The Decatur Daily
The marketing director for the Pickwick Belle riverboat said she was impressed with the potential of three Decatur docking locations and also was encouraged by partnerships local tourism interests proposed.
That’s welcome news to tourism officials, who said a riverboat has long been on their wish list and that it would help attract more tour buses and conferences to Decatur, giving hotels and restaurants an economic boost, which also would mean more tax dollars for the city.
“The one thing I have learned about the Pickwick Belle is the key to her success is a community that embraces her,” Tanya Irwin, marketing director for the 90-foot paddle wheeler, said Wednesday after a scheduled tour of Riverwalk Marina, Rhodes Ferry Park and Ingalls Harbor.
“It is a tourism tool,” Irwin said. “The people who it brings are not your local people. It is available to local people, but it’s a magnet for motor coach groups.”
The Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau set up the tour, which included city and county elected officials and Pickwick Belle’s owner, Fred Tull. The Pickwick Belle has operated out of Florence Harbor since October 2007, and in January, bureau president Tami Reist made a pitch to share the riverboat with Decatur. After the meeting, Irwin said Decatur’s approach to marketing Pickwick Belle impressed her enough to consider moving it here full time.
“I think we’re looking for a home for the Pickwick Belle, where she is embraced and supported and there is a willingness to help sell her. So far, it’s been very refreshing to communicate with people who understand what tourism does,” she said.
The Pickwick Belle has provided many types of cruises in Florence, she said, from corporate outings to birthday parties, and it’s most popular with wedding-related activities. The riverboat does a lot of party themes and theatrical cruises, educational tours for school groups and Civil War tours, in addition to sightseeing and dinner cruises.
“We can have a wedding and then two hours later have a Jimmy Buffet theme cruise and two hours later have an educational cruise and then two hours after that have a moonlight cocktail cruise,” Irwin said.
Tour buses are the backbone of the business, she said, estimating at least 65 percent of her cruises are with bus groups of senior citizens and church groups. The recession has reduced the number of corporate outings, she said, but tour bus business has held strong.
Alison Stanfield, assistant director for Florence/Lauderdale Tourism, said the tour bus market probably has increased during the recession because it’s an economical way to travel and has a loyal customer base.
“They’re definitely an asset for us to have,” she said of Pickwick Belle. “It’s not that they didn’t generate the business or no one wanted them. The Pickwick Belle has been a really great river attraction for us. Any town that’s along the river, one of the first things a visitor asks is how can I get access to the river.
“We’ve been very glad to let them know there was a riverboat,” Stanfield said.
Irwin said she wasn’t looking to leave Florence, but for business reasons, she wanted to learn more about Decatur after meeting with Reist last month.
“It would be bittersweet to leave Florence because it has been such a good home,” she said. “I just think there are a lot of opportunities (in Decatur) to partner with the Belle.”
Reist said Irwin and Tull indicated they haven’t been able to get 100-amp electrical hook-ups at Florence Harbor, but didn’t mention any other issues that could cause them to leave.
The manager of Florence Harbor, Eva Scull, was unaware of Pickwick’s Belle’s interest in Decatur until contacted by The Daily on Wednesday. She declined to comment until she had a chance to speak with Irwin or Tull. She did say she doesn’t charge a slip fee for the riverboat.
Stanfield said there are some improvements Florence Harbor and Pickwick Belle haven’t been able to work out, and because both the harbor and riverboat are private facilities, neither her organization, nor the city of Florence can get involved.
Florence/Lauderdale Tourism includes the riverboat in many of its marketing materials, including the list of itineraries for group tours. It also provides walk-in visitors with cruise schedules and advertises Pickwick Belle on its website.
Reist said she would make a yearly budget line item to help promote the riverboat and also emphasized that local hotels are unified and eager to help market it as well. The prospect of getting the riverboat actually started from a phone call from a Decatur hotel, she added.
Sandee Sartain, sales director for Microtel Inn and Suites and Best Western, is friends with Irwin and called her last fall after Decatur sold out two dinner cruises aboard the Cincinnati Belle. She said she simply aimed to see if Irwin would consider sharing the Pickwick Belle with Decatur.
“I’m always looking for new groups to work with, and I need weekend business,” Sartain said. “But really, it wasn’t about my hotel, it’s about all of us. I just think it’s fate. It’s just meant to happen. And I don’t know why I didn’t think of calling earlier.”
Reist told Irwin an advantage of locating at Riverwalk or Rhodes Ferry is it puts the boat in plain view of traffic crossing the U.S. 31 causeway. A traffic study done by the city on Dec. 18-19, a weekend when traffic is down, showed 36,000 vehicles on a Saturday and 28,000 on a Sunday, she said.
A 2009 traffic survey listed on the Alabama Department of Transportation’s website showed between 44,120 and 46,880 vehicles using the causeway daily.
Reist said another advantage of docking at Rhodes Ferry is the city would offer it free of charge. It wouldn’t be an ideal location for embarking passengers, she said, but the riverboat could do that at Ingalls Harbor.
Steve Conner, owner of Riverwalk Marina, said he was sincerely interested in luring the Pickwick Belle, and promoted locating the riverboat on the entry side of the marina, behind the now vacant building formerly occupied by Extreme Marine.
The 6,200-square-feet building could serve as office space, a gift shop and extra meeting space, he said.
Reist also took Irwin and Tull to Point Mallard, and she said they were intrigued by the possibility of docking at a pier in the water park as part of corporate outings.
“I feel good about this,” she said. “We just hit it off. The more we talked, (Irwin) knew we were sincere to be in this for the long haul. When I went to shake Mr. Tull’s hand and say goodbye, he gave me a hug and said ‘We’re very impressed and we’ll definitely be in touch.’ ”