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VOL. 127 | NO. 234 | Friday, November 30, 2012

River Business

Downtown Memphis seeing more cruise business

By Bill Dries

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From Thanksgiving through the first full week in December, four overnight cruise boats will have docked at the Memphis riverfront.

And the Riverfront Development Corp., which manages the riverfront for the city including Beale Street Landing, has been talking with one cruise company about more of the boats coming to Memphis.

“I think the number of boats you will see in the future years will be a lot more than you see now,” said Benny Lendermon, president of the corporation.

The 257-foot Yorktown is a small cruise ship that is able to maneuver in secluded waterways and visit small ports that are inaccessible to larger vessels. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Lendermon wouldn’t name the riverboat company, whose leaders were in the city this month. He described the company as a “very, very large riverboat company, maybe the largest” and said the company is “exploring opportunities on the Mississippi River for the future.”

That includes building a new cruise boat with a decision on that in March with a goal of getting the boat on the river in 2015.

“Their projections basically show that there needs to be a whole lot more boats on the river,” Lendermon said. “That’s why they are looking very hard at maybe placing one here or building one special for here.”

The cruise ship docked by the Memphis cobblestones since Nov. 14 is no paddlewheeler.

The Yorktown does New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as Chesapeake Bay.

The 257-foot-long boat, owned by USA River Cruises, arrived on the Memphis riverfront a week early because of Hurricane Sandy. She takes on passengers and leaves Memphis Friday, Nov. 30.

And the Grand Caribe will be here Thursday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 10 for an extended stay.

Starting in March, Memphians on the riverfront will be seeing a lot of the Queen of the Mississippi, the 150-passenger riverboat owned by American Cruise Lines. It was last here Nov. 24 and stopped in Memphis in August after its christening.

Charles Robertson, president of American Cruise Lines, said the company has another paddlewheeler under construction. Its itinerary hasn’t been announced.

“But you can make educated guesses,” he said.

The Queen of the Mississippi will be in Memphis 24 times next year and it has the highest “rebooking rate” of any of the six ships American Cruise Lines owns. The rebooking rate is passengers who book their next cruise before they get off the one they are on.

“We think that’s largely due to the fact that we have new vessels that operate more efficiently,” Robertson said.

Robertson said his company opted to build new after the U.S. Maritime Administration tried to get it to buy the American Queen, the world’s largest steamboat built in the early 1990s by the old Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

“It didn’t fit into our business plan,” he added. “We decided to build a new vessel with a little different amenities and larger staterooms. The decision to go to the Mississippi was pretty easy because we just had so many requests for it.”

The American Queen was later sold to the group of investors that became the Great American Steamboat Co., which is now the American Queen Steamboat Co. with Memphis as its homeport as well as corporate headquarters and call center at One Commerce Square.

American Queen executives announced this week they will raise fares in 2013 an average of $200 per guest because of demand for the cruises. The American Queen has 30 departures next year from Memphis and New Orleans for its lower Mississippi cruises.

It is due in Memphis Sunday, Dec. 2.

Phyllis Dale, co-owner of Great Escapes Travel, books travelers on both queens. She is godmother of the Queen of the Mississippi.

She became co owner of the Lake Mary, Fla., travel agency after a career as an entertainer with the Delta Queen.

For two years there were no scheduled overnight riverboat cruises on the Mississippi. And in the interim, Dale said her clients were waiting for their return.

“A lot of them waited. The majority of the passengers were really just hoping and waiting that the boats would come back. Here they are,” Dale said. “Memphis has a lot to offer. It’s got history. It’s got the music. It’s got the culture.”

None of the four boats at Memphis between now and Christmas is docking at Beale Street Landing because of the still near-record low river level, which is forecast to be as low as -11 feet in the next month.

The low river level has allowed work to move quickly on the lower portions of the Beale Street Landing with the landing itself to be attached possibly by Dec. 10, Lendermon said.

Work on the landing building is 95 percent complete with an opening of the restaurant as well as the excursion boat merchandise and ticket counter to open in March. The building has already hosted two events of several hundred people each with several more holiday parties booked in the space. It was originally hoped the restaurant would open this past July.

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