Saturday, 28 May 2011

Great American Riverboat Revival Planned

Source: Seatrade Insider

The American Queen, the largest steamboat ever built

A group of seasoned cruise, travel and ship operating veterans with a missionary zeal to revive riverboating in America have joined forces to create the Great American Steamboat Co. starting with the largest steamboat ever built.

The 436-passenger American Queen would begin operating in April next year on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

‘This would be the first of a fleet of coastal and river vessels under the US flag,’ company president Christopher Kyte told Seatrade Insider in an exclusive interview.

The Great American Steamboat Co. is close to finalizing its acquisition of the American Queen for a reported $15.5m. Built in 1995 for $60m by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., the 418-foot vessel has been under the control of the US Maritime Administration since late 2008 after operating briefly for Ambassadors International’s defunct Majestic America Line.

Kyte said only that the asking price had been $28m and estimated it would cost $100m to build the American Queen today.

The new company plans cruises of three, five, seven and 10 nights from Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Chattanooga. Stops at historic towns and cities in America’s heartland, active excursions including hiking and biking and an emphasis on superb dining are highlighted. Rail-riverboat and rental car packages will be available.

Kyte, the founder and chairman of Uncommon Journeys, a specialist in train and ocean liner travel, is among the ardent ship buffs who comprise the management of the Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co., which plans to open operations and reservations by Aug. 15.

John Waggoner, president and ceo of HMS Global Maritime, the operator of a vast flotilla of US-flag vessels from ferries to high-speed craft to riverboat casinos, will act as chairman. Delta Queen Steamboat Co. veterans Jeffrey Krida and Russ Varvel will serve as ceo and vp sales, respectively.

Kyte and the HMS group were bidding against each other for the American Queen when they decided to join forces. All share a passion for riverboats.

Krida had ordered the vessel’s construction when he led Delta Queen in the 1990s. It entered service in 1995 and later operated for American Classic Voyages and the Delaware North Companies before going to Ambassadors International.

Kyte described the American Queen’s condition as ‘excellent. The government did a beautiful job of keeping it.’ He said the vessel could be ready to sail in a matter of weeks but a three- to four-month drydock is planned that will add technological upgrades to improve operating efficiency.

The new owners also plan fresh touches like outdoor dining on the top deck, and the renowned American chef Regina Charboneau has been tapped as executive chef.

‘Food will be a centerpiece of the whole voyage, and hopefully what people go home remembering,’ said Kyte, describing the culinary concept as ‘really elegant, refined Southern cooking.’

While the vessel will be steeped in history, nostalgia and tradition, the company will provide active, contemporary features such as bikes on board to use in port, and fitness and wellness programs.

The Great American Steamboat Co. will market nationally and internationally. Agreements are being finalized for UK and Australasian representation. Within a year of American Queen operating, further vessels are envisioned.

Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines, which fields the 120-passenger Queen of the West on the Columbia and Snake rivers, is building its own classic paddlewheeler, Queen of the Mississippi, to enter service in August next year with seven-night cruises priced starting at $3,995. The vessel will carry 140 passengers, making it much smaller than the American Queen.

The Great American Steamboat Co. plans a range of voyage lengths with an entry price point for three-night cruises starting at under $1,000. Some short round-trips will satisfy demand for group business, Kyte said.

‘The more competition the better and the more awareness the better,’ he added. Even with the Queen of the Mississippi and the American Queen in operation, there will be roughly half the beds on the Mississippi as a decade ago. During the same period, the target market of over-55s has grown by 20m.

The Great American Steamboat Co. will focus on mature travelers seeking adventure with comfort. Rail-riverboat packages are planned, along with a Hertz program enabling passengers to drive to the boat and drop off their car.

Among the itineraries, a seven-night fall foliage cruise from St. Louis to St. Cloud will stop at colorful towns like Red Wing and Winona, with excursions offered to historic Galena in Illinois. ‘Sailing on embarkation day will be 9 or 10 p.m. so people can easily make same-day connections by air or train,’ Kyte said. Passengers could even attend a Cardinals game in St. Louis before embarking.

The American Queen has operated for several owners, but Kyte believes his group has the winning strategy. ‘It’s a passionate goal for everyone involved,’ he said, noting that Krida led Delta Queen ‘at its most popular and profitable time, in the mid-1990s.’

Waggoner had his eye on the American Queen even before Kyte himself, and he’d made a bid for the Cape Coastal ships some years ago.

As for Kyte, Uncommon Journeys is a master at packaging vacations focused on American history and culture. ‘We were always the top producer for the American Queen in every iteration, under Sam Zell in the 1990s and when Delaware North acquired it and American Classic Voyages,’ he said.

Memphis provides the perfect central location for the headquarters, as Kyte sees it, with half the American Queen’s itineraries sailing past, a good labor pool and a great hospitality school at the University of Memphis. ‘And city government, at all levels, really wanted to have us. They rolled out the red carpet in Memphis.’

Moreover, a new pier is ready to take the ship. Kyte described the Beale Street Landing as ‘glorious. It will trump anything on the river.’

He’s also inspired about creating hundreds of American jobs. ‘All up and down the river are great little towns like Madison, Indiana. A lot of heart and soul of those towns disappeared when these boats went away. It’s a huge amount of pride in bringing them back.’

Kyte called riverboats ‘a great American story. There’s nothing more iconic than what Mark Twain called floating wedding cakes. This is the stuff of dreams.’