Royal Treasure: American Queen brings big bucks to area
Nearly a year after the American Queen steamboat returned to Natchez, tourism professionals and downtown business owners say the Queen’s return has been a royal help to the economy.
American Queen Steamboat Company Marketing Coordinator Jeremy Batson said the boat did well last year and was routinely sold out.
“Natchez was a favorite stop,” he said. “A lot of times the townspeople dressed in their Civil War garb would be out there waving the boat in, of course the guests love that. They love the small-town vibe.”
When Queen guests arrive in Natchez, they have a choice of three tours.
For an additional fee, guests can go on a tour to Frogmore for a history lesson on cotton production and end up at Longwood.
Another premium tour includes a cooking lesson and a tour of Twin Oaks from local chef Regina Charboneau, who oversees the boat’s cuisine.
The third is a “hop on, hop off” tour that takes guests on tours downtown and allows them to hop off the tour bus at one stop downtown, shop and look around town, and hop back on the bus at another stop.
The guided tour takes guests by the NAPAC Museum, Magnolia Hall, Rosalie, Stanton Hall, the William Johnson House and other downtown attractions.
“It gives guests a free way to get around downtown, as well as see the favorite destination in town,” Batson said. “Guests can hop off and know in 15 to 20 minutes, a bus is going to be around to get them at one of the designated stops.”
That tour has been the most beneficial to some downtown shop owners.
The Queen docked in April, May, June, November and December last year. City sales tax collections were up all of those months, as much as 9.5 percent in May. City Clerk Donnie Holloway said he could not break the numbers down to say definitively that the increase was because of the Queen, but he said the hundreds of visitors certainly did not hurt sales taxes.
Darby’s Everything Under the Sun owner Darby Short said she can tell when the Queen is in town by the foot traffic in her store.
“It’s definitely been a positive impact,” she said.
Darby’s candy is one of the most popular treats Queen passengers purchase, Short said, as well as clothing.
“Some of the ladies have bought clothing when the weather has changed, and they expected it to be hot and it was actually cold.”
Short said she has enjoyed seeing the mix of tourists that the Queen brings from all over the country.
“Normally we have a lot of tourists, but the boat tends to bring people from all over, California, the upper East Coast,” she said. “A lot of them are groups of seniors, and they’re all very interested in what’s going on in Natchez, and that’s been great.”
Joanna Lofton at One-of-Kind, a downtown specialty gift shop, said the store has definitely seen a boost in sales from the American Queen. She said the increased sales have helped the business during the slow time of the year after Christmas.
“There’s a mad rush around Christmas, and then there’s not a lot going on,” she said. “So it’s definitely helped us during the slow times.”
But not all shop owners are feeling the positive impact of the Queen’ stops in town.
Old South Trading Post owner Jonathan Wood said his store has not seen an increase in sales because it is not on the tour bus route.
Sun, Moon & Stars owner Erin Myers said she has not really seen any Queen passengers in her store.
“Most of my business is local,” she said.
Since the passengers’ meals are scheduled ahead of time for the most part and included in the cost of their cruise, David Browning, co-owner of Cotton Alley Cafe, said he has not seen any American Queen passengers in his restaurant.
“I don’t think I have see one,” Browning said. “But we’re still happy they’re here.”
Natchez Visitor Reception Center Manager of Tourist Services Anna Byrne said even if Queen passengers do not buy anything, she is happy to see a “boost in warm bodies.”
The visitor center’s gift shop has, however, seen approximately a 20-percent boost in sales, she said.
“Even if they don’t buy anything, we’re glad to have them,” she said. “We’re sharing the history of the city, and if they go home and tell people about Natchez, the better it is for us.”
Dunleith Assistant General Manager Lyn Fortenbery agrees.
Dunleith is part of a “progressive lunch” tour, where guests will have cocktails and appetizers at one location, an entrée at another and dessert at a final stop. The first of 17 tours for 2013 will start Tuesday, Fortenbery said.
The tour is hosted through Tauck Tours.
“Tauck Tours did tours with us years and years ago and has not done much in the Natchez market recently,” Fortenbery said. “Now they’re back and back with us, and I think that is very positive within the tour work and will continue to spread and grow.”
Fortenbery said even if the boat passengers are only at Dunleith for 45 minutes for a quick meal, that exposure can help Dunleith’s business.
“They could make plans to come back for several days to Natchez,” she said. “And the word of mouth to all of their friends could help us, too. It could have a very large positive impact.”
The resurrection of the American Queen has sparked interest from tour groups around the country, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Director Marsha Colson said.
NPT works with the American Queen and tour groups to help set up passenger tours of the city.
“I’m meeting with a major tour operator out of Los Angeles Tuesday, and he wants to see what we have to offer,” she said.
Tour companies are booking their guests on the Queen, Colson said, and then setting up tours that offer several different options for guests.
“It’s just been multiple multiples of business,” she said.
That has certainly helped bottom line at NPT, Colson said. NPT has seen a 5-percent increase in sales since the American Queen returned, she said.
“It’s not just NPT, it’s the other houses that are on tour, the restaurants, gift shops,” Colson said.
Rosalie sees about half of the Queen’s passengers when the boat is in town, Manager James Jennings said. That means tour sales numbers have been up.
“The gift shop has also done pretty good,” he said. “It’s relative; some days it’s great and some days it’s normal business. It’s been a pleasure having them, and they come basically on a weekly basis, so that helps us out.”
Before its return last April, the American Queen had not docked in Natchez since 1995, and no boats had docked in the city since 2009.
Since its return, other boats have followed the American Queen back to Natchez. The Queen of the Mississippi docked in Natchez last year and is scheduled to make 26 stops this year. The 138-passenger Yorktown cruise ship docked in Natchez last November and will return this year with two sold-out trips.
“(The American Queen) has been huge for us,” Colson said. “I could go back to the ’90s when we had the three (boats) here, and I’m starting to see that again.”
The benefits for Natchez should keep coming with the boat. The American Queen will make 16 stops in Natchez this year, and the city is on the Queen’s preliminary schedule for 2014, Batson said.
“We definitely plan to be around for a while,” he said.