After graduating from college, I had no home, no job prospects, and even less money. My English degree was working out just as my friends and father said it would. Not at all, that is. With nothing and nobody holding me accountable, I decided I would attempt to write a modern-day version of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. I would find a suitable vessel, cruise up and down the river for several months, and document the various encounters that surely were in store. The bestseller would soon follow.
None of the above happened. Instead, I luckily (or not so luckily) found myself a day job, followed the less glamorous path of writing about arrests and petty crimes for a small-town newspaper, and slowly began my climb up the journalism ranks. The Mississippi River, alas, would never transport me through the heartland of America, at least not right away.
Nobody could have predicted that the rest of the world also would lose this same opportunity. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, a series of catastrophes — man-made as well as acts of God — threatened to wipe out the entire American river-cruise industry. The several venerable and opulent steamboats that had navigated the waters of the Mississippi for the past 200 years faced extinction. When the Delta Queen — one of the oldest steamboats left and the country's only floating National Historic Landmark — made its final voyage in November 2008, many believed none would follow.
"At the time, I wasn't confident [the boats] would return," says Mississippi River historian and lecturer Bill Wiemuth, who was on board the Delta Queen's final overnight cruise. "With the economy, I wondered if there would ever be enough money and enough of a dreamer to come along and say this is a business model that can work. It's a piece of American history that we need to keep alive."
Some dreamers did emerge. But unlike fanciful college students, they had the backing of private investors, state legislators, and city officials to ensure that their vision might become a reality. Later this month, the Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Company will return the American Queen — the largest and grandest steamboat ever constructed — to its rightful home: the Mississippi River.
"This is not just an iconic product for Americans. It's recognized all over the world as a special thing," says the company's CEO, Jeff Krida. "In Hamburg, there's a dinner boat called the Delta Queen. In [Uruguay], there's a dinner boat on the harbor called the Delta Queen. This is something that all over the world people connect with — old movies, American history, cowboys and Indians and that kind of stuff. It is truly an iconic American thing."
A Sunken Industry
Recalling the life of the American Queen takes one through nearly as many twists and turns as does a trip on the Mississippi River. In the early 1990s, steamboat river cruises were at an all-time high. The Delta Steamboat Company, the largest operator of overnight Mississippi River cruises at the time, couldn't keep up with demand for trips on its two steam-powered vessels, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. So in 1995 it secured a federal loan to build a third steamboat, the American Queen, at a cost of $69 million.
Shortly after, the company's then-owner, Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, issued an initial public stock offering. Zell used the infusion of cash to buy Hawaii Cruise Lines and immediately acquired another federal loan — this one totaling $1 billion — to finance the construction of two ocean-cruise vessels in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Then, 9/11 happened, says Jeff Krida, who was the president of the Delta Steamboat Company at the time. "It was a house of cards."
Zell, unable to pay back the loans, sold the Delta Steamboat Company and its three steamboats to Delaware North, an amusement park operator based in Buffalo, New York, which, Krida says, "didn't really understand the business." Soon, Delaware North got out of the steamboat business and the American Queen again changed hands, with ownership transferred to a California-based cruise company. That company swiftly announced that travel agents no longer had the right to sell trips on the American Queen, even though the vessel relied on travel agents for 85 percent of its bookings.
In spite of this, the American Queen managed to stay afloat, but Hurricane Katrina soon dealt the final blow. The disaster crippled New Orleans, shutting down its tourist industry for nearly two years. With one of the major ports of the Mississippi no longer available, the fifth company in 13 years to own the American Queen was forced to fold the business.
"The irony is that the American Queen was 80 percent booked when they stopped operating it," Krida says. "It was the other entities they had that were all bleeding cash. That made them think we're over our heads and decide to shut it down. It had nothing to do with the desirability of the American Queen product."
The U.S. government finally intervened — via the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration — assuming control of the American Queen. The Maritime Administration dry-docked the steamboat in Beaumont, Texas, and sealed the ship's doors.
With the American river-cruise market dried up, Krida sensed an opportunity. "We knew [river cruises were] missed, not only by the customers but also by the travel agents," Krida says. "We knew it would also cost four or five times as much to build a new vessel like [the American Queen]. We knew that if we had it running well, no one could touch us competitively."
Krida had a plan, but he and his business partners needed a home base and additional funding to purchase the American Queen from the Maritime Administration.
Beale Street Landing, a state-of-the-art docking facility planned for the tip of Mud Island and headed by the nonprofit Riverfront Development Corporation, had also stagnated in the years after Katrina. When Memphis mayor A C Wharton took office in October 2009, the project was three years behind schedule and more than $20 million over budget. It needed something just short of a miracle to get back on track. Krida's vision of the Great American Steamboat Company offered that kind of opportunity.
Negotiations between the steamboat company and the city of Memphis began in March 2011. By August, the two sides had agreed to terms: The Great American Steamboat Company would operate out of Memphis, giving Beale Street Landing a permanent tenant, while Memphis would loan the company the remaining funds necessary to launch.
"It's amazing that we were working on the Beale Street Landing at the time," Wharton says, just as the Great American Steamboat Company was looking for a place for its headquarters. "We are a river city. The steamboat represents entertainment and travel at its best, and this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that came along at the right time." Krida also calls the agreement a win-win. Anytime a company gets a $9 million loan, it's easy to see why. Time will tell, but Memphis could emerge as the bigger winner.
Krida touts the creation of 300 new jobs. He hopes all of them will come from the Memphis area. After more than 2,600 applicants showed up for the company's job fair in February, he'll likely achieve that goal. His company has partnered with JIFF (Juvenile Intervention and Faith-based Followup), a local nonprofit that trains disadvantaged youth in the culinary arts, prepping them for careers as chefs and kitchen assistants. Krida says they have hired three JIFF graduates so far, and a continued relationship could help JIFF open a storefront restaurant in Memphis. The Great American Steamboat Company also created a paid internship through the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis. Each semester, one student will work in a supervised role on board the American Queen.
"The University of Memphis can recruit more students, because they have a paid internship program to offer," Krida says. "And we get to find out who we want to offer jobs to later with more than just a one-hour interview."
Perhaps the biggest boon will come from the increased tourist flow. Nine of the American Queen's 40 scheduled 2012 cruises will either originate or finish at Beale Street Landing. Many more cruises will stop in Memphis for the day. This will create boatloads of new tourist revenue for the city.
"It's really Memphis' responsibility to step up to the plate," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic magazine. "The most important thing — in terms of the traveler — that Memphis needs to do is to let [visitors] know they need to come in a few days early and stay in hotels and visit attractions and rent cars, eat at restaurants, and generally spend money. If people just come in for the day and park their car and get on the ship and leave, that's not going to do Memphis any good."
In preparation for the first Memphis launch on April 27th, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau has been marketing to cruise lines in Europe, feeding the continent's travel agents with information, supplying content ideas to travel journalists, and basically "telling the Memphis story," says Regena Bearden, the CVB's vice president for marketing and public relations.
The arrival of the American Queen will bring in thousands of tourists who likely would not have picked Memphis for their vacation, Bearden says. The typical touring couple, the CVB has determined, will spend nearly $500 per night, spread between the costs of a hotel booking, car rental, dining, shopping, and sight-seeing.
"It's our job to get those visitors off the boat and not allow them just to use Memphis as a gateway to other destinations," she says. "It's important to reach that visitor prior to them making their booking, whether it's on the airplane or the riverboat cruise. It's important for them to know there's a lot to see and do in Memphis."
Anchored no longer
The cruise industry has been buzzing since the Great American Steamboat Company announced the return of the American Queen. For an industry that adds nearly one million new customers annually, adding another ship will not crowd the field but will restore a travel route that's been unavailable for the past four years.
"The Mississippi is the most storied river in America. When the [American] river-cruise industry went under, people were cruising along the Rhine and the Danube, but [along] our own most famous river, there were no ships," Brown says. "The fact that the American Queen is coming out this year — that is such a shot in the arm for making sure people get to experience the history of the Mississippi."
Memphis isn't short on iconic images, structures, and people, but the Mississippi River may be the city's most defining feature. The Great American Steamboat Company's arrival will serve as a reminder, as Krida says, that the Bluff City deserves its reputation as a "world-class waterfront city."
"It's so much of what we are," Mayor Wharton says of steamboats. "Great cities build on their strengths, and some people say we're going to be like Atlanta or we're going to be like L.A. or Chicago. We say we're going to be like Memphis. This is a part of Memphis. It's bringing Memphis back to what it is, what its history is. Anything that anchors our foundation and builds on who we are, I would like that to be part of my legacy."
On board the American Queen
Even Mark Twain, who described the lavishly built passenger steamboats as "floating wedding cakes," would likely be at a loss for words upon seeing the American Queen.
"The American Queen is much larger — at least four times larger — than any steamboat you would've found on the Mississippi River in his days," says Bill Wiemuth, a steamboat and Mississippi River historian and lecturer.
As large as the 436-passenger ship is, its furnishings may be the true marvel. Ornate oak and mahogany woodwork is prevalent throughout. Antiques and art decorate not just the public areas but the passenger cabins as well. The ship's decor, says Great American Steamboat Company CEO Jeff Krida, is admittedly "busy," but it reflects the style of the Victorian era.
Nightly entertainment is also a throwback to the past, albeit from more recent times. Acts from the 1940s (the Glenn Miller Orchestra), 1950s (Bill Haley's Comets), and the 1960s (The Lovin' Spoonful) are among the entertainment options for the company's 40 scheduled cruises in 2012.
During the day, passengers can pick the mind of the ship's river lore specialist, a historian whose job, Krida says, "is to tell stories about what happened at a certain point when you're passing by it." The company also has rehired Louis Hankins, who spent several years with the Delta Steamboat Company entertaining passengers with his Mark Twain impersonations.
Food and beverages on the ship are part of the all-inclusive price. The company hired Regina Charboneau — a Paris-trained chef, who claims she spent 20 years figuring how to get out of her native Natchez, Mississippi, and 20 years figuring out how to get back — to design the menus and devise new recipes exclusive to the American Queen.
Added up, it makes for quite an experience. So expect to pay accordingly.
"Our product is expensive," Krida admits. "It's $500 per person, per night. [Our customers] have high expectations, and our brand promises them a lot in terms of entertainment, cuisine, and the overall experience." — JS