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American Duchess just around the bend, AQSC eyes more boats

American Duchess - soaring ceilings, all-suite accommodations, single-seating dining American Duchess - soaring ceilings, all-suite accommodations, single-seating dining (Rendering: American Queen Steamboat Co.)

With the inaugural of its all-suite American Duchess just weeks away, demand for US river cruising is high, and chairman John Waggoner said American Queen Steamboat Co. has a fourth vessel waiting in the wings.

When the company bought the former casino boat it's rebuilding into American Duchess, it also acquired another gaming vessel, currently located in Utica, Indiana.

That could be rebuilt for cruising, too. It's about the same size as American Duchess but likely would carry more than 166 passengers since the rooms won't be as large.

This fourth riverboat probably would operate on the Mississippi and smaller rivers like the Cumberland (Nashville-Chatttanooga).

'We need more boats,' Waggoner said.

'Long range, three or four more [boats] are in our future,' he told Seatrade Cruise News, quipping that he's got daughters and granddaughters to serve as godmothers.

Waggoner's middle daughter, Marissa, a nurse, is going to do the honors for American Duchess when the paddlewheeler is named in New Orleans on Aug. 14. Instead of champagne, a special bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon is going to be presented by Bill Samuels Jr., son of the Kentucky distillery's founder.

'Duchess is going to set a new standard,' Waggoner said. 'The boat will be spectacular.'

The entrance lobby has a soaring, 36-foot ceiling height. All-suite accommodations include four double-deck loft suites and three owner's suites, each 550 square feet. There is single-seating dining and the alternative indoor/outdoor River Grill.

It has been a challenging project, with an aggressive timeline. American Duchess got new plumbing, potable water and HVAC systems, a new hydraulic paddlewheel and more. Waggoner praised David Kelly, vp new construction, for his 'design work and everything else.'

The boat has been 'selling like hotcakes,' according to AQSC president Ted Sykes. Nearly all 2017 cruises are filled, and the 2018 Kentucky Derby cruise sold out within 24 hours. American Queen in the Heartland and American Empress in the Pacific Northwest are both sailing full.

2017 sales are up over 2016, and 2018 bookings are currently running 8% ahead of 2017.

With the dollar so strong, AQSC had expected international business to decline, however that hasn't happened. Affluent overseas travelers continue to visit the US. Meanwhile, US domestic travel spending is up 12% this year.

'What other industry has double-digit growth?' Sykes marveled.

'People are traveling closer to home—no 12-hour flights, no TSA pat-downs. The domestic security envelope is better. It's [all these things], plus we have a quality product,' he said.

Customer scores are 9.7 for entertainment and 9.6 or 9.7 for the American crew on a 10-point scale. Sykes called it 'a winning combination of friendly American crew, entertainment that blows people away and the quality of the shore excursions and the meals.'

Word of mouth is good and travel agent support for FIT business is strong. AQSC is the preferred domestic cruise line for the likes of Valerie Wilson Travel, a prominent Manhattan-based carriage-trade agency and Virtuoso member.

Next year AQSC will be taking American Queen up to Pittsburgh, where it hasn't been for a couple years, and some soft adventure options are being added to American Empress on the Columbia and Snake rivers, since that vessel attracts a younger, more active crowd. The program, Skyes said, competes with Alaska.

Nashville is a hot ticket for American Duchess in 2018, along with what will be the new Chicago-St. Louis itinerary since this year lock work on the Illinois River keeps the boat from getting to Ottawa, the embarkation port for Chicago.

As for the Great Lakes, a region where AQSC would like to be, 'We continue to look at it,' Waggoner said.

But Sykes added any capacity growth is going to be measured and prudent.

See also 'From cooking pasta to a 5K and karaoke, it's no ho-hum chairman's cruise.'

Posted 07 July 2017

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Anne Kalosh

US editor of Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Cruise News

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