In late October 2001, three of America's six steam-driven paddlewheelers were suddenly tied up due to bankruptcy of the parent company, American Classic Voyages, and facing a very uncertain future. The management failures and cost excesses of the past owners that caused the company failure have been well documented and need not be recounted.
What is important is that out of the ashes of American Classic Voyages has come the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. It is back on America's rivers and moving forward with a full head of steam. Purchased last May by Delaware North Companies of Buffalo, NY for $80 million, the new company is "well positioned to resume it place as the premier provider of inland river vacations," said Tom Carmen, president of the new company. Carmen was one of a handful of executives with the former company that has formed the management nucleus of the new company.
While still under bankruptcy court control, the new management put the Mississippi Queen back into service in May of 2002 on 3-10 voyages on the Mississippi River. Less than a month after that, the deal with Delaware North was completed. In August, the Grand Dame of all passenger vessels, the Delta Queen, was back in service.
Now the company is at full strength with the return of the American Queen on January 18, 2003.
The work on the American Queen began in earnest as soon as the Delta Queen went back into service in August 2002.
Return to the River
"Although the boat has been out of service for over a year, we are handling the vessel the same as we do all three of our steamboats during the annual January downtime," said Scott Fassler, Delta Queen's Port Engineer, who is in charge of the maintenance of all three vessels.
"When the vessel returned to New Orleans, we didn't just tie her up and walk away," Fassler added. The vessel was carefully winterized draining certain fluids and carefully protecting the interior, Fassler remarked. Since the vessel remained at her dock next to company headquarters there was always someone close by if something needed attention as well as protection from vandalism.
'For example, the vessel rode out a hurricane and a tropical storm during the summer of 2002 without damage. A couple of deck drains were plugged, but those were easily cleared," Fassler said.
"The things we have done to ready the vessel for service have been the normal vessel maintenance items," Fassler added. "The American Queen annually spends 3-5 weeks out of service in January so we can refurbish the staterooms, public spaces and back of the house areas such as crew quarters and the galley," Fassler reported.
A lot of painting, carpet replacement, new wall coverings, stateroom renovations and public space upgrades headed the list of improvements on the American Queen.
In the engine room, the port side Pitman Arm driving one side of the paddlewheel was also replaced, but not due to the lay up. "We had that on our "to do" list before the shutdown anyway," Fassler said.
Special attention was paid to the galley hood exhausts to insure that all grease was removed prior to reactivating the stoves and the entire exterior of the vessel received a detailed pressure washing to wash away the nearly 15-months of inactivity.
The 418- x 89-ft. American Queen features a unique steam-electric propulsion system. To those who have seen the vessel, it looks like the paddlewheel is the only means of propulsion. Indeed the steam-driven paddlewheel is impressive. A pair of vintage tandem compound horizontal reciprocating steam engines generate 1,500 hp driving a 45-ton, 30-ft. wide by 28-ft. diameter bright red paddlewheel with a 36-ft. long shaft. The steam engines were found in the swamps of Mississippi aboard the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dredge Kennedy
However, flanking the paddlewheel at the stern are two 1,000 hp Z-drives offering extra thrust and outstanding stern maneuverability. Forward is a pair of 300 hp bow thrusters.
The power to drive the Z-drives, bow thrusters and all other electrical loads on the vessel comes from three Caterpillar 3516 diesel engines generating 1450 KW each.
The vessel has six passenger decks and can hold 436 passengers in double occupancy. With all triple bedded staterooms full, total occupancy is 481 passengers in 222 staterooms. Chief among the public areas is the Grand Saloon, an opulent two-deck showroom that was built to resemble a miniature opera house in a prosperous river town of the 1890's.
By January 11, the full crew was back on board preparing for a couple of "practice" cruises before the first passengers were welcomed aboard for a seven-day New Orleans round trip voyage.
Selling the "Experience"
Prepping the American Queen to return to service is only one part of the equation. Equally important is the sales and marketing effort to fill the steamboat.
"We faced a rather unique set of circumstances, " said Russ Varvel, sales and marketing manager for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. "Anytime you suddenly shut down a cruise operation, passengers are upset and so are our partners the travel agents," Varvel added.
Soon after the three vessels suspended operations, a skeleton staff in New Orleans has been planning their return to the rivers. To help build consumer and industry confidence in the "new" Delta Queen Steamboat Company, deposits for cruises were escrowed. "We weren't going anywhere without the confidence that cruise payments were secure," Varvel said.
Varvel, who has spent 20 years with Delta Queen, retired in 2000. He returned as a consultant with a select group of other Delta Queen executives to get the company back in business again. .
Now he has once again assumed the position of heading up the sales and marketing effort for the three steamboats.
"Needless to say our financial credibility was greatly enhanced by the purchase by Delaware North," Varvel remarked.
Like its two steamboat sisters, the American Queen's main market is what Varvel describes as "50-50." That is, people over 50 years old that make more than $50,000 per year.
"Most of our business comes from the West Coast, Florida and the Northeast," Varvel said. Surprisingly, the home base of New Orleans and other river towns such as St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh do not generate a lot of business. "To people who live along the river, it is taken for granted…a given and many of our port calls have been visited previously by residents of these river towns, Varvel said.
"If you are from Boston, a trip on one of our steamboats is a real vacation, a chance to explore the unique culture and sights of America's rivers," Varvel added. A trip by a river town passenger is more of a getaway than a vacation.
Over 90% of the Delta Queen steamboat vacations are booked by travel agents, according to Varvel. "We have a call center in New Orleans staffed by 15 or so travel specialists (many who work exclusively on the telephone with travel agents) who not only book the steamboat trip but also arrange for airline transportation to New Orleans or any of our other port cities where our cruises depart," Varvel remarked.
To keep the call center busy, Varvel invests heavily in consumer advertising in travel-orientated magazines and in daily newspapers…all with the aim of a potential passenger calling his or her travel agent. To gauge the effectiveness of the various ads the company runs, a different 800-number is included in each ad. "We must have at least 50 toll-free 800 numbers we can use in different media," Varvel said.
It's all about selling the total experience, according to Varvel. "We are well known for our food, the Victorian ambiance in our staterooms and public areas as well as onboard and off-boat entertainment. " Our onboard entertainment the best and that is no idle boost," Varvel said. "The readers of several travel magazines published by Conde Nast have ranked our entertainment the best among all cruise lines and that includes the 'big blue water' companies," Varvel said. Varvel believes there has been a shift in the desires of his core customers, the older upscale traveler and he is changing his shore tours to some extent. "Today's upscale traveler is more active and more eclectic, wanting a wider choice of activities, Varvel said.
To met this need, the American Queen and her sister steamboats will be offering shore tours that feature more than bus rides through attractions. "When we get upriver the Scandinavian influence is strong, so we may offer a polka dance party ashore or in other areas it may be an archeological 'dig' or a Cajun meal and dance party in Southern Louisiana or at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, touring the Civil War battlefields is OK, but how about a reenactment of the battle for increased passenger interest," Varvel noted. Currently the American Queen is running a series of 3, 6 and 7 night cruises on a roundtrip basis out of New Orleans. These cruises usually make port calls on Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss., St. Francisville, Oak Alley and Baton Rouge, La.
In April, the American Queen begins her trip up the Mississippi and Ohio river systems with voyages leaving from Memphis, St. Louis and St. Paul on the Mississippi River and Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh on the Ohio River before once again turning south working her way back to New Orleans in the late fall.
The Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen also work the Ohio and Mississippi rivers but since these boats are smaller they also visit Nashville and Chattanooga on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers as well as voyages on the Intercoastal Waterway between New Orleans and Galveston, Texas.