American Queen Voyages: A small-ship operator with a big vision

Cindy D’Aoust outlines how strong connections are helping American Queen Voyages

American Queen Voyages: A small-ship operator with a big vision
American Countess will sail AQV’s longest-ever itinerary on both the Ohio River and Upper Mississippi in July 2023

By Rebecca Gibson |

When Cindy D’Aoust stepped onboard American Queen Voyages’ (AQV) river cruise ship American Duchess shortly after being appointed as the brand’s president in late 2022, she was most impressed by the convivial atmosphere. 

“Guests and crew members were hugging, laughing and sharing updates on their lives,” she says. “I wasn’t watching polite, formal greetings between staff and customers; I was watching old friends genuinely delight in catching up with one another and excitedly preparing to create new memories together. Similarly, our crew members have formed deep friendships and familial bonds with one another after working with us for many years.”  

More than three decades of working in leadership positions at travel and hospitality organisations such as Cruise Lines International Association, Cape Resorts and Meeting Professionals International, has taught D’Aoust that friendly, dedicated and loyal employees are the backbone of any brand. That’s why people were at the top of her list when setting priorities for AQV, which is part of Hornblower Group and operates a fleet of seven ships sailing river, expedition and lake and ocean cruises to destinations across North America.  

“I have three key priorities: people, prestige and partners,” says D’Aoust. “My biggest commitment is to give AQV’s shipboard and shoreside teams all the tools, resources, training and support they need to grow personally and professionally. I also want to build a more collaborative, equitable and enjoyable working environment – we need to work hard but also have fun!”  

Since joining AQV, D’Aoust has hired new executives to lead different departments. “These highly skilled, knowledgeable and experienced leaders will help me build an inclusive and stimulating working environment that will empower us to advance AQV’s success,” she explains. “I also want to increase diversity so we can benefit from new perspectives and ideas. This is already working well on our river cruise ships where local crew members can share their personal stories and insights into the culture and history of their hometowns. This enriches the guest experience and helps us to improve our itineraries and shore excursions.” 

As one of a growing number of women leading successful cruise brands, D’Aoust is particularly keen to encourage gender diversity. “Cruising has historically been dominated by men, but we now have more women in senior shoreside and shipboard roles,” she says. “For instance, AQV’s Andrea Mickelson joined our housekeeping team in 2014 and is now captain of American Empress. There’s a whole new generation of women like Andrea who have greater freedom than their predecessors and they’re looking at women leaders like me to show them how they can forge a similar path. I aim to inspire them through mentorship and by demonstrating admirable leadership to help drive further diversity and equality in the industry.” 

D’Aoust’s dedication to supporting people extends to the travel advisor community too. “Travel advisors are vital because they help us to educate travellers about our brand,” she explains. “We’ve made it easier for them to sell our cruises and earn commission by extending our all-inclusive pricing to include port charges, gratuities and fees across all of our fleet and products. We’re also forming AQV’s first travel advisory council so they can share both guest feedback and their own insights to help us improve our cruise offering.” 

Forging strong, mutually beneficial and long-lasting relationships with key partners across AQV’s supply chain is D’Aoust’s second priority.  

“Partnerships are pivotal to our success, particularly in the ports and destinations we visit,” she says. “For our guests to have amazing onshore experiences, we must collaborate closely with port partners, shore excursion providers, businesses and others to ensure that our calls benefit the local community too. For example, we want to partner with local family businesses to develop shore excursions or invite them onboard to deliver enrichment activities.” 

Investing in people and partnerships will enable D’Aoust to grow the prestige of the AQV brand.  

“AQV already has an amazing small-ship product, with immersive itineraries and personalised guest experiences that garner great interest from North American, European and other international travellers,” she says. “However, we aim to continually refine our offering to ensure AQV is the cruise brand of choice for guests wanting to discover North America.” 

AQV will introduce several new itineraries in 2023, including a 23-day cruise onboard American Countess that will take guests from Minneapolis in Minnesota, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The itinerary is the longest in AQV’s history and will pass through 10 states. 

“I experienced Pittsburgh’s quintessential charm for the first time in 2022, so I’m particularly excited about this voyage,” says D’Aoust. “We’ll sail down both the Ohio River and Upper Mississippi River, taking guests right through the heart of Americana, visiting more ports than ever before. They’ll be able to enjoy two very different river experiences and have more time to explore destinations.” 

Other initiatives for 2023 include more in-depth itineraries in the Great Lakes region and new city stay packages for guests wanting to extend their cruise with a land stay in various destinations. AVQ is also capitalising on growing demand for speciality cruises. “We’re hosting culinary, wine- and bourbon-themed cruises and developing others around different themes,” says D’Aoust. “I’d love to focus more on family voyages too.”  

D’Aoust would also like to partner with other Hornblower Group brands, such as Australia-based experiential travel group Journey Beyond. “We’ll explore how we can extend our offering to new markets. It’s just one of many initiatives that will elevate AVQ’s cruise experience.” 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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