While the beloved American Queen’s return in April was heralded by many, for passengers on the initial sailings, things weren’t quite up to snuff. Stories of poor service, untrained crew, mediocre food and a boat that just wasn’t ready for passengers flowed faster than the mighty Mississippi. Even the American Queen Steamboat Company’s president Christopher Kyte has candidly admitted the debut was not what he wanted.
On an American Queen sailing in early June, I asked Kyte how the line is doing now. His verdict? “We are about 85 to 90 percent of where we’d like to be.”
I’d agree with that assessment. During my stay onboard, I found lapses in service and some inconsistencies in food, but they were minor, rather than the large problems initially encountered. My cabin steward forgot soap one night; a decorative skirt was missing on one table at dinner; tables could have been cleaned more quickly; and some repainting on the exterior bulkheads was needed. Exterior decking still needed a good scrubbing, but the line is looking at replacing the deck in January. Some cabins had small scratches or raised seams in the wallpaper, but most seemed in very good shape. (Lack of polish like being called “Buddy” instead of “Sir” at the Purser’s Desk was simply charming, rather than a gaffe, as far as I’m concerned.)
So what is helping the turnaround? Kyte cited hiring Apollo Group — the same company that provides food service for Oceania and Regent Seven Seas — as the biggest factor in improving the onboard experience. While money was never the root of the issue, Kyte noted that, due to Apollo’s influence, “we’re now spending the same amount on food per guest per day that Oceania does.” Culinary Director Regina Charboneau was still waiting for bread and desserts to improve, but she expected those issues to be sorted within a week or so of my sailing. In addition, the River Grille’s selection and food quality has been improved, and the Front Porch of America is now staffed 24 hours a day.
Apollo also has several people onboard overseeing training on service issues and housekeeping, and onboard management has been shuffled. A new Executive Chef from the Ritz in New Orleans was brought onboard, and an ex-Seabourn Hotel Manager was hired. Kyte said of the crew, “We hired for attitude, rather than experience…. We got high marks for friendliness, and now our training is catching up.” Contrary to reports of large numbers of crew leaving, Kyte said only 28 have washed out in the two months after the ship debuted.
Kyte shared that the comment cards’ scores on food and service have jumped more than five points since Apollo arrived, and they now average in the low 90’s (out of 100).
The company is also working on refining the general experience. A New Orleans Jazz Brunch has been instituted once per trip, a wellness instructor will come aboard this summer, additional entertainment venues are in the works, and the line is considering serving s’mores on deck, possibly beginning later this summer. (“It might be childish, but so what? It is so American!” enthused Kyte.)
To be fair, in some areas, the boat has excelled from day one. “We started off with scores around 95 for shore excursions from the start, and entertainment has also been in the mid 90’s the whole time.”
From what I could see, significant and substantial progress has already been made since the boat’s April debut — more than most people thought possible — and improvements are visible on a daily basis. While, on my sailing, American Queen was not yet the fully polished product it will be, it’s only a matter of time before the kinks are worked out and the boat can offer the seamless river cruise experience it’s always intended.
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