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Cindy D'Aoust wants American Queen Voyages to tell the destinations' unknown stories

Cindy D'Aoust would like AQV to partner with local businesses so they can bring their experiences onboard and be incorporated into the company's excursions
When Cindy D'Aoust sailed on two riverboats in the US heartland after becoming president of American Queen Voyages in October, she came away with a conviction.

That is to tell the untold stories of the destinations and to engage with local businesses 'that make those stops special.'

Charmed by family-owned businesses

In Paducah, Kentucky, for example, D'Aoust was charmed by a 'beautiful, family-owned bakery' that turns into a deli lunchspot in the afternoon. 'They were so enthusiastic,' asking if she was 'from the boat' and telling her 'We love it when the boat's in town.' Walking up the street, she was greeted by three other merchants in a similar way.

They didn't know they were talking to the company president.

Long before she went on to head Cruise Lines International Association as president and CEO until the end of 2018, D'Aoust spent formative years in the Midwest, moving to St. Louis in high school and living there, where two of her children were born, for 15 years.

A heart for the heartland

'I'm a Midwest girl,' she said. 'My passion is for these little towns' — like Alton, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis and where Abraham Lincoln once debated Stephen Douglas, and Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain. 'These beautiful destinations along the river all have something very special to offer. So, for me, they are very, very close to my heart.'

D'Aoust would like AQV to partner with local businesses so they can bring their experiences onboard, share their products and tell their stories, and be incorporated into the company's hop-on, hop-off excursions.

Unmatched stories

'Many of us know the historical spots, the well-known tourism "must-see" spots. I want to come up with ones that you don't actually know of because many of these stories are unmatched anywhere else,' D'Aoust elaborated.

At the 2022 season's end, she cruised aboard the grande dame steamboat American Queen and the boutique paddlewheeler American Duchess, where she observed 'what sets us apart is the uniqueness of our vessels, the relationships that our crew have with our guests — they know their families and preferences and anticipate their needs are are greeted by name and with hugs. We enjoy such high loyalty.'

Accentuating the differences

The two vessels are quite different. D'Aoust would like to accentuate that.

'Onboard the Queen, I felt like I stepped back in time and was in a beautiful antebellum home. When I got onto the Duchess, I felt wow! This is a really sleek, cosmopolitan environment, and could we lean into that more? While they have similar itineraries, we want to offer our guests different experiences.'

On American Duchess, she also met several couples taking advantage of the bicycles in port, getting out and being active.

This is how D'Aoust hatched her plan to elevate American Duchess to make it a 'symbol of prestige on America's rivers.' The vessel will sail the first half of 2023 before an extended layup begins in June, with the enhancements to debut in 2024. Details to come.

'Busy, intense' wave season start

Meanwhile, AQV is in the midst of a 'busy, intense' wave season, she said, adding that customers are embracing the new, even more inclusive pricing that bundles in port charges, taxes, service fees and crew gratuities.

Travel advisors now earn pay for these previously non-commissionable fees.

D'Aoust said AQV has accelerated its marketing and is 'getting out and telling our story earlier.' As a result, wave season has 'started off very, very strong.'

President's Cruise

When the 2023 sailing program opens Feb. 13, she'll be hosting her first President's Cruise with company founder John Waggoner and his wife Claudette and Culinary Ambassador Regina Charbonneau aboard American Queen. Charbonneau, a noted chef and one of AQV's storytellers, will be refreshing the menus fleetwide with more regional dishes and incorporating many of her recipes.

In May D'Aoust plans to be in Chicago for the Great Lakes season opener. There, AQV has the advantage of docking at Navy Pier, thanks to its parent company Hornblower Group's rights to use that city-center facility. Last year, Chicago officials embraced AQV's homeporting, and the Great Lakes program got 'great reviews' from passengers.

This year AQV extends its Riverlorian concept to create a Lakelorian role in partnership with the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

In July, D'Aoust and her son are booked for Ocean Victory in Alaska, as the ship undertakes its second expedition season for the line. 2022's inaugural program 'exceeded our expectations across the board' and won recognition in the Seatrade Cruise Awards and from Cruise Critic. D'Aoust said AQV's river cruisers were drawn to the new offering, and there's opportunity to interest more families in this soft adventure. 

Low-water challenges

The Mississippi faced challenges in 2022 with historically low water, and it was 'devastating to see how this impacted not only our industry but shipping and the supply chain.' D'Aoust's proud of how AQV found ways to accommodate guests on other sailings, including the Ohio River, a well-received itinerary that's set to grow.

Thanks to this winter's tremendous snowfall, the Mississippi's water level is 'already back where it needs to be' so hopefully the problem won't repeat in 2023.

Leadership team

AQV underwent management and personnel changes before and after D'Aoust's arrival and as the company moved its headquarters to Florida. She recently appointed three executives to lead human resources, marketing and project management. In the newly created position of project management officer, Alex Dormoi will coordinate and communicate with the various AQV departments so they work together to 'execute and deliver flawlessly' and with Hornblower sister company Journey Beyond on international marketing/database synergies.

The company will be recruiting for a successor to Mostafa Beshir, VP finance & accounting.

'We're looking for someone who is an absolute icon in the finance industry and can help us as we look at our packaging, our pricing and our yield management,' D'Aoust said of the search.

Headquarters moved from New Albany, Indiana to Fort Lauderdale, and recruiting 'will continue to build our leadership team here, in the cruise industry capital of the world,' D'Aoust said.

A changing competitive landscape

With American Cruise Lines committed to introducing a couple new vessels a year and Viking now on the Mississippi, the competitive landscape continues to evolve.

'I welcome competition because it provides a variety of options for guests to select,' D'Aoust said. 'We enjoy very, very high guest loyalty and I don't expect that to change. But it keeps us on our toes.'