A Loss Of Spirit

September 15, 1995|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

The city will always have Streak Spirit and Hon Spirit, but on Jan. 1 the Spirit of Baltimore will steam out of the Inner Harbor forever.

The 172-foot-long, $2.8 million ship is giving up on its four-year attempt to make money selling lunch and dinner cruises plying the Patapsco, and will head north to a far more lucrative river: the Hudson.

The renamed "Spirit Cruise" will berth off mid-town Manhattan and offer cruises around New York Harbor.

Although some of the ship's 20 full-time workers will be transferred, all of the approximately 100 singing waiters and waitresses will lose their part-time jobs by the end of this year, said James DellaPace, sales and marketing manager for the Baltimore office of Spirit Cruises Inc.

The decision drew regrets from some tourism officials yesterday, but it also prompted a little hand rubbing from competitors who hoped to pick up some of the company's business.

"Obviously, this is a loss for Baltimore," said Dale Garvin, acting director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Even Michael Stappler, president of the company's biggest competitor, Harbor Cruises Ltd., called the decision "bittersweet."

Spirit Cruises advertised heavily and brought in new customers. That helped rival Harbor Cruises, because it charged $7 less than Spirit's standard $50 ticket for a weekend dinner cruise.

In fact, Spirit Cruises helped bring in new customers for other competitors, too. From just one ship a decade ago, the industry has grown to five operators running a total of six large boats from the harbor or Fells Point.

But Mr. Stappler, owner of the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore, said he expects to benefit even more from the departure of his only major competition in the Inner Harbor.

Baltimore-based Harbor Cruises, the first company to operate a dinner boat out of the Inner Harbor, fought an intense political battle to deny Spirit Cruises docking and parking space when it started here in 1992.

Although the competition hurt his company in its first few years, Harbor Cruises has regained what it lost, Mr. Stappler said, noting that he expects his ships to pull in about 400,000 customers and $5 million in revenue this year.

And with the departure of the only other big dinner cruise ship operating out of the Inner Harbor, those numbers should go up next year, Mr. Stappler said. "It is an opportunity to expand what we do."

Mr. DellaPace said Norfolk, Va.-based Spirit's dinner cruise effort here was sunk by three factors:

* Too few businesses chartered the 400-passenger ship.

* Too many Baltimoreans balked at Spirit's comparatively high prices.

* The ship was docked at an inconvenient place for Inner Harbor tourists -- off Key Highway, near the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

Mr. DellaPace said Spirit Cruises charges about the same price in its other cities for its standard cruise: $50 in Baltimore buys a Saturday night cruise, an all-you-can-eat buffet and live music.

But in none of its other operations -- not in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, New York or Washington, D.C. -- did customers object to the price as much as they did in Baltimore, he said.

Spirit Cruises, owned by a French company, Sodexho, considered reducing its price and services but decided it wanted to "maintain our standards," Mr. DellaPace said.

"We tried a lot of 'buy one, get one free,' and that was successful, but it was not profitable," he said.

The most deadly factor was Spirit's location off Key Highway -- far from the Inner Harbor walkway.

For four years, he said, the company attempted to negotiate with the city for space closer to tourists. "But we could not work it out with the city. If we were located in the Inner Harbor, we would still be here."

Local tourism executives said they've learned that it's tough to find a place to do business in the Inner Harbor, and to succeed in Baltimore, they have to match convenience with reasonable prices.

Leonard Schleider said he spent months trying to get approval for a berth at the Inner Harbor but finally gave up and moved the Harbor Belle to Fells Point.

In a little more than a year, he has already cut prices on his Sunday brunch cruises -- and make it up by cutting costs, such as replacing fancy sliced smoked salmon with mixed cream cheese and lox bits -- to attract enough customers.

"People are spending less today," he said.

Ruth Fader, of Baltimore Rent-a-Tour, said she didn't book many events on the Spirit of Baltimore because it was more expensive and hard for tourists to find.

People staying in an Inner Harbor hotel can simply walk across the street to board the Bay Lady, she noted.

Others said the company may have been hurt by Baltimore's parochialism as well.

"We are always resistant against out-of-towners. We like home grown businesses," said Paul Wolman of P. W. Feats, an event planning company.

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