Full Steam Ahead

Delta Queen Steamboat resumes cruising under new ownership

By: Theresa Norton Masek

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. is rolling on the river again.

The company that ceased operations last October has been reborn, thanks to new owners with deep pockets and a long-term commitment.

The Delaware North Companies, a privately held, $1.6 billion corporation based in Buffalo, N.Y., bought the assets of Delta Queen for $80.4 million at a bankruptcy auction May 3.

The steamboat company’s former owner, American Classic Voyages, declared bankruptcy Oct. 19.

The 26-year-old Mississippi Queen resumed sailing on May 7, and the Delta Queen, a National Historic Landmark built in 1927, is set to start cruising on Aug. 26. The newest ship in the fleet, the 1995-built American Queen, is scheduled to resume operations Jan. 18.

Despite the new owners, much about Delta Queen Steamboat remains the same. The three boats are the same, many of the headquarters staff have been rehired and a majority of the onboard staff was with the company previously.

“The Mississippi Queen went out with 165 in the crew,” said Tom Carman, Delta Queen’s chief operating officer, who spent 10 years in various capacities with Delta Queen and its former sister company, American Hawaii Cruises. “The Delta Queen will go out with 65 crew, and I believe I can say that less than 5% will not be former employees.”

Carman likes to cite those statistics to reassure travel agents who felt burned when AMCV went under.

Spilt Milk

Are agents still angry and leery?

“Both words apply,” Carman said. “A major goal of ours and an absolute necessity is to get back a high level of credibility with travel agents. You can’t wipe up the milk that’s already spilt. There’s only a limited amount we can do regarding the unfortunate circumstances of people getting financially whacked. Now we’re trying to get a scaled incentive program for revenue produced to try to encourage agents to work with us again.”

The financial stability of the new owner is also stressed.

“We continue to emphasize the strength of Delaware North. The bankruptcy was really the impact of the [AMCV] expansion geared toward Hawaii, which basically put AMCV on the skids, coupled with the impact of Sept. 11.”

But Delta Queen Steamboat was highly successful and profitable from 1997 to 1999, Carman said. It lost momentum when AMCV shifted its focus to building ships in the United States and expanding in Hawaii. AMCV operated both American Hawaii Cruises and United States Lines in the Islands.

“Delaware North’s goals, as they and I have discussed them, are to bring the company back to its former levels of profitability and product delivery,” Carman said.

So far, the Mississippi Queen “has not been full to our 1997, 1998 and 1999 standards,” he said. “But a great deal of that is the fact that we did not have a timely rollout of a marketing and sales plan.”

Still, the better-known Delta Queen is “chockablock for the first two cruises” and above sales projections for the year, Carman said.

The marketing push is in the works. A brochure mailing for the remainder of 2002 and all of 2003 is in production. The sales force is also “working diligently to re-establish some preferred vendor national account relationships. We’re also [beefing] up our business development managers and will ultimately have eight,” Carman said.

Last month, Delta Queen Steamboat hired Rolf Logan as director of sales development to focus on building travel agent sales. Most recently, Logan ran his own travel agency. Before that, he was director of field sales for AMCV.

First Things First

What does the future hold for Delta Queen Steamboat?

“In order to be truly successful, we need to keep our eye on the ball with the Mississippi, Delta and American Queen ships for the near term,” Carman said. “As we get to the middle of next year, if we meet our plan we’ll be in a position to consider possible additions.

“When I say possible additions and this is purely speculation at this time it’s safe to say that we are eyeing the two coastal vessels.”

The two new Delta Queen Coastal Cruises vessels are still sitting without new owners after the bankruptcy.

“We’ve got to get on solid footing before we can realistically undertake future steps,” Carman said.