Delta Queen Eyes Former Fleetmates

Reborn company considers purchase of Columbia Queen, two new coastal cruisers

By: Theresa Norton Masek

The new president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. is considering bringing the Columbia Queen and two coastal cruisers back into the fleet.

“Anything is possible,” Rick Abramson said. “We would have to go through a lot of steps, but do I think it could happen? Absolutely.”

But Abramson, who was named president of the historic paddlewheel company in mid-January, says the top goal is the successful relaunch of the American Queen, Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen.

The company originally ceased operations when its former parent, American Classic Voyages Co., declared bankruptcy Oct. 19, 2001.

The popular New Orleans-based line was rescued in May 2002 when the Delaware North Companies, a $1.6 billion hospitality management company based in Buffalo, N.Y., purchased the three paddlewheelers and other assets of Delta Queen at a bankruptcy auction.

However, Delaware North was edged out in its bid for the Columbia Queen, a new vessel that Delta Queen previously operated on rivers out of Portland, Ore.

The winning bidder was American West Steamboat Co., which already operated the Queen of the West out of Portland.

But American West never took possession of the Columbia Queen, and it looks like the ship will be put up for auction again.

Joel Perry, vice president of marketing for American West, said “red tape” delayed the purchase time and again and “that caused us to reevaluate everything. Plus, the boat was idle for 17 months and has deteriorated over time.”

Abramson said he is “very much interested” in the Columbia Queen, but that he wants to make sure the company would have enough lead time to properly market the vessel.

“We’d like to have six to nine months in advance,” he said. “At this time, it would be for next summer (of 2004) so I’m not rushing into it.”

Meanwhile, Abramson also has been eyeing the two vessels of the former Delta Queen Coastal Voyages brand. The Cape May Light and the Cape Cod Light are virtually new ships that were not purchased at the bankruptcy auction. Several cruise companies have expressed interest in them over the months, but no purchase was made.

“The coastals had some great itineraries, and I think it was a great product,” Abramson said. “But I think there are some real challenges ahead for anyone who gets into the coastal business.”

Abramson, a 37-year veteran of Delaware North, said Delta Queen just released its first brochure in two years.

“Things are going good, but the economy is tough for everybody,” he said. “People are booking closer in, and with the economy, they’re not spending as much money.”

Occupancy rates are averaging in the low 80s, Abramson said, although he’d like to increase that to 95 percent next year.

“We’re giving some great deals out there and we’re filling some boats, but we have to manage the yields a little bit,” Abramson said.