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American Queen CEO praises Huntington’s welcome


The State Journal

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Huntington had gone nearly a dozen years between visits from the largest passenger steamboat in America until the American Queen stopped there in 2014. It went three more years until the boat made a return visit July 12.

John Waggoner, CEO of the American Queen Steamboat Co.
(Photo by Jim Ross)

The boat and its 400 passengers will be back next summer. Beyond that has not been decided, but the city made a good impression on the boat’s passengers and its owners this week.

When the boat docked at Harris Riverfront Park, five motorcoach buses were waiting to take passengers to various attractions around town. A local band played music to entertain them. The mayor came aboard to welcome them.

“The short answer to how you get us back is doing exactly what you’re doing,” said John Waggoner, CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co.

Waggoner and his wife, Claudette, were aboard the cruise from Louisville to Huntington and back. It was called the Chairman’s Cruise, and it was the first time the boat had been above Cincinnati since 2014.

Waggoner said his wife and Shelly Hartfield, the company’s product development manager, visited Huntington on a scouting trip and were impressed with what they saw – the Huntington Museum of Art, Heritage Farm and other attractions.

“It’s also just a gorgeous stretch of river. We like the rolling hills. We like the friendliness. We’re excited about coming back.”

The 2018 schedule is set, Waggoner said. It includes a trip all the way up the Ohio to Pittsburgh. The itinerary for the trip up includes stops at Point Pleasant and Wheeling. Stops at Wheeling and Huntington are scheduled for the trip back down the river.

The company is working on the 2019 schedule now, Waggoner said.

“We are a for-profit company, therefore we are driven by demand from our passengers. “The best thing the city of Huntington can do is the amenities like the Appalachian band, the mayor coming down, the guests having a good time. It’s really our guests that help drive the itinerary.

“You’re doing everything you can do to get us back.”

Among other things for the boat’s passengers to do was visit a pop-up market at Pullman Square near the riverfront park’s entrance. The market was filled with local entrepreneurs and artists selling items such as jewelry, books and food.

Sandy Kilgore of Rainwater Pottery was selling coffee mugs under a tent because of the cloudless day.

“People are pleased that we’re here today,” she said. “It’s been a good turnout. I’ve done better than I thought I would.”

Three local authors – Laura Treacy Bentley, Eliot Parker and Carter Taylor Seaton – also were there selling their books.

“We’ve sold some books. We’ve also sold to some locals, which is interesting,” said Seaton.

Shortly after 5 p.m., as the American Queen had untied from the dock and was turning to head back down the Ohio, several people from the Cabell-Huntington Convention & Visitors Bureau were packing up the contents from a tent they had at the dock. They talked about how to ensure better parking for the buses and other annoyances they had not expected.

“We had a few little hiccups, but we’ll address those before next year,” Tyson Compton, the CVB’s president, said.

At 418 feet long, 89 feet wide and six stories tall even with the smokestacks down, the American Queen is a big boat. It can navigate the Ohio, but its tributaries such as the Kanawha are pretty much off limits, Waggoner said.

When it was operating, the Delta Queen, smaller than the American Queen, went up the Kanawha to Charleston.

“Our first core value is safety first, so I’m always cautious,” Waggoner said. “As a businessman, and especially with a thriving business where I know that this boat is sold out through the second week in November, the one thing that goes through my mind is, if we take any risk and we hit something, that means we have to go to a shipyard and go all the way to New Orleans to be hauled out and we miss six trips in a row. It’s financially devastating to us.

“We have been talking about some smaller boats that you could really do that, although what we found from our guests is that they love the bigger boat, they love the ambiance, they love all the things that we have.”

A smaller boat would not have the room for the theaters, dining areas and recreation areas the American Queen has, Waggoner said.

“As travelers get more sophisticated, even for river boats, they’re asking for a lot of onboard amenities,” he added. “It limits you to how small of a vessel you can go to.”

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