N.O. Steamboat Company Charts Course Through Rough Waters
NEW ORLEANS – Gordon Stevens, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Steamboat Company and Gray Line New Orleans, has been in the tourism business for 44 years but he’s never seen one exactly like this before.
The global coronavirus pandemic reduced travel to New Orleans to a trickle and the recovery is likely to be a slow one.
“The only thing close to this is Katrina,” said Stevens. “You can’t really compare Katrina with COVID-19 but one thing that’s the same is that all our crew, boats and equipment were fine but there was no business and that went on for the better part of five years. It took the Saints to win the Super Bowl to turn things around. We hung on through all that and then tourism began to explode and we’ve been on a great run for 10 years.”
New Orleans Steamboat cruises and Gray Line tours halted operations on March 17 when stay-at-home restrictions went into effect to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In June, the company dipped its figurative toe back in the Mississippi by launching three cruises per week but the operation has been drastically scaled back.
“The Steamboat Natchez normally carries over 400,000 passengers annually,” said Stevens. “We are obviously way below what we would be doing. Over the last two weeks, we would normally have had 42 cruises compared to the six. And we have not reached the 50 percent capacity mark for the phase two opening but we have complied with all the social distancing.”
The historic steamboat – one of only two of remaining in operation in the U.S. – has welcomed a few hundred passengers per cruise even though it’s designed to hold closer to 1,200.
Besides adjusting to smaller crowds, the Natchez team has had to change the way it does business during the coronavirus era.
Stevens said crew members take the temperatures of every passenger, employee and delivery person before they board the boat. Cleaning crews wipe down the boat’s interior and exterior between every event. And one of the biggest changes? No more live music. Jazz performances are usually a big part of the river cruise experience but that will have to wait until the city’s ban has been revoked. In the meantime, one of the boat’s longtime musicians has come up with a plan B.
“We are playing recorded music while one of our musicians, Duke Heitger of the Steamboat Stompers, provides narration,” said Stevens. “He’s playing traditional New Orleans jazz and he tells the passengers about the history of the music and our heritage.”
Between the Gray Line tours and the river operations, Stevens’ company employed about 260 people before the pandemic. That number is down to 30. Depending on what happens with recent nationwide spikes of COVID-19 cases, Stevens hopes to increase the amount of cruises and bring workers back as necessary. More cruises are already in the works for the Fourth of July weekend.
In a case of bad timing, the company had finished renovating a former gambling riverboat, renamed it the City of New Orleans and was awaiting certification from the Coast Guard when the pandemic arrived. The boat is currently docked next to the Natchez at the Bienville Street Wharf and will eventually take over primary cruise duties while the Natchez goes in for updates and repairs.
Stevens said that the Gray Line tours bring in about 20% of the $25 million that the company earns on an average year. But bus tours are still prohibited by the city so Gray Line hasn’t been able to resume its popular rides to City Park, the cemeteries, the river parishes and other destinations. Instead, the company’s fleet of 18 busses is currently stashed at a facility on the West Bank. Mechanics have had plenty of time to work on the vehicles so, when the time comes, “we’ll just start ‘em up and they’ll be ready to go,” said Stevens.
The walking tours, meanwhile, are up and running with one important rule in place: guides can’t take out more than a dozen people at a time.
“It’s a struggle,” said Stevens. “We’re not making any money and not turning a profit but we’re trying. We all have to get out there and show that New Orleans is open and try to get something happening. We’re working hard to make the comeback. We did it after Katrina and we’re going to do it again. We’re determined to do so.”
One bit of hopeful news came from Viatour, the online seller of tours that’s owned by travel website TripAdvisor.
“We’re getting good business from them already, but Viatour is also telling us that of all the destinations in the country, New Orleans is right at the top in terms of requests for information and bookings and popularity,” said Stevens. “That’s nice to hear.”
‘We’re All Baristas Now’
In addition to his role at the steamboat and tour company, Stevens is also a part owner of the Frostop and Cafe Beignet restaurants.
There are currently four Cafe Beignet locations in the French Quarter. The opening of a fifth location near Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue was delayed by the pandemic. Two of the Quarter stores are currently open with limited hours. The staff of 100 is now down to 10 people. (“We even have our accountant and office staff working in there,” said Stevens. “We are all baristas now.”)
It’s obviously not ideal but Stevens said it’s anyone’s guess how long the situation will last.
“Yesterday, the governor decided justifiably that we’re not moving forward without a decline in some of the numbers, so we’re staying where we are for another 28 days,” he said. “How will all that play out? I don’t know but that’s the key to whether the business bounces back sooner or later. We’re just taking it one week at a time and working at getting some bookings in and doing the best we can through all this.”
New Orleans Steamboat Company and Gray Line New Orleans applied for and received help from the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA’s disaster loan program. Stevens said the necessity for more help will depend on how long the health and safety protocols stay in place.
“If [tourists] come back in September then things are going to be much better than they are now. We can weather the storm,” he said. “But if the storm continues through the whole year, then more help will be needed. We bank with First Bank & Trust. They have been wonderful and very helpful to us and so we’re counting on that to continue. And we have a very long-term and loyal crew and employees – many who have been with us for 20, 30 and even 40 years – so that’s a strength you can’t put a value on and that’s what will get us through.”