‘They owe me a lot’: Downtown businesses react to shutdown of American Queen cruise line

Published 3:51 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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NATCHEZ — The downtown Natchez business district stands to lose a lot from the loss of American Queen Voyages, some more than others.

Those who stand to lose the most are those who had direct business contracts with the company, like Robin Person of OutsideIN MS.

Part of her business is outdoor excursions, kayak tours and nature hikes.

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“This was a third of my income,” Person said during a meeting of Downtown Merchants, which just so happens was planned the morning after the announcement Tuesday evening that American Queen Voyages had ceased all cruises on the Mississippi River.

Person added, “They owe me a lot.”

Lyn Fortenbery Jenkins, the President and CEO of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, said she heard the news at the same time as the rest of the world and was just as surprised by it.

Hornblower Group, which operates American Queen Voyages, City Experiences, and Journey Beyond, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a way to sell the brand with its investors taking a larger stake in the company.

A news release from the company states, “Funds managed by Strategic Value Partners, LLC and its affiliates, a global alternative investment firm, will acquire majority ownership of Hornblower and provide a significant equity investment in the business. Crestview Partners will retain a significant minority position in Hornblower and become the sole owner of Journey Beyond.”

As for American Queen Voyages, the company seeks a buyer.

“Hornblower plans to attempt to sell its overnight cruise business, American Queen Voyages. If a sale can’t be made, the company plans to wind down that business,” the release states.

Behind its reason for pulling the plug on AQV, Hornblower says the cruise line business never recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and was underperforming.

All future sailings on the Mississippi River were abruptly canceled Tuesday evening.

Under the terms of the agreement, the company’s debt is reduced by about $720 million. In the company’s bankruptcy filing, it reported debt over $1 billion.

“That probably will not help anyone here if you haven’t received a check for everything as of now,” Jenkins said at the merchants meeting.

As for the recovery of any money that is owed by AQV, “the odds are slim, unfortunately,” Jenkins said, speaking from her experience with the bankruptcy filings of other companies.

“They are looking for a new buyer but as of now, they will not run at all here, which is huge for people like Robin (Person) who do excursions direct with the cruise line,” Jenkins said. “It’s also very bad for our museum homes that get a certain amount of money every time they come whether people visit or not. There are a lot of contracted business with them and also just the foot traffic (reduced) by around 150 to 200 people two or three times a week in addition to (those brought by) the other boats.”

However, Jenkins said, “It’s a good sign that passengers whose cruises were canceled didn’t get a disconnected number.”

Instead, a recorded message on AQV’s phone line refers those customers to www.aqvrefunds.com to begin the refund process. However, as of Wednesday afternoon, that URL was not working.

David Carter, owner of Double C Ranch and Great River Outdoors, said he remains optimistic that his business won’t be affected much by the loss of AQV.

“American Queen Voyages was the first riverboat company to come to Natchez with a cruise line, so we will forever be grateful for their lead in bringing the tourism industry back to Natchez,” he said. “However, it won’t affect us much. American Cruise Line has been the anchor for us to keep us going and has given us the lion’s share of business. While it’s definitely a sad time to see American Queen leave, I think Natchez will continue to survive as American Cruise Line and Viking continue to grow. The riverboats are a big industry and I believe those who would have booked their cruises with American Queen will book one of the other boats instead and we’ll likely see an uptick in passengers in those industries.”

Carter added American Queen Voyages was the first riverboat industry to start contracting tours with Great River Outdoors and that became friends with many of its employees.

“I’m positive about the outlook moving forward and grateful for American Queen’s commitment to Natchez and to my operation in the past. They gave me my start and I will always be grateful for that.”