Sailing on American Queen With American Queen Voyages' Execs

Relaxing in the Grand Lounge of American Queen Voyages' (AQV) 417-passenger American Queen, it’s easy to imagine Mark Twain himself walking around the corner. As the world’s largest steamboat river cruise vessel, this grand dame built in 1995 oozes late 1890s charm; it's easy to believe the Victorian age is still alive and well. Yet, the ship also has modern amenities and a robust new culinary program

In February 2023, Travel Agent sailed on American Queen for the third time. It was AQV’s official "President’s Cruise" with Cindy D’Aoust, who assumed that executive leadership role last fall. Also aboard were John Waggoner, AQV's founder and chairman, and Angela Composto, AQV’s vice president of marketing. 

To understand the line's philosophy and progression, it's helpful to look at its history and important steps along its journey. By way of background, our first voyage on American Queen was in 2004, when the vessel sailed for Majestic America Line, which ceased operations a few years later. The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) took control of the riverboat and it was "laid up."

After overcoming incredible challenges to raise capital, given the sizable debt the vessel had incurred during its former ownership, Waggoner was successful in acquiring the vessel in 2011. Christened in 2012 by godmother Priscilla Presley, American Queen returned to the Mississippi River, sailing for the new American Queen Steamboat Company. We were also aboard for another sailing that year.

Then, in 2021, American Queen Steamboat Company changed its name to American Queen Voyages, given the brand's expansion from rivers to small-ship ocean expedition and coastal cruises. 

The red paddlewheel of American Queen propels the ship along the Mississippi River.

So, this year, we returned yet again to learn about the latest chapter. Travel Agent recently interviewed D'Aoust about her plans and vision for the brand, but a bit more of her insight is below. We also spoke to Waggoner and Composto about what's new from their perspective. 

One thing that hasn't changed? American Queen’s big red paddlewheel (see photo above right) kept on turning as we journeyed up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, LA, to Memphis, TN.

A Balancing Act

Right now, AQV, as with many other lines, is walking the fine line between what loyal past guests (many an older demographic) want and what new-to-brand guests, often a bit younger, may desire.

During a Q&A with guests on our cruise, D’Aoust told the audience that “my commitment is not dramatic change to the product. We have a great product.” But she also said that on this specific cruise, “we have over 140 first-time cruisers to American Queen Voyages.” So, D’Aoust’s goal is to please those guests as well as potential other new-to-brand guests with such elements as new shore options and a greater culinary focus

On our cruise, Regina Charboneau, the line’s culinary ambassador, was visible everywhere in talks with the ship's culinary team members and executives. Chef Charboneau has a cooking school in Natchez, MS, and is affectionately known as "The Biscuit Queen of Natchez." While she previously hosted sailings or provided cooking classes—which will continue—Charboneau now has more “hands-on” authority to help craft the culinary product. So, she was actively seeking input from American Queen's head chef and other culinary team members.

She was trying out new recipes, incorporating crew member favorite recipes, and assessing new menu choices and what guests thought about them. She was also finetuning the menus so that they reflected some specialties of the ports to which the ship was sailing. One dish was highlighted nightly in that regard with a description at the top of the dining room menu. 

Chef Regina Charboneau, culinary ambassador, is shown at a culinary demonstration on American Queen.
Chef Regina Charboneau gives a culinary demonstration on American Queen Voyages'​​​​​​ American Queen.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

We saw visible improvements in the lunch and dinner menus, and a new elevated brunch offering. Anecdotally, we felt that the quality of the dining was more high-end than what we experienced in the past. It reflected more choices, creative presentations for dishes and an emphasis on fresh ingredients.

From Waggoner's perspective, "reinventing our product and perfecting our food and beverage offerings" is a prime objective. That said, his top priority for 2023 and beyond remains this: “It’s about getting back to filling up our boats."

Present, Past and Future

Right now, there's much more competition than in the past on American rivers. American Cruise Line has a robust portfolio of ships—everything from a growing fleet of Modern series river vessels to small coastal ships and a new series of modern, hybrid catamarans. As well, Viking began service with Viking Mississippi on the Mississippi River late last year.

What's Waggoner's perspective about that? He stresses that there's still one big differentiator for his brand: “There is only one American Queen—the largest, most opulent riverboat.” 

In addition, he points to AQV’s approach of one-of-a-kind vessels, each a bit different, rather than a series of similar vessels. Soon after acquiring American Queen, Waggoner acquired a second ship, Empress of the North, from MARAD. In 2014, AQSC launched that vessel as American Empress in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, the AQV fleet also includes two other vessels, American Countess and American Duchess. For example, the 166-passenger American Duchess, a refurbished, enhanced former gaming vessel, debuted in 2017. 

That luxurious boutique ship is currently idled, removed from immediate service, as the line adjusts capacity post-pandemic. But D'Aoust reassured guests on the "President's Cruise" that the ship will definitely return. The ship is undergoing a major drydock this year to add elements to elevate the experience. Timing-wise, it's expected to relaunch in 2024.

American Duchess Loft Suite Staircase
The 166-passenger American Duchess has upscale options, including expansive, two-level Loft Suites.   (Photo by Susan J. Young)

We asked Waggoner if the goal with American Duchess was to attract a bit younger crowd than what the audience is for American Queen, which exudes a more traditional, Mark Twain-style look and feel. Waggoner says this: "We never anticipated attracting a younger crowd. We anticipated that it would attract a slightly different crowd.” He added: “With American Duchess, we just wanted to have something a little bit more upscale than American Queen. It’s a little bit more exclusive…It’s built with loft suites and big suites, so that’s made it more exclusive.”

Originally a sister vessel to American Duchess, the 245-passenger American Countess, also sailing on U.S. heartland rivers, is quite different now. It was "stretched" in drydock to create a larger vessel. Setting sail in 2021, that vessel was designed as AQV’s “group boat,” according to Waggoner. So, it has more inside and outside spaces. Some accommodations offer private balconies, others offer deck chairs positioned outside on the walkaround decks. Tip: Check out our photo tour of that riverboat at its launch.

One unique American Countess feature is the massive, elongated lobby, lounge, bar and entertainment space that faces one side of the vessel with floor-to-ceiling glass for spectacular exterior views.

Younger Demographic/Psychographic

One ship that truly appeals to an audience with a younger demographic and psychograph, according to AQV executives, is American Empress, which operates Pacific Northwest river cruises.

For those sailings, “California is a big feeder market," says Waggoner, noting that the voyages attract "a younger crowd" interested in hiking, biking and wine tasting. That a positive both for the brand and advisors who sell the product.

One of the savory dishes on American Queen.
Updating the culinary options aboard is a new focus of American Queen Voyages. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

“My whole investment analysis is that for everybody there’s a life cycle," he stresses. As those younger guests who've sailed American Empress age, they'll often transition from that Pacific Northwest river experience to the Great Lakes and then to the voyages on heartland rivers.

Serving loyal past guests at their different life stages—as their views of what they want in a vacation evolve—means lower guest acquisition costs, he notes. It's simply easier and less pricey than working to acquire a totally new customer. That's true for both the line and advisors who sell the product. 

That said, approximately half of the guests aboard during the "President's Cruise" were new-to-brand. So, Composto conducted focus group sessions with those first-timers to asssess what they were seeking and what would entice them to return.  

Other American Rivers

We chatted with Waggoner about the potential for U.S. river cruising on other rivers, beyond those where AQV is now sailing. For example, earlier this year American Cruise Lines sailed a new itinerary operated by American Jazz within San Francisco Bay and along California rivers.

Would that appeal to AQV for the future? “Not really; we looked at the San Francisco market,” but he says the line’s current focus is farther east. 

He points to the Ohio River, as the line’s Louisville-to-Pittsburgh sailings are highly rated by guests. Waggoner says another big plus of the Ohio River is that it typically doesn’t have the level of high-water or low-water issues found on many other heartland rivers. So, he sees potential growth there.

Mexico on Hold

AQV also offers small-ship Alaska voyages during the summer on Ocean Victory, a 186-passenger expedition ship. Plus, its other two small, oceangoing ships, the 202-passenger Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager, sail the Great Lakes and coastal waters. Previously, AQV had focused on the Yucatan in Mexico, but for now, though, voyages there have been “put on hold,” Waggoner noted. “COVID hit at the wrong time.”

He said that, simultaneously, the line was in the midst of launching the Great Lakes cruises, American Countess and Ocean Victory. So, he said, the thinking was: “We need to shrink back down and focus on our core competencies.” In terms of any future plans for Mexico, "it’s going to depend on [the industry’s] comeback this year,” he says.

Further north, “the Great Lakes do really well, people love those voyages, especially Chicago to Toronto,” he says, noting that the line docks in the heart of downtown Chicago at the Navy Pier. That's because AQV's parent company is Hornblower Group, which operates day boats and ferries, and has prime docking space in Chicago. Also, the affiliation with Hornblower allows AQV to dock at what Waggoner calls “a VIP spot at Niagara Falls.”

Working With Advisors

Deck of American Queen with view to Nottoway Plantation mansion in White Castle, LA.
The view to Nottoway Plantation mansion at White Castle, LA from the American Queen.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Outlining the value of travel advisors, VP of Marketing Composto notes that potential customers often don’t understand the nuances of American river vacations, differences in the brands, and even the destinations along American rivers. So, advisors can be hugely important in that regard.

"This is where the travel advisor can really excel,” she emphasizes. Until she sailed on the "President’s Cruise" herself, Composto acknowledges that she really didn’t know about the beauty and attractions along the Lower Mississippi River. In addition, given the differences in AQV's vessels, Composto says that advisors are invaluable in helping their clients make the right match. "You have this one (American Queen) that’s the grand dame, and then the Countess and the Empress that are more the sleek and more modern ladies, and then the adventure vessels that we have.”

To assist advisors, Composto notes that the line recently moved Barbara Davis, previously in sales, to the marketing department. “Her sole focus is training and making sure advisors have the education they need,” she says. Davis now handles webinars, Travel Agent University modules and travel agent training.

As for the line's Guest Care Team (reservations department), it comprises team members who work remotely. Composto says AQV has recently hired more employees for that team to assist customers and advisors. 

Right now, the line's leadership is focused on determining what it's considers to the new standard operating procedures that should be on every cruise, versus what it thinks are other special, augmented or experiential elements. For example, some loyal past guests didn’t expect that AQV would offer menus reflective of the area of sailing, so that's a change. But "that wasn’t a take-away, that was an enhancementt," says Composto. "I’m a firm believer that you can take something that they were very used to and make it better.”

She also says that increased public exposure about the new culinary program or other new options should help draw travelers who perhaps sailed in the past on AQV as children or as young adults with their parents. Now, as those people reach their 40s and 50s, Composto says they can go back, tell their adult children or teens that there are now different options to appeal (not simply what was there in the past), and that can create new generations of travelers for the brand. 

American Queen Voyages' American Queen on the Mississippi River outside St. Francisville, LA.
AQV's grand dame—American Queen. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Hop-On, Hop-Off 

AQV’s complimentary Hop-On, Hop-Off motorcoaches have definitely been a catalyst for attracting new customers. Those allow guests to go ashore, see a destination at their leisure, and get on and off as they choose. Stops are marked with "sandwich-board-style" markers curbside along the tour route.

Guests can, thus, design their own day experience. They're not herded as a tour group to specific spots; it's a more independent approach to touring. Guides on the coaches still provide commentary during the coach ride and answer questions. 

Composto says AQV is now taking that another step—working to develop new premium tours using the Hop-On, Hop-Off coaches. For instance, guests might board the coach but then get off at a certain stop for an add-on premium activity, perhaps a newly developed biking or kayaking option followed by a picnic lunch.

In addition, bicycles are carried on some vessels, and in other cases, the line will rent bicycles from a local operator. That's important in serving younger and increasingly young-at-heart guests. 

Internet and Wi-Fi are very important to today’s cruise guests, too. AQV recently added SpaceX's new Starlink service, something othera in the industry are also doing. For example, Travel Agent found the recently added Starlink service on Silversea Cruises' Silver Endeavour in Antarctica to work quite well.

Since American Queen has lots of steel onboard, the installation on this riverboat was still progressing as we sailed. AQV's IT team was aboard to upgrade the service, add interior "repeater boxes" and other upgrades.

Parting Thoughts From Waggoner

We asked Waggonerënow celebrating a dozen years with the brand—what stands out about his accomplishments and legacy. When getting into the cruise industry, “my only goal was to save the American Queen,” he says, noting that it’s “the thing I’m most proud of.”

This year, he's looking forward to again sailing on Ocean Victory in Alaska. Overall for AQV, Waggoner is focused on "keeping the plate spinning. His mission is “fill our boats, reinvent our product and become wildly popular.”

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