Just a few months ago, American Queen Voyages (AQV) appointed Cindy D’Aoust, former president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), as its new president. Travel Agent caught up with D’Aoust recently to chat about her vision for the small-ship brand and what advisors can expect.
North American Explorer
Currently, AQV operates seven vessels within and around North America. They include the American-flagged, 417-passenger American Queen, 245-passenger American Countess, 217-passenger American Empress and 166-passenger American Duchess; those vessels sail the Mississippi River, other American heartland rivers or the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake Rivers.
In addition, the small-ship line operates the foreign-flagged, 202-passenger ocean ships,Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager, as well as a foreign-flagged,186-passenger expedition vessel, Ocean Victory, launched in 2021. Those vessels operate along U.S. coasts, both in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as within the Great Lakes and to the Bahamas, Mexico and Canada.
“Obviously, while at the helm of CLIA, I had an opportunity to experience many fabulous cruises,” D’Aoust explains. “I’ve been such a fan of the small-ship experiences, and especially the river destinations. There are so many beautiful, family-owned businesses in those destinations and that’s near and dear to my heart."
“My vision is to build on the brand we already have,” she emphasizes. For guests, she says, that equates to “finding the most premium experience that you can have" with some luxurious, personalized touches, too.
In doing that, she’s focused on three prime areas.
Focus One: Putting Emphasis on People
One of D’Aoust’s top focuses centers around “the people”—those comprising her team, many of whom she brought in new to the brand, such as Angela Composto as vice president of marketing, as well as those on the ships.
She also wants to focus more strongly on travel advisors. “We want to really make it easy for a travel advisor to match our product with the guest.” D’Aoust says.
So, look for the small-ship line to spend more effort on assuring that the travel advisor portal is easy to use, and also for enhanced training about how best to use it. In addition, previously “we didn’t have advisory boards,” something D'Aoust is now adding.
Look for both guest and travel partner advisory boards. The goal is “to share insight" that can be used by both the internal team and travel advisors.
Focus Two: Elevating the Brand
Her second area of focus? D’Aoust emphasizes: “That’s “prestige, to elevate the brand—to take the product that we have and take it to the next level.”
What would she like to see? “I think we can do more storytelling, and create one-of-a-kind curated events, which we haven’t really done in the past,” she says. “I also want to make sure our partnerships are stronger.”
Focus Three: Working More in Tandem with Destinations
In addition, D’Aoust made it clear she will work more closely with local destinations, “so family businesses can thrive when the boats come to town” on U.S. rivers and when AQV’s small ships also arrive at coastal ports.
Giving one example in Paducah, KY, she explains that she’s personally visited Kirchhoff's Bakery and Deli. It's a coffee shop in the morning, sells a little local merchandise, and then opens up as a deli during the day. “You can get some of the best fresh baked pastries there,” she says, “and then people have the opportunity to come to the deli in the afternoon” and sample those items, too.
Not only can AQV’s guests enjoy those types of experiences ashore, says D’Aoust but she'd like to see the AQV vessels do more in actually offering those kinds of local culinary specialties onboard—thus helping those local businesses thrive.
In February, D’Aoust will visit Natchez, MS, which also has many small family businesses in its downtown area. She's looking forward to meeting with Regina Charboneau, known as “The Biscuit Queen of Natchez” as well as AQV’s culinary ambassador, and touring Natchez with her. Both women will also sail on the American Queen for the line's "President's Cruise," departing February 12, 2023. John Waggoner, the line's founder and chairman, will also be aboard.
As for Charboneau's affiliation with AQV, "I’d like to bring more of what she does to our offering,” D’Aoust notes. For example, she’d like to have some of Charboneau's recipes as a part of the ships’ core menus. She’d also like to see the popular chef come aboard AQV's vessels more often to mix and mingle with guests and share her curated recipes. Look for more detail about this in the coming weeks.
A Family Affair: Guest-and-Crew Interaction
“When I think what the future holds, I am more about where we are now” and taking it from there, D’Aoust says. While the 2022 season was drawing to a close late last year, D’Aoust, who’s based in AQV's corporate headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, FL, was able to spend time briefly aboard both American Duchess and American Queen to meet with some crew members and guests.
When she boarded American Duchess, the line's smallest river vessel, “I had no idea what to expect," she acknowledged, but "it was so lovely from the first moment.” Most notably, she noticed when many guests walked into the boutique ship’s Grand Foyer they immediately hugged the crew. “I was like ‘wow,’ this is not just ‘hi,’” she says. “They knew each other by name.”
In fact, one woman aboard that same voyage later tripped and broke a bone. The ship’s onboard medical staff came immediately and the break was treated at a hospital ashore, but instead of getting off the ship for follow-up care and rehab, the guest said: “I’m fine. Just get Bobbie for me. Miss Bobbie will take care of me.” D'Aoust notes that Bobbie was a crew member the guest had known from her previous time aboard.
As the guest was heading to the hospital, Bobbie folded the guest’s clothes, talked to the guest’s travel partner, got a go-to lunch for the woman, and “she knew all those little things that you would intuitively do for a family member,” D’Aoust says. So, the guest chose not to go home but went back on the ship.
Building Her Team
D’Aoust says she’s been gathering a “dream team” of people and seeks to build a “culture of organization.” That includes a new VP of human resources as well as a leader for project management, and Composto on the marketing side.
“We have lots of products, so it takes a lot of coordination,” she explains. "We’re also sourcing for a new financial leader."
What's planned for the line's ships? "Any investment is focused on safety and security," she stresses, but also says that travel advisors also can expect to see soft updates to the vessels, new materials, fabrics and so on.
"We also will make enhancements to the service and the experience that the guest has on board,” she explains. For example, recently, D’Aoust made a pricing change with an elevated Concierge Class product offering on the boutique American Duchess. That elevated the product offering with some luxury touches.
“We wanted to make it very easy for guests and travel agents to sell,” she says, adding that advisors make more commission on more inclusions, plus it simplifies and enhances the offering for guests.
In terms of the small-ship marketplace, AQV has competition from American Cruise Lines and Viking on the Mississippi River. In Alaska, the Great Lakes or on Pacific Northwest rivers, AQV also has competition from those two lines plus UnCruise Adventures, Hurtigruten, Ponant and many other small-ship products.
How does D'Aoust view the line's competitive position? While AQV doesn't have the greatest number of vessels, D'Aoust stresses two big pluses: The line's heritage as an experienced operator and its non-cookie-cutter approach to ships. "Every one of our boats is different and we have vessels that are uniquely beautiful—either historic or sleek and contemporary,” she says, "and we never shy away from competition.”
Further making her point about the importance of diversity in ship design, D’Aoust explains that she formerly worked for a land-based hotel group in Cape May, NJ. That private company operated seven small, historic properties, and while “all had a standard of service, every single property was different,” says D'Aoust. So, guests had many options within the brand. That’s the same diversity concept that D'Aoust believes is a highly positive attribute of the AQV brand.
For example, she describes the boutique American Duchess as more contemporary than many of the line's river vessels, yet still classic. That said, it exudes a "cosmopolitan, cool, hip" aura, she believes. In contrast, the line's flagship American Queen, the world's largest riverboat, is a historic vessel with a more traditional Mississippi riverboat aura. On that vessel, given its interior decor, guests can easily imagine that Mark Twain is going to walk around the corner at any moment.
For the ocean ships in 2023, one new development is that AQV has teamed up with the National Museum of the Great Lakes to create a new “Lakelorian” program for the 2023 Great Lakes season for Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator.
As the 2023 season gets under way, guests on some voyages also can expect to see more of D’Aoust as she heads out and about to see more of the brand's ships and further "dives into" the onboard product and guest experience. Beyond her sailing on American Queen in February, she also plans to sail on American Countess in March, head to the West Coast for an American Empress cruise, depart from the Navy Pier in Chicago for a small-ship ocean cruise in mid-May, and sail on Ocean Victory in Alaska during July.
Changing Guest Desires
In early 2023, AQV’s consumer research showed that “people are really interested in discovering North America,” says D’Aoust. “It’s still complicated to travel internationally and a little bit unpredictable. So, they like to be able to drive to their destination.”
Other trends? “They love the idea of trying to personalize their experience,” she adds. “Nobody wants a cookie-cutter experience. Instead, they want a tailored vacation.”
While the line’s product is most often described as premium, it has touches of luxury, particularly as mentioned with the elevated American Duchess product. According to D’Aoust, "the only true luxury left” is “really in the way that you make the guests feel.” So, she's recently had meetings with her team about "how to better personalize the guest experience up front—even down to what snacks they like." What’s important for both AQV and its travel advisor partners, according to D'Aoust, is to assess is why any individual guest wants to stay on the line or seek out the experiences it offers. That’s how to assure a positive guest experience and a good "match."
For example, she adds that families are gravitating to the line’s light expedition experience in Alaska. That’s unique, different and not hardcore expedition, but still adventuresome, which the line says families with children of various ages appreciate.
What Surprises Her?
What is surprising about AQV, we asked, and what are misconceptions that people have? While some perceive an American river cruise as a sleepy experience for older people only, or that it’s boring, not healthy and that the food isn’t good, D’Aoust emphatically says: “Those perceptions are not rooted in reality.”
Clientele on the line is mixed, age-wise, and much more than what many people might think, she explains. Simply put, the sidewalks don't roll up at 8 p.m. for all guests, as many people might think. One good example is that on D'Aoust's recent visit to American Queen, she dined in the main dining room. After dinner, she entered the foyer area, where everyone had received a little booklet and was having fun singing along to Neil Diamond songs. She thought that would wrap up the evening.
Not so fast, though, she tells Travel Agent. Instead, she ventured to the Engine Room Bar. That was “a whole other scene," D'Aoust emphasizes. A band was playing, young bartenders were serving drinks, and at least 45 people (singles, husbands and wives) of different ages were energetically dancing to hits of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, at 12:30, 1 a.m., she observed many guests still eagerly dancing. “I’m the one that had to take a break,” D’Aoust quips. “It was so fun to get to know everyone in there."
She also reports that the savory cuisine served in the ships’ dining rooms gets high marks. What’s also important, she says, is that “for me, it’s the confirmation that those small towns [visited along the itinerary route] are interesting and beautiful.” Often people think that once they take a European river cruise, “Hey, there’s nothing more for us to see in North America.” But that’s simply not true, stresses D’Aoust. She uses Pittsburgh, where the line sails, as one good example.
Even though she lived in Philadelphia, for more than a decade, the first time she visited Pittsburgh her pre-conceptions of what to expect were simply not accurate. What she discovered was a "charming, quintessential little town” that’s guest-friendly in feel with bike paths and lots of greenery,” D’Aoust reports that her son is even now thinking of moving to Pittsburgh.
That proves one point about journeys in North America, she says: “We have so much more in our own backyard to discover.”
For more about American Queen Voyages, visit www.aqvoyages.com.