American Queen Steamboat Company round table

American Queen Steamboat Company round table

Samuel Ballard sat down with the American Queen Steamboat Company to talk about its new luxury vessel, American Duchess, which will sail from Chicago

The loft suite on board American Duchess
The loft suite on board American Duchess

Late last year, the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) announced that it would be adding a third vessel to its fleet. The new ship, American Duchess, would ply some of the same waters as the company’s flagship, the American Queen – but would be entirely different. About a third of the size, the Duchess will serve as AQSC’s luxury product. It will also be able to get down the Illinois river – which means the company can now start cruises out of Chicago – a big win for British interests. We sat down with Ted Sykes, the company’s president; Roger Allard, one of the investors; Eric Welter, senior vice president, marketing & reservations; and Rupert Thomson, the managing director of Lightblue Travel to discuss the new ship.

Cruise Adviser: Tell us a little bit more about the Duchess. Why did you decide to expand your fleet?
Ted Sykes: We’re launching it because we need the capacity. It’s tough in the US to build a passenger vessel – for starters they have to be made in America, but we don’t have the shipyards – the guys who are developing the Duchess usually build Navy ships. The Duchess used to be a gaming vessel – a casino on the Mississippi. However, those ships are largely redundant now. We had the choice of either raising our prices or building more inventory – and so we chose to add to our capacity.
Eric Welter: It’s much smaller thanthe Queen: 166 guests versus 430. However, it’s generous with the space. It’s all suite, which is a big deal. This is a more luxurious offering than the Queen. Single seat dining and single show theatre as well all private balconies. The hull of the ship is 10 feet wider than the Queen but, overall, it is 100 feet shorter, which means that we can go down the Illinois River. We can go as far as Chicago to St Louis, rather than Minneapolis to St Louis which we do now. That’s great for UK passengers who can fly directly to Chicago from the UK and then transfer an hour to the ship.
Rupert Thomson: The owner’s suite is 550 square feet, which is twice as large as the competition. We have four loft suites, which are on the second and third deck – not at the bottom. They can each sleep four people. We will have three owner’s suites and two deluxe suites. The outside veranda suite – which is the bulk of remaining cabins – are 240 square feet. That’s the size of most company’s owner’s suites.

The JM White dining room on the Queen
The JM White dining room on the Queen

Why do you think your customer satisfaction scores are so high?
Ted: We train, train, train. We’re also very selective in the crew we hire. We only have one competitor, American Cruise Lines, who hire their crew for just 13 weeks so they don’t have to pay benefits – we pay benefits. We want our crew to stay on with us. It costs us more but it makes them happy. If you look at areas like the Mississippi, our staff get paid more than they would with other local businesses. If our crew are happy, our customers are happy.
Roger Allard: There are a number of differences in the way American lines work. One thing that I’ve noticed is that ovens work on arrival time, rather than start time. If you want a steak well done and I want mine rare they will come out at the same time rather than the chef finishing one first. It’s a completely different way of thinking about it.

Will there be a difference in the shore offerings with the Duchess?
Ted: The type of hotels we will use are going to change. We’ll only be using boutique hotels for the Duchess. It will be The Peabody in Memphis, The Drake in Chicago and The Roosevelt in New Orleans. It’s another example of the step up in terms of quality.

The theatre, modelled on Ford's Theatre
The theatre, modelled on Ford’s Theatre

We’ll only be using boutique hotels for the Duchess

How about dining?
Eric: There will be a main dining room and a grill. The grill is reservation only with a premium menu. The ship holds 166 passengers and the main dining room holds 160 – the grill only holds 80. We offer something similar on the Empress. We will also be able to open it up – so passengers will have the option of eating outside.

Who will the Duchess be aimed at?
Ted: Both past guests and also newbies. The ship is going to be able to get further into cities like Nashville, but we’ll also
be doing shorter itineraries and round trips from New Orleans, in a bid to attract younger, working couples who simply can’t afford to take 10 days out of their schedules.

How important are travel agents?
Rupert: Agents are our biggest channel. It’s a complicated and an expensive sell. With some of the big, mainstream lines you can sit in your pyjamas and book your cruise at 10pm. Those are commodities, like an airline ticket. This is a fairly specialised product. Agents need to know about cabin categories, pre and post-cruise stays, etc. We offer some generous commissions, too, which is being bolstered by the new British Airways direct flight to New Orleans.

What’s the biggest challenge your company faces in 2017?
Ted: For UK customers, it’s the price of the dollar. However, for affluent, older customers will this stop them? Probably not. We’re wildly successful, in fact we’re sold out, which is why we’re building the Duchess. Even with the extra vessel there is less capacity to sell for 2017 than there was this time last year. That’s how vast the sales are.

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