2 of the biggest cruise companies specializing in US sailings are merging

Sep 28, 2021

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Two of the five biggest cruise companies specializing in small-ship voyages in U.S. waters are merging.

The parent company of American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines on Tuesday announced it would combine the two brands into a single cruise entity that offered a far wider mix of itineraries than either of the two brands have offered individually.

American Queen Steamboat Company until now only has operated U.S. river cruises with a fleet of four paddlewheelers. Victory Cruise Lines until now only has operated lake and ocean trips in North America with a fleet of two small ocean-going vessels.

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In the wake of the merger, the company will be known as American Queen Voyages and offer an expanded mix of river, lake and ocean trips.

“We will pull [all the vessels] all under one company, one fleet, one brand and one experience,” Shawn Bierdz, the executive who will serve as president of the combined company, said Tuesday at a press conference in Miami to announce the merger.

The press conference took place Tuesday afternoon at Seatrade Cruise Global, the cruise industry’s annual meetup.

In announcing the new brand, Bierdz said its combined fleet would include two new expedition ships that are scheduled to debut in 2022 and 2023, respectively. That’ll bring the total fleet size to eight vessels. The two expedition ships originally were scheduled to join the Victory Cruise Lines fleet.

Victory Cruise Lines’ Victory I now will be part of a combined American Queen Voyages fleet. It’ll be renamed Ocean Voyager. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Voyages)

American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines are both owned by San Francisco-based Hornblower Group, which owns a wide array of ship-related businesses around the world including day-tour boats in many U.S. cities and a marine services company that operates, maintains and repairs government and privately owned vessels.

Founded by marine industry veteran John Waggoner in 2011 with just one vessel, American Queen Steamboat Company over the past decade has grown into one of the largest operators of overnight riverboat cruises in North America. It became part of the bigger Hornblower Group when Waggoner and a longtime partner combined a number of marine-related businesses together three years ago. Hornblower then bought Victory Cruise Lines.

Related: Peek inside American Queen Steamboat’s newest river ship

American Queen Steamboat Company just unveiled a fourth river boat earlier this year, the American Countess. (Photo by Gean Sloan/The Points Guy)

Waggoner, who also was at the press conference, will serve as chairman of the new American Queen Voyages brand.

Waggoner is credited with almost singlehandedly bringing back the overnight river cruise business on U.S. rivers after he and his wife, Claudette, purchased American Queen Steamboat Company’s original vessel — the iconic, 436-passenger American Queen — in 2011.

At the time, the 1995-built paddlewheeler was in mothballs after a previous owner had gone out of business, and other overnight river cruise vessels that had operated on U.S. rivers for years also had shut down operations.

Many industry watchers thought at the time that a successful comeback of river cruising in U.S. waters was unlikely.

“When Claudette and I purchased it we could have sworn that was going to be the only boat that we were going to purchase, but we were wrong,” Waggoner said, drawing laughter from an audience of cruise industry insiders who were familiar with the rapid growth of his company over the past few years. “It’s been an interesting 10 years, and we’re only getting going.”

Company executives at the press conference on Tuesday said the new American Queen Voyages brand would operate cruises under three sub-divisions:

  • American Queen Voyages River: This division of the brand will include the four river vessels that previously made up the American Queen Steamboat Company brand. Led by the company’s namesake, the American Queen, it’ll offer river trips on the Mississippi River complex and in the Pacific Northwest.
  • American Queen Voyages Lakes & Ocean: This division of the brand will include the two 202-passenger coastal cruise vessels that, until now, have made up the Victory Cruise Lines fleet. Formerly called Victory I and Victory II, they are being renamed Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator. The vessels will offer voyages to Canada, the Great Lakes, New England and the Eastern Seaboard, and Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula.
  •  American Queen Voyages Expedition: This division will focus on expedition cruises to Alaska and Central America using two new, 186-passenger expedition ships that will debut in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The ships will be called Ocean Victory and Ocean Discoverer. In Alaska, the vessels will focus on travel to less-visited parts of the state’s Inside Passage region with a seasoned expedition team leading adventurous outings. The ships will carry kayaks and Zodiac boats for exploring.

The combined company will offer voyages to 127 different ports, Bierdz said at the event.

In response to a question from TPG, the executive who will oversee the combined brand’s sales and marketing said the merger will make it easier to talk to customers about all the things that the previously separate brands offer.

“Now there’s the opportunity to talk about them all together and [to talk about] the breadth of offerings that we have,” said senior vice president of sales and marketing Kari Tarnowski.

Tarnowski also noted that customers now will know that “the product delivery whether you’re on river, lakes and ocean, or expedition [trips] will be the same.”

Bierdz added that the company would be merging the two separate websites that it now has for the two brands, which would “be more efficient.” In another plus, Tarnowski added that the company soon would be launching a new loyalty program that covered all of the vessels in the combined brands.

American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines have been two of the five largest cruise brands with a particular focus on U.S. river, lake and coastal voyages. The others are American Cruise Lines, UnCruise Adventures and Alaskan Dream Cruises.

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Featured image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company 

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