When customers disappear

A headline in The Washington Post a few weeks ago read, “Bus tours have resumed in D.C. Now all they need is tourists.”

That pretty much sums up the plight of U.S. passenger vessel operators, including my company BB Riverboats. At my Cincinnati-based operation, we have implemented appropriate cleaning precautions, ensured that our employees and crew have the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and are maintaining social distancing. But where are the customers?

In my over 50-plus years on the river, I have never dealt with such a major business downturn before. My company was thriving just six months ago. To see it now, with business reduced by 85% to 90%, is staggering. What can I and other operators do to survive?

I called my management team together and began the lengthy and tedious process of cost cutting. It hurt. I had to lay off employees, many of which were like family to me. We developed plans for how we would handle the situation once we resumed operations. With the understanding that we needed to control costs, we agreed to reconvene our management team at regular intervals to evaluate further cost cutting measures.

We turned to the Passenger Vessel Association’s (PVA) Coronavirus Reopening Guidelines to help us plan what we had to do to ensure the health and safety of our passengers and crew. We even went so far as asking our management team to pitch in wherever they were needed to help keep things running. Office employees have helped during the boarding of our vessels, wash dishes, bus tables and even serve dinner to our customers. This “all hands on deck” effort is what we must to do to survive.

I recently participated in a conference call with the staff of Sen. Mitch McConnell, along with PVA officials, to discuss our ongoing challenges. I described how business has literally disappeared because of the coronavirus pandemic. I highlighted the fact that BB Riverboats normally sees visits from approximately 1,200 motor coach groups in the summer. So far this year, there has been only six. We urged the senator’s staff to support the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act, which would lend assistance to the passenger vessel industry, and allow businesses to access additional rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program even if they had initially received PPP funds.

We remain hopeful that customers will slowly return. Like other passenger vessel operators and small businesses across the country, this cannot happen fast enough.

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or abernstein@bbriverboats.com.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Captain Peter Lindquist on

    Al, what a difference from region to region. I know that Chicago doesn’t have many tourists and you either. In the upper peninsula of Michigan we are overloaded with tourists right now and only able to load to 1/3 capacity. We have been open for slightly more than a month

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