Travel Weekly’s Michelle Baran is on the renovated American Queen’s christening cruise. Her first dispatch follows.
So much about the relaunch of the American Queen encapsulates the American dream — from its trials and tribulations to its new owners’ unwavering desire to overcome them, from its providing of jobs and revenue to local economies to serving as a floating tribute to American heritage.
“This has to be an authentic, classic American experience,” said Christopher Kyte, president of the Great American Steamboat Company, which owns the American Queen.
But the dream of bringing the 436-passenger vessel back to life was not without its challenges, challenges that included securing the funding to purchase it from the Federal Maritime Administration, updating a vessel that had been laid up for two years, and bringing it up to five-star standards.
During the vessel’s christening cruise, which launched on Friday from its home port of Memphis, executives from the Great American Steamboat Company explained the arduous journey of purchasing the paddlewheeler, getting it to its current condition and the ongoing plans and changes to improve those conditions in the coming weeks.
First off, the American Queen is bringing two new chefs onboard to oversee the dining experience — on April 30, a new executive chef from the Ritz-Carlton in Houston arrived, and will be joined by a new sous chef from the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans on May 4.
Regina Charboneau remains the chef de cuisine, but the two new chefs will be in the galley full-time executing Charboneau’s vision of sustainable, organic Southern-influenced cuisine.
Additionally, on April 30, an agreement between the Great American Steamboat Company and Miami-based Apollo Group to oversee training and service goes into effect. That same day, Malcolm Chapple, formerly of Seabourn, becomes the full-time hotel general manager.
The company’s original employment strategy was to hire for friendliness and train for service. And they're not reneging on that strategy, but they have recognized that the training needs to be overhauled, and quickly, to get the service up to par.
As for the hardware, the ship is ready to receive passengers, with all the major work on the cabins and public areas having been completed in advance of the launch. But on May 4, a cabin touch-up team will arrive to correct many of the fine details in the staterooms, such as caulking in the bathroom, crooked artwork and other details.
The Apollo Group believes “we will be at an Oceania level within 60 days,” said Kyte. Until then, the executive team is taking a transparent approach with passengers who voice concerns or discontent, explaining to them that they’re aware of the challenges and are systematically addressing them. No passengers thus far have asked for a refund, according to Kyte.
The company still might make last-minute tweaks, changes and improvements, but this is not an experience that should require refunds. While there might be some grumblings here and there about burgers taking too long to be served at the casual-dining River Grill on the fifth deck or aesthetic details that still need to be addressed, overall the mood among crew, passengers and the many public and private entities involved with this project is one of enthusiasm.
From the avid riverboaters (many of whom have been up and down the Mississippi River System dozens of times) to the gainfully employed crew to the people along the riverbanks who are thrilled to see the American Queen and its passengers return to their towns, there are several American dreams already being fulfilled by the rebirth of this steamboat.
And let’s face it, this country really could use a good, uplifting, down-home American story right now, and the American Queen is nothing if not a great American story.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.