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Diverted steamboat visitors boost downtown business

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

When high water on the upper Mississippi River leads to riverboat schedule changes, Paducah often benefits.

Paducah is one of the first points of diversion for riverboat cruises when the river isn't cooperative with navigation. The Queen of the Mississippi, for example, made an unscheduled stop here on Friday rather than heading north to St. Paul, Minnesota. This was the second time this week the steamboat made a last-minute visit here due to rerouting, also docking on Tuesday.

"The behavior of the Mississippi seems to have more of an effect on the routes of the boats than last year," said Fowler Black, sales director at Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's not everyday that we see such an impact on the logistics of river cruising."

Last summer, 12 visits were planned, but due to rerouting, the city saw 19 riverboat stops.

Location isn't the Paducah port's only attraction; the town's reputation as being tourist-friendly has also earned it a spot on the riverboat companies' lists.

"Because of the compact nature of our historic downtown, where our sense of place is, it's easily walkable ... the proximity is attractive," Black said.

The cruises can often make a big difference in daytime traffic, said Frank Bennett, CEO of The National Quilt Museum.

While on a regular Tuesday the museum might see about 100 non-cruise visitors, the Queen of the Mississippi brought in an additional 106 visitors during its Tuesday visit.

"By the boat coming, we basically doubled the number of people through the door, which then trickles through the rest of town," Bennett said. The museum never sees fewer than 50 visitors when a boat stops, he added.

When the boats visit, the museum is usually one of the first tourist stops of the day. While admission revenue rises, Bennett said the museum sees most of its added profit in its gift shop.

Two boats frequently stop in at Paducah: The Queen of the Mississippi and the American Queen. The American Queen often offers what are called "hop on, hop off" tours, and the American Queen Steamboat Company often brings along its own tour buses that follow the cruise on tour. Passengers are offered pre-paid packages to local attractions.

According to the American Queen Steamboat Company, cruise packages for the boat, which can hold up to 436 passengers, include 5-day voyages that range from $1,500 to $3,200, and 9-day voyages that range from $3,700 to $7,000.

The Queen of the Mississippi river cruises, which can host about 150 people, range from $3,400 to $7,000 for a seven-night cruise of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

People who take a riverboat cruise are the type of tourists who can create an economic impact on the city, Bennett said.

"These are the type of tourists that we want," Bennett said.

David Boggs, co-owner of BBQ and More, said a boat visit isn't necessarily a guarantee business will improve that day.

"It's been hit or miss, to be perfectly honest," he said.

He said the size of the cruise population and the demographic of the boat's patrons can influence who comes in. Some days, he said, only one or two people from a cruise will stop by. 

But the business is working with others downtown to help promote tourist visits. BBQ and More is participating in a new program developed by Paducah Main Street.

Melinda Winchester, downtown development specialist, said Main Street businesses have come together to offer a new promotion this year to crew members and cruise passengers. She's been meeting with business owners once a month to talk about different specials they can offer at individual businesses, which are indicated by a yellow flag hanging outside businesses' doors.

"We just started it ... we have that many people coming in to our town, and so we wanted to do something to encourage them to come to our businesses and our restaurants," she said.

At the group's most recent meeting on July 3, Winchester said she heard positive reviews in regard to boat visitors boosting business.

The American Queen has made one stop in Paducah, and is set to come again on Sunday, as well as Sept. 1, Sept. 10, Oct. 14, Oct. 22, Oct. 27, and Nov. 6.

The Queen of the Mississippi made a visit earlier than expected on June 30 and again on Tuesday and Friday, both due to uncooperative river waters elsewhere. It's set to visit again on July 30-31 and Sept. 23.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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