American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) unveiled new 2023 cruise schedules this week, so Travel Agent talked with Kari Tarnowski, AQSC's senior vice president of marketing, about that lineup of future voyages for both AQSC and Victory Cruise Lines, as well as the company's plans for a new South Florida satellite office, the line's vaccine requirement and booking trends.
New Florida Satellite Office
While AQSC will remain headquartered in New Albany, IN across the river from Louisville, KY, it's now seeking to open another office in either Broward County or Miami-Dade County, FL. Travel advisors can expect the company's marketing, sales and operations teams to relocate to this new office in the first half of 2022.
Tarnowski and Michael Hicks, director of marketing communications, are among those who will be based in that South Florida satellite office. Executive, finance and other AQSC functions will remain based in Indiana.
“We are actively looking for space,” Tarnowski told Travel Agent. “South Florida is the center of the cruise industry and there is so much talent in the region, not just in cruising but also hospitality. It's clearly the next step, as we’re adding new vessels and expanding capacity.”
That leap in capacity is happening not only on U.S. rivers for American Queen Steamboat Company, which will operate four American-flagged, American-crewed river vessels on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Columbia, Snake and other North American rivers this year, but also for the company's foreign-flagged Victory Cruise Lines.
Planning cruises for Alaska, Canada/New England, U.S. coastal and Mexico voyages, that small-ship, oceangoing coastal line will take delivery of its first vessel, Ocean Victory in June 2021 and a second new oceangoing ship, Ocean Discoverer, during 2023.
Early Release of 2023 Lineup
Citing pent-up consumer demand, American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines released their 2023 schedules earlier than usual this week.
“Cruisers yearn to travel again, as evidenced by 2021 and 2022 inquiries and our webinar popularity with guests and travel partners,” Tarnowski said. “Opening up 2023 to satisfy that wanderlust had to be done.”
Expressing “surprise” at the strong demand being generated by older guests, mainly Baby Boomers, for bookings in 2021's second quarter and 2022, Tarnowski chalked that up to "people not being able to travel for so long during the past year. Everyone is ready to move on beyond that and discover their own backyard."
“Many guests are not going to be taking that 10-hour flight this year,” Tarnowski stressed. She also anecdotally mentioned that some consumers recently weren’t able to get their COVID-19 tests uploaded for domestic Hawaii entry and had to change flights. Tarnowski believes those types of factors involved with travel beyond the continental U.S. definitely influence the decision for North American consumers to seek out voyages “closer to home.”
So, what’s on tap for 2023? American Queen, the world’s largest steamboat, will sail the lower Mississippi River with 28 departures between Memphis, TN, (shown in the photo above) and New Orleans. The ship also will sail a Thanksgiving 2023 cruise from Memphis to New Orleans and three roundtrip New Orleans voyages during the December 2023 holiday season.
For 2023 Lower Mississippi river sailings, which focus on southern hospitality, music, culture and heritage, “we’re seeing tremendous interest," Tarnowski noted. She pointed to such popular itinerary perks as AQSC-exclusive access events at Nottoway Plantation near White Castle, LA, and visits to Chef Regina Charboneau’s cooking school in Natchez, MS, for instruction on biscuit baking and southern entertaining.
AQSC also has a new ship debuting this year that will also sail that Lower Mississippi region in 2023. That’s the American Countess, a former gaming boat that's been completely transformed, modernized and "stretched" at a Louisiana shipyard; it will be christened in Louisiana and begin sailing in March 2021. (Note: Normally the ship's capacity would be 234 passengers, but the line will reduce that to 166 when it begins service.)
American Countess will sail a fall 2023 “Mighty Mississippi” voyage from St. Paul, MN, to New Orleans and sail the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers throughout the 2023 season. Tarnowski said cruisers are showing interest in these types of voyages because they may have already sailed either on the Lower Mississippi or in the Pacific Northwest and are seeking a bit different experience.
For example, one 2023 highlight is that the boutique paddlewheeler American Duchess (shown in the photo above) will sail the Ohio River from Louisville, KY, to Pittsburgh, PA, with six sailings. Most notably, those voyages will mark AQSC's return to Pittsburgh, its most easterly port of call, for the first time since 2019.
In the Pacific Northwest, American Empress will begin its season on March 23, 2023 and sail nine-day, one-way voyages between Portland, OR (with the ship departing from nearby Vancouver, WA), or Spokane (Clarkston), WA, through November 26, 2023.
Restarting on America's Rivers
The river line—which operates smaller ships that are not covered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s “Framework for Conditional Sailing" Order—plans to restart American river cruises in March 2021 on the Mississippi River with American Duchess. Normally, that ship's capacity is 166 guests but the line will reduce capacity to 125 passengers for the present.
For all cruises departing July 1, 2021 or thereafter, AQSC has instituted a vaccination mandate. All overnight guests and crew members must have proof of vaccination in order to board.
“The announcement was well received, but there have been a lot of questions,” Tarnowski acknowledged, but “we haven’t seen many cancellations because of that.” One reason is that many guests who sail on the line are over the age of 65, so many have or will soon receive the vaccination. Also, generally, “they’re seasoned cruisers, not first time cruisers,” she noted.
“Guests are eager to return to the boats, and the health and safety of our guests and crew members is a priority as is the need to protect communities,” she said, and also pointing to a CruiseCritic.com survey that showed that “81 percent of respondents are ready to get the vaccine and sail.”
Are there changes in the way guests are traveling within the U.S. to the ships? Are more driving? Tarnowski said guests who live in California, Florida and Illinois, for example, are continuing to take flights to reach their ship at the embarkation port. Throughout the U.S., “many are flying, some still driving,” she said. “We’re still seeing a mix of that and we haven’t noticed a real shift” in how cruisers get to the ship.
Once past guests arrive at their ship this year, they'll likely notice that American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines have upgraded onboard offerings and accommodations for the 2021 season. That includes the addition of complimentary beer, wine, spirits and specialty coffees from open bars and lounges, as well as a morning smoothie and juice bar.
American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines also enhanced their culinary offerings with USDA Prime meats and fresh lobster. New onboard amenities include handwarmers and cool cloths on the ship deck and signature culinary treats in guest cabins.
All cruises include a one-night pre-voyage hotel stay and immersive excursions at ports, organized by Shore Excursions of America, recently acquired by Hornblower Group, AQSC’s parent company. While complimentary hop-on, hop-off buses have been a signature AQSC brand feature, that concept brings challenges in a pandemic era. “We’re working through all of that,” Tarnowski said.
So, at least in the beginning of 2021, guests instead can expect to tour in private AQSC motorcoaches with included excursions that create a bubble of safety which the line can the control. While that's not mandatory and guests who so desire can still go off the ship on their own (as AQSC is not covered by any CDC mandate in that regard), they'll have more health/safety checks to comply with upon their return to the ship.
Victory Cruise Lines in 2023
Owned by AQSC, New Albany, OH-based Victory Cruise Lines also announced its 2023 schedules. Continuing its growth in small-ship expedition cruising, the line will debut the new Ocean Discoverer, being delivered to the line in 2023, with a repositioning voyage from Puerto Caldera, Mexico to San Diego departing May 12, 2023 followed by a season of 11- and 12-day adventures between Sitka, AK, and either Vancouver or Seattle.
In 2023, Ocean Victory (shown in the photo above) will operate between Vancouver and Sitka throughout the summer with repositioning sailings to bookend the season between Puerto Caldera and San Diego.
Sailing coastal waters of the U.S., Canada and the Great Lakes, Victory I and Victory II, both 202-passenger ships, will sail 11-to-16 day voyages in 2023 that embark guests at Chicago’s Navy Pier, downtown Toronto, Detroit and Montreal.
Ports of call will include the Michigan ports of Marquette, Mackinac Island and Soo Locks/Sault Ste. Marie.
The identical vessels will also visit such U.S. southern ports as Savannah, GA, Charleston, SC, and Fernandina Beach, FL. In 2023, Victory II will sail as far southward as Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for roundtrip sailings from Cozumel.
New Booking Promotion
Rewarding loyal past guests and consumers seeking to experience America’s rivers, Great Lakes, coastal waters and Alaska for the first time, both AQSC and Victory Cruise Lines are offering savings up to $1,200 per stateroom on 2023 itineraries that are booked by April 30, 2021.