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John Waggoner reviving Victory Cruise Lines on the Great Lakes

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John Waggoner plans to launch Victory I and Victory II in spring 2025 on the Great Lakes
John Waggoner is reviving Victory Cruise Lines, which he once ran as part of American Queen Voyages.

He plans to launch Victory I and Victory II in spring 2025 on the Great Lakes with a veteran team of executives. The 190-passenger vessels will cruise the five lakes with sailings between Chicago and Toronto or Montréal, or roundtrip Chicago.

'Heartwarming' support

'I cannot believe all the people who've come out to say I will help you and do whatever you need, and for free or next to nothing, just to help you get up and going,' Waggoner said. 'It's been heartwarming.'

Waggoner's made a career of buying undervalued assets at a discounted price, using his knowledge to restore the vessels and putting them in underutilized markets to make profitable businesses.

'My history speaks for itself,' he said. 'I'm glad to be back.'

As earlier reported, Waggoner snapped up the pair of coastals, most recently called Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator, as part of AQV's bankruptcy auction. In 2011, he had founded what ultimately became American Queen Voyages by acquiring the paddlewheel steamboat American Queen from the US Maritime Administration, grew the company over a decade to field seven vessels and was bought out by Crestview Partners a few years ago.

Leaving a better legacy

Waggoner told Seatrade Cruise News he got back in the game because he was too young to retire and missed the business, he wanted to leave a better legacy and to 'put the band back together.' Also, he got an 'unbelievable deal' on the vessels, and he loves Great Lakes cruising.

He'd forged a company that started as Hornblower Marine Services in 1994 and became HMS Global Maritime, adding Seaward Services, HMS Ferries then American Queen Steamboat Co. and Victory Cruise Lines (the last two combined as American Queen Voyages). After selling the business to retire, he was saddened it 'evaporated in a quick period.'

He's using the Victory name as there was no reputational brand damage and 'it's a great platform' should he wish to expand. 

Waggoner champions the Great Lakes, where there's little cruise competition and 'so much to offer,' he said.

Victory's core 10-day itinerary, between Chicago and Toronto, is expected to feature a coveted berth at Chicago's Navy Pier, cruising to historic Mackinac Island, a transit of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie into Lake Superior, Detroit and Cleveland calls, the Thousand Islands of Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls and winding up at Toronto — touching all five Great Lakes.

'Unbelievable deal'

Waggoner paid $55m for Victory I and II in 2018 but now was able to acquire both at bankruptcy auction for less than $2m. The deal closed May 9.

Originally he'd sought one coastal and the riverboat American Countess but he couldn't best American Cruise Lines' $6m for the four riverboats.  

Waggoner and wife Claudette paid cash, and now he's in the process of raising $10m from banks to cover vessel renovations and start-up costs. He expects to nail the financing in the next 60 days.

'Putting the band back together'

Tried and true veterans of AQV and his other companies are signing on with Waggoner to relaunch Victory Cruise Lines.

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Among the key members of Victory Cruise Lines leadership team are, from left, Bill Annand (marine operations), David Kelly (operations), at top, Bob Salmon (sales) and below, Christina Hobbs (administration). At right, Kari Tarnowski (marketing)

They include David Kelly to head operations, Bill Annand (marine operations), Dietrich Giles (technical services), Bob Salmon (sales), Kari Tarnowski (marketing), Christina Hobbs (administration) and Eric Long (reservations).

Kelly previously led operations including the extensive refurbishment and modernization of the Victory vessels when they joined AQV in 2019. Annand has worked for Waggoner since 1994, and Giles and Salmon for 20 years. Annand grew up on the Great Lakes, has always lived in Detroit and was a boat captain who ran numerous ferry routes and helmed Seaward Services as president. His destination knowledge is vast.

The company will again be based in its former New Albany, Indiana premises.

Vessel refurbs in Portland, Maine

Ocean Navigator (Victory II), which suffered a generator fire last year, will be getting a new engine and control system and fresh carpet and wallpaper, all to the tune of $3m, while Ocean Voyager (Victory I) needs only half a million dollars of cosmetic refurbishments, according to Waggoner.

The vessels are in Portland, Maine, where the work will be done.

July marketing launch

Victory Cruise Lines targets a July 1 marketing launch with an outreach to past customers and an invitation from John and Claudette Waggoner to the inaugural 'family reunion cruise,' Victory I's repositioning from Portland to Toronto.

Waggoner said it makes sense to come out marketing to loyalists, including many who are members of AQV's Steamboat Society of America and have kept in touch.

The company plans 31 10-day cruises between Chicago and Toronto — always Victory's most popular prior route, with an average $600 per diem. Plus, there will be three 12-day Chicago-Montréal cruises and two 12-day Chicago roundtrips that explore Lake Michigan and go far into Lake Superior.

During 2025, Victory I will operate a 197-day season and Victory II will be in service 153 days.

'We only need 7,000 customers to fill for the year. That's about one week on Oasis of the Seas,' Waggoner said. But this will significantly boost the 20,000 cruisers expected on the Great Lakes in the 2024 season.

'I want people to feel like they're coming home'

Pricing will be inclusive with a pre-cruise hotel night, hop-on, hop-off excursions and Wi-Fi in the fare.

The same menus, wine list and onboard style/programming are planned, including a Lakelorian

'I want people to feel like they're coming home,' Waggoner said.

Travel advisor and destinations outreach

Victory aims to launch a US trade show in September, and Waggoner intends to take part. Meanwhile, Bob Salmon is already talking to potential partners about groups, which formerly made up about one-third of the business.

Outreach to ports and destination marketing organizations is planned, too.

Destination support

Among Waggoner's cheerleaders is Stephen Burnett, executive director, The Great Lakes Cruise Association, who called him 'an inspiration,' admiring his 'ability to operate efficiently and to bring a superb product to market. Having Victory Cruise Lines back in the Great Lakes is a heartwarming notion and we are thrilled that John will be at the helm, bringing his extraordinary expertise to this new enterprise.'

Waggoner credits Burnett for opening his eyes to all the Great Lakes have to offer on an extensive scouting trip by plane more than 20 years ago.

While this was informative for Waggoner, 'it was an even greater educational experience for me, being able to travel with this extraordinary American entrepreneur,' Burnett said.

He's kept in touch with Waggoner ever since '... and I know that I speak for all of our Great Lakes partners when we wish John the very best of luck, and anything we can do to ensure his success will be our pleasure.'