A day before the R/B River Explorer glides into Ripley, Ohio, a crew member usually calls the local hardware store to see if the store has any of the items the 730-foot long barge needs. The owner of the Rockin' Robin Soda Shop prepares for a rush of customers. And the local merchants happily dust off their cash registers.
"The barge is the first thing that's come in here that's had an economic impact," says Sonja Cropper, tourism director for the Brown County Chamber of Commerce. "Almost every single business makes money when it's docked here -- even the ATM machines."
Throughout the year, the $21 million, New Orleans-based River Explorer glides up and down America's rivers, transporting thousands of tourists to big and small towns along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, as well as the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Intercoastal Waterway. While the passengers disembark to visit local museums, attractions, and shops, hundreds of locals line up to tour the floating hotel. The local visitors also patronize waterfront restaurants and shops, contributing additional dollars to the local economy. Eddie Conrad Jr., chief executive officer of RiverBarge Excursion Lines Inc. which operates the River Explorer, estimates that, on average, his passengers leave behind around $4,000 a day in the towns they visit.
BARGING IN. Conrad has become a hero in the small towns frequented by his big barge. His love of America's rivers began as a teenager when he set off to find the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, Minnesota. "I went to work for a barge line at 20 years-old and fell in love with the whole business," says Conrad. "Moving enormous tonnage up and down the rivers just fascinated me."
In the 1960s, he hocked his car and borrowed against an insurance policy to buy his first towboat for $13,500. That towboat was the first boat in a business that grew to include more than 40 boats, either owned or leased, and 500 employees. He still has a financial interest in that company.
Conrad, who last year was named "Maritime Person of the Year," by the New Orleans chapter of the Propeller Club of the U.S., says his life changed in 1989, when he agreed to transport 86 recreational vehicles and their owners from St. Louis down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. (The RV's remained secured on the barge, but the people were free to disembark).
"I had four cups of strong Cajun coffee and said I could do it," recalls Conrad. "The Coast Guard had conniption fits along the way because I didn't have the right to carry people for hire." He made the trip anyway. Explains Conrad: "My momma always said it was easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission."
"OUR HOME." After several trips to Washington to solicit "help from Congress and admirals," Conrad's RV barge was finally certified to transport passengers and their vehicles. That lucrative venture inspired him to build a floating hotel on a river barge. In the mid-1990's, he founded RiverBarge Excursion Lines and, in 1998, completed construction of a unique resort that consists of three boats.
The River Explorer includes the LaSalle, home to about 200 staterooms. The dining room and public areas are on the DeSoto, and the 3,000 horsepower towboat is called the Miss Nari.
"Our philosophy is that the barge is our home," says Conrad, who tries to spend a few days aboard most trips. "We live more than two-thirds of our life on board, and we are happy to have you as our guest."
Unlike more formal cruises with a rigid schedule of activities, guests aboard the River Explorer are encouraged to dress casually, relax, and mingle. Passengers eat together in a big dining room, raid the "Perpetual Cookie Jar," and enjoy regional cuisine and local entertainment.
STREAM OF INCOME. Moving along at a top speed of 16 mph, passengers are offered a unique view of America as they travel along the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers on 4- to 10-day journeys. The barge travels almost year-round, its schedule arranged so as to arrive in Cincinnati when the autumn leaves are at their peak or to be in New Orleans during Christmas and Mardi Gras. It also travels west up the Missouri River Valley from Kansas City to Omaha.
"It's slow-moving, so you never lose sight of land," says Anne Neese, ecotourism sales manager for the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If you drive 60 or 70 miles an hour on the highway, you miss the wildflowers and a lot of other things."
Because tickets to local attractions are included in the price passengers pay, Neese said local merchants and museum operators are guaranteed a steady stream of income when the barge docks in Corpus Christi, Texas, six or seven times a year.
WELCOME, STRANGER. Harley Noland, owner of the Levee House Cafnd Trolley Tours Inc., in Marietta, Ohio, said the barge has a very positive economic impact on his town. "Whenever you bring that many people into a town of 16,000, it makes a big impact," said Noland, whose buses transport barge guests to local galleries, museums, and attractions. Marietta, founded in 1788, was the first town built in the Northwest Territories. "The people on the barge are wonderful," he said. "They aren't snooty or snobby. They are happy and interested in being here."
Noland said his restaurant is also packed with locals who come down to the river to tour the barge. "There are huge lines of people waiting to get on board," he said. "We are feeding all the people who come down to stare at this boat."
Noland said most people are unaware of the fact that barges move more raw materials and manufactured goods along the Ohio River than through the Panama Canal. The giant barges slowly making their way up and down America's rivers transport vast quantities of coal, aluminum, and petrochemicals.
BROAD HORIZONS. Conrad says the River Explorer accommodates 196 guests. Most are retired, but many of them bring along children and grandchildren. It costs about $250 a day, which includes meals, a stateroom, entertainment, and tickets to most attractions. Revenues in 2000 were about $13 million, he says, adding that the business is breaking even.
"Our biggest problem is lack of funding for marketing," he notes. "We are competing with anybody trying to get the leisure dollar."
Still, things are going well enough for Conrad to consider building a second barge. He's currently in discussions with potential investors, designers, and shipyards, and plans to apply to the U.S. Maritime Administration for a government-guaranteed construction loan.
Like the rivers that are his passion and his livlihood, Conrad plans to keep on rolling. Succeeding in Small Business(©) is a syndicated column by Jane Applegate, author and founder of sbtv.com, a Web site offering free multimedia resources for business owners. For a free copy of her new workbook, The Business Owner's Check Up, e-mail your address to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to: Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, N.Y. 10803.