Philadelphia Belle riverboat cruise ceases operations

The Philadelphia Belle – the restored riverboat that offered dinner cruises along the Delaware River – has ceased operations after less than a year of service.

“It’s the usual story of when a business goes out of business,” said Philadelphia Belle General Manager Perry Miles. “The sales did not match the cost and we simply ran out of resources to continue operating.”

“We were informed this morning at 8 a.m.,” said Tom Corcoran, President of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency from which the operators of the Belle were leasing dock space for $153,000 this fiscal year. “It was the first notification we had from them that they were even considering ceasing operations,” Corcoran said. The company paid its lease fee in monthly installments, and it has consistently paid on time, he said.

Miles said the final Belle trip was Wednesday’s lunch cruise – but he didn’t know it was the final one until half an hour before he called Corcoran on Thursday.  Miles said he got a 7:30 a.m. call from the Belle’s parent company in Virginia, saying it was time to call it quits.

Corcoran said the DRWC knew the Belle, which could hold around 1,000 people at a time, was not operating at capacity, and also below their projected ridership levels for the first year. “We thought they were working to continue marketing it and increase ridership,” he said.

The company owns the boat, and Corcoran said he isn’t certain what’s going to happen to it. “We’re waiting for more information from them about the vessel,” he said. “There is some discussion that there might be a prospective buyer, but we don’t know any more than that.”

A buyer could mean the boat would stay, and “that’s what we would hope,” Corcoran said.

Miles said the Belle was taking steps to try and keep the cruise boat service going. When asked if he had a prospective buyer now, he would not elaborate. But he did express certainty that someone would buy the boat, and confidence that the service could be successful in Philadelphia.

“The ship is great. It is in great shape – we have maintained it. We haven’t let that go,” he said. “I’m sure somebody will get this ship and operate it as a dinner cruise vessel, and I hope it will be in Philadelphia.”

Miles said there are things that, in hindsight, he would do differently, and the next owner could learn from his company’s mistakes.

“Folks at DRWC have been just wonderful to us, they have been very supportive,” he said. “The whole City of Philadelphia, the mayor’s office and everybody did everything they could. We’ve got great employees and a great ship. We just couldn’t make it go.”

If the Belle goes elsewhere, Corcoran said the DRWC, which manages the city’s waterfront property and has also developed the master plan for the waterfront’s future, would look for another cruise company. “I think there’s enough potential business here to sustain not only the Spirit of Philadelphia, but another cruise operation like the Belle,” he said. “It has to obviously be in a different niche than the Spirit, and it has to be very heavily marketed.”

The DRWC signed the licensing agreement with Philadelphia Paddleboat LLC, the company that operated the Belle, in spring 2010. Philadelphia Paddleboat is an affiliate of CI Travel, a large-scale travel agency based in Virginia that makes arrangements for NASA, the Security Exchange Commission and other large clients. It is also the company that brought the city the Spirit of Philadelphia, Kevin J. McElroy, CI Travel president, said at the DRWC board meeting where the licensing agreement was approved. When the opportunity to buy this Belle arose, he said the company became interested in returning to its river cruising past, in Philadelphia. Click here to read previous coverage and watch video of the company’s presentation to the DRWC.

The vessel was built in 1994 as a vehicle for the gaming industry on the Mississippi River. The gaming rules have changed, allowing for inland casinos, so the vessel wasn’t needed for that purpose anymore. The boat is 228 feet long, 64 feet wide and 65 feet high.

McElroy said when the lease was signed that the company would invest about $10 million to take the boat from casino to cruiser.
PlanPhilly has a call out to McElroy to discuss the Belle situation. A call to the local office reached the after-hours voice mail message, which directs callers to the Belle’s website to make reservations. Nothing on the website indicates the touring company has ceased operations. Miles said the website has been fixed so that no new reservations can be made, and it will soon be taken down. The phone message will also be changed, he said.

Miles said the details about how people who already have purchased tickets will be refunded are still being worked out. Once that is determined, the company will make an announcement, he said.

The Belle had a soft launch in Fall 2010, and launched its first official season last spring. In its first year, DRWC agreed to credit the company up to $150,000 for improvements made to the Market Street dock, since those improvements would have benefit beyond the Belle. But if the company did not stay for at least four years – a time that represents one contract extension – it had to pay back the DRWC. In subsequent years, the lease was to increase by 3 percent annually, to a full rate of about $220,000 per year.
The DRWC has a total operating budget of about $8 million per year. “If we were to lose this, it would be a serious loss,” Corcoran said. “But it is not something we can’t manage our way out of.”

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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