Last week I had the opportunity to visit three bustling Midwest passenger vessel operations while driving west from Virginia. All are benefitting from the improved economy, a growing baby boomer retirement population, and an affinity for the water among all ages.
My first stop was in Cincinnati, where I visited with WorkBoat columnist and BB Riverboats owner Capt. Alan Bernstein. Alan’s company operates the 1,000-passenger Belle of Cincinnati and the 500-passenger River Queen. For Alan and many other passenger vessel operators across the U.S., business has been very good. “I think this is going to be one of our best years in seven or eight years,” Bernstein said. He speculated that the reasons behind the uptick in business is not just the baby boomer crowd, but younger cruise passengers that are discovering the Ohio River for the first time. For a reasonable price, a young couple can jump aboard the Belle for a romantic dinner cruise, a nice change from a normal night out.
Bernstein is currently aboard the Belle on its annual summer tour of Ohio River cities. The boat stopped in Huntington, W.Va., Portsmouth, Ohio, Ashland, Ky., and will arrive tomorrow at its final destination, Maysville, Ky., before heading back to Cincinnati. At each stop, the Belle offers lunch, brunch, dinner, and sightseeing cruises. This year’s annual summer tour is going very well, Bernstein said.
After taking a tour of the Belle with Alan, the two of us grabbed a quick lunch before visiting with John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Company. The company operates the 423-passenger American Queen and the 223-passenger American Empress. The Queen just happened to be docked right across the river from Alan’s operation, preparing for a 5 p.m. departure on its Cincinnati to St. Louis Ohio River cruise. Like Alan, Waggoner said business was also booming, with most cruises sold out until November. “And we’re 30 percent sold out for both boats for 2017, and we think we’ll end the year 70 percent sold out for both boats.” Waggoner said more and more passengers are now choosing to stay close to home instead of going overseas. This has benefitted both Bernstein’s and Waggoner’s operations.
Waggoner was anxious to show off all the improvements made to the 418'x85' Queen since I last stepped aboard in New Orleans in 2012, shortly after the steamboat underwent a $6.5 million refurbishment. About $3.5 million of that was spent on mechanical upgrades – such items as the circa-1932 steam engine, Z-drives, paddlewheel, HVAC system and more.
With business going so well, Waggoner said they have been spending $2 million a year improving the circa-1995 Queen. Among the improvements is new lighting. “We’re almost 100 percent LED lighting on the entire boat now. My own guys were fighting me, but now, we’ve dropped the load so much, the heat load, but the big thing is they just don’t burn out.”
Waggoner also listed some other refinements, including about 70 pieces by river painter Michael Blaser, all new carpeting, new wallpapering and new chairs. Waggoner keeps a close eye on the operation. He said he tries to get on one of the boats once a month. This close attention to detail looks like it is paying off for American Queen Steamboat.
My final stop the next day was with Tom Dunn, director of operations for Gateway Arch Riverboats in St. Louis. The company operates the replica 19th-century paddlewheel riverboats Becky Thatcher and the Tom Sawyer on daily one-hour sightseeing cruises on the Mississippi River. Dunn said they were holding their own, but business has been hurt by construction on the Gateway Arch grounds. Construction started in 2015 and its completion has been delayed several times. Dunn’s operation was forced to relocate, making it harder for people to find his boats. By next summer, Dunn hopes that the construction project will be complete and it will be full steam ahead for Gateway Arch Riverboats.