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VOL. 128 | NO. 32 | Friday, February 15, 2013

Going With the Flow

American Queen returns to Memphis with new look

By Bill Dries

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When the world’s largest steamboat returns to Beale Street Landing on March 9, it will have a different look than it did almost a year ago when it came up the river from New Orleans to dock at its Memphis home port for the first time.

When the American Queen Steamboat arrives back in Memphis next month for its cruise season, it will have undergone more than $500,000 in renovations.  

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The American Queen has been undergoing more than $500,000 worth of renovations during its scheduled annual lay-up at Bollinger Shipyards in New Orleans.

A new drive shaft for the paddlewheel was installed Tuesday, Feb. 12, and the red paddlewheel itself is being rebuilt.

The renovations within the boat include new woodwork and carpets and reupholstered chairs and other cabin furniture.

“Like anything in the hospitality industry, you can never rest on your laurels,” said Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of American Queen Steamboat Co. “You can never sit still.”

One of the areas that got a major overhaul was the dining room.

“It’s a very grand room to start with but it really had not been touched in the 18-year life of the boat. … It’s got a much richer more opulent feel,” he said. “At the entrance to the dining room is a spectacular new granite and marble entry way.”

Other changes are the result of shifts leaders of the American Queen Steamboat Co., based in Memphis, have noticed in the overnight river cruise market from the debut of the Queen in 1995.

“When this boat was built 18 years ago, the consumer was an entirely different person,” Rubacky said. “Eighteen years ago people accepted the fact that you had one place to eat and you ate there at your assigned time. Now, the consumer wants options. They paid good money to be on a vacation and they don’t necessarily want to be regimented or dictated to. Giving them more choices is a big part of it.”

That means several cafes with fuller menus that are open longer hours, including converting the Queen’s popular “Front Porch” into the “Front Porch Café.”

The company learned about change and improvisation in its first year back on the river after the overnight cruise industry on the Mississippi collapsed a second time in 2008 and stayed down for the next four years.

During that time, European river cruises in particular were booming. Mississippi and other U.S. river cruises had been a small but select market.

“They sailed American river cruises,” Rubacky said. “They didn’t sail on European river cruises and they didn’t sail on ocean going ships. You never found people who had taken ocean cruises or overseas river cruises on board the American Queen or her then consorts. It really has opened up a whole new market. It really is ripe for growth.”

“Like anything in the hospitality industry, you can never rest on your laurels.”

–Tim Rubacky
Senior vice president, American Queen Steamboat Co.

Last summer saw the Mississippi River below Memphis at near record low levels. That meant the American Queen had a couple of unplanned and extended stays in Memphis as the company offered passengers the option of taking a bus to Vicksburg, where the river was too low for boat travel, or remaining in Memphis longer.

“You literally go with the flow,” Rubacky said. “We added new ports. We threw deck parties. We even did surprise ports of call and I think the guests really enjoyed that.”

The American Queen and several other overnight riverboats spent the low river days on the Mississippi River at Memphis tied up on the west side of Mud Island or at the Cobblestones.

The Beale Street Landing slab that was in place last April for the arrival of the American Queen will be back in place by the Queen’s arrival in March after more work on the landing during the 2012 low river levels.

The sales offices and store for Memphis Riverboats daily excursions will move into their space at the landing by March 1. Passengers on the excursion boats will buy their tickets as well as merchandise from the boats there before boarding the boats at the foot of the Cobblestones.

The landing restaurant is tentatively set for an April opening, said Dorchelle Spence, Riverfront Development Corp. vice president.

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is one of 41 mayors who have formed what amounts to their own political caucus built around the location of all of the cities along the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative plans to push this spring in Congress for additional federal funding of river-related items.

“Right now there is no dedicated appropriation out of Congress for dredging the Mississippi,” Wharton said this week at the Memphis Rotary Club. “If we need to dredge we have to go hat in hand and ask. That is something we should not have to do. … We hope to achieve a funding source that will keep the Mississippi River navigable year round.”

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