décor, design and décor elements will be revealed at a later date, but the project manager will be a familiar face -- David Kelley. “We love his sensibility on what he’s done on American Empress and also what he’s done on American Queen,” stressed Sykes.
While Sykes said it’s “too soon to say” what the decor will be, he acknowledged “it will be the same standard but it may take a different flavor.”
As for the powerplant and hull, “we were looking for a U.S. built hull – one that we could build out and we found one,” Sykes said, noting that the line wants to continue to operate all American-flagged vessels. To do that, it needed to purchase an American-made hull.
It found that in a former Florida gaming vessel, which was well-known to the company’s parent firm, HMS Global Maritime, which owns 85 U.S. flagged vessels.
AQSC expects to keep the ship’s powered American-built hull, its Caterpillar engines, bow thrusters and what Sykes describes as an “abundance of power” the ship has. “Then, we’ll scoop out and build a new superstructure on top,” Sykes emphasized.
So essentially everything but the hull (originally constructed in 1995) and the powerplant will be new. The work will be done in an American yard so the new 340-foot-long vessel will meet all requirements of the Jones Act, a requirement for American flagging.
American Duchess Itineraries
American Duchess will sail the Mississippi and her tributaries; American Queen will typically sail in one direction, the new vessel the other direction. . New for the line, American Duchess will offer overnight stays in port including downtown Nashville as well as shorter roundtrip itineraries from the “Music City” and New Orleans.
The new American Duchess will sail the Mississippi and call at many ports with Civil War sites.
“We’re pitching this to [help the company] trend downward on demographics,” Sykes said. He noted that working couples can do a five- or six-day roundtrip from New Orleans or Nashville, fly into the city, explore it for a day or so prior to the cruise, and yet not have more than a week-long vacation – important for many still employed.
That also helps on getting younger, more active guests onboard and he stressed that American Duchess with its high percentage of upper level suites should also help the line tap more into the luxury market.
For added convenience, guests can also enjoy departures from Chicago (Ottawa, IL) for the first time.
The printed schedule handed to journalists shows the June 4 departure from New Orleans to Memphis and a June 11 departure of the reverse itinerary as the first of the revenue cruises. That itinerary will continue through mid-July and then the ship will sail nine-night voyages between St. Louis and St. Paul or Chicago.
Then, nine-night voyages between Memphis and Nashville are planned for September and between Memphis and New Orleans in October and November. Next are seven-night roundtrip Nashville voyages in early December and a few more seven- to nine-night voyages and a six-night roundtrip New Orleans voyage on Dec. 28.
Sykes said that the new vessel will do a “Nashville Christmas Markets” cruise in mid-December, much the way the line has initiated a Louisiana-style Christmas Markets cruise on the southern Mississippi.
“Demand for more capacity on the Mississippi River has been overwhelming the past two seasons and we look forward to delivering a new boutique, all-suite experience and the flexibility of two riverboats sailing between New Orleans and St. Paul,” he added.
The new superstructure for the ship will be completed by late April so Sykes said “we’re trying to figure out the launch schedule for the agent community” to see the product, but shake-down cruises will likely occur in May.
“In five short years, the American Queen Steamboat Company has grown to over 500 employees and we look forward to hiring about 100 more, right here in the U.S., in anticipation of the American Duchess inaugural season,” said John Waggoner, the line’s chairman as well as president and CEO of HMS Global Maritime.
Both American Queen (shown here) and the new American Duchess will sail on Mississippi and other heartland rivers.
From Sykes' perspective, "we'll put more American mariners back to work." He added that the line pays American wages and benefits and typically has an 80 percent crew retention rate.
The crew go a long way to assuring guest satisfaction, he said. Guests who fill out AQSC's cruise satisfaction ratings typically rate the cruise experience between 9.2 and 9.5 on a scale of 10 as best.
Sykes isn’t worried about extra capacity on heartland rivers that already have competition from American Cruise Lines and other operators. His view is that the American river cruise market is fairly small so there’s plenty of room for growth: “We welcome competition" because it brings more public awareness of an American river cruise vacation.
The benefits to passengers are clear, Sykes said: “It’s close to home, guests don’t have to get on an airplane, they don’t have to worry about medical care overseas and they can take a Southwest [or other domestic] flight”
For more information visit www.AmericanQueenSteamboatCompany.com