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Monday, July 12, 2021

River City Resilience Series: Newport, Kentucky | Rollin’ on the River With BB Riverboats (Sponsored by Southbank Partners)

BB Riverboats are located at 101 Riverboat Row, Newport.
Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. 

by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong

BB Riverboats | 101 Riverboat Row, Newport KY
Summer office hours: Monday - Sunday 9am - 7pm | call (800) 261-8586 or (859) 261-8500 

 

In almost every iconic photo or painting of Cincinnati, you see the skyline from the river and on that river is a riverboat – and that boat is quite often the Belle of Cincinnati or the River Queen, the stars of BB Riverboats, a river cruise company known for its great food, entertainment, history and fun along the Ohio.

Owners of the company, the Bernstein family, did not set out own boats, let alone be riverboat captains. "We were not 'river people,' we were 'restaurant people,'" said Ben Bernstein. The Bernsteins have been in the restaurant business for close to six decades, he said. They have owned and operated some of our area’s most iconic restaurants including Gregory’s Steakhouse, Mike Fink, Crockets River Cafe and El Greco.

It was Mike Fink, one of the area’s first and most successful riverboat restaurants, that brought the family onto the river itself. "When my grandfather [also named Ben] opened up Mike Fink’s restaurant in 1976, people thought he was crazy. Why would anyone want to go to the river?" said Bernstein. "He invested a lot in the riverfront, that’s partially why there’s a street named for him in Covington. He believed in it."

Mike Fink was a stationary, non operational steamboat but right from the start, customers would ask, "When do you set sail?" By 1979, the family decided they would become river people after all and started BB Riverboats. They looked to Bernstein's father, Alan, and said, "'well, you gotta go learn to drive a boat,'" said Bernstein.

Today, Alan Bernstein is definitely known as a river person. He has a wealth of knowledge about the river, riverboats and the history of our area. He’s called upon by historical societies and others up and down the river to share that knowledge.

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Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters. 

In the business of fun


Docked in Newport, BB Riverboats operates year-round but things really ramp up once winter is over, said Bernstein. They run several public and private cruises a week on one of two boats – The Belle of Cincinnati that holds about 1,000 customers and the River Queen that holds 500. A couple of years ago, they added a spacious 250-person event center featuring a wrap around deck right on the water.

"We are selling an experience. We tell people all the time we are in the business of having fun," he said. "We are an entire experience. You can come and bring your whole family, or bring a date. Bring your wife, or bring your office. Come and have a great time, enjoy life on the river!"

Bernstein noted that the food is still key part of the experience, and he is very proud of their offerings. Cruises featuring lunch or dinner are served buffet style, overseen by highly respected Executive Chef Jesus Picazo.

In addition to dinner and lunch options, the company truly offers something for everyone. For kids there are themed pirate and princess cruises and for the older crowd the company they offer bourbon cruises and has partnered with StoneBrook Winery in Melbourne to offer wine tasting dinner cruises. Customers can also enjoy an ice cream social cruise and a variety of sightseeing tours.

Private cruises for groups of people are a key part of the business as well. Bernstein said before COVID hit, a BB Riverboat cruise was a popular option for company or office parties. That part of the business has been slow to return, he said, but he expects it will pick up on par with their very busy return to public and other types of private cruises.

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

Newport, the place to be

BB Riverboats moved from Covington Landing to Newport’s Riverboat Row in 2005. "We love it here...It’s been a wonderful for us, especially now with the new concert hall Ovation opening up making our front door step even better," said Bernstein.

"And it’s beautiful around here. The city has done a great job, and this is going to cause more and more to be updated and upgraded. We couldn’t ask for a better place to be." 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

Indeed, Newport has been going gangbusters in recent years. Jewels in the crown are the new Ovation Center and the major improvements to Newport on the Levee, but City Manager Tom Fromme, said there is so much more in the works.

Developers have projects all over the city, he said. The Levee developers are exploring further development along the river with a project they are calling Pegasus. Right now, they are still in the early exploratory stage to see what would make the best fit along the river there in the stretch from the Purple People Bridge east to SouthShore condominiums. The plan is for mixed use, residential, office and commercial, but the exact mix will depend on the research, he said.

He pointed to several more city projects around the city that will provide housing for new residents looking to share in the city’s growth. A new condominium project is underway on the site of the former Baptist Convalescent Home on Main Street. Residential projects are also underway on 13th and 14th streets. In fact, he said, the Cincinnati Homebuilders Association and Northern Kentucky Homebuilders are designing a housing show on 13th Street this fall that will include 62 individual homes.

The lot surrounding the city’s popular Peace Bell area will be the home of a new office building and hotel, he said. Down along the river, improvements in Festival Park on Columbia Street are also on the way with plans to create a prime public gathering place on the river.

He also noted that the city has recently received funding for its "Outdoor Seating Program." The city has had outdoor dining for years, he said, but with a grant of more than $37,000 from the Devou Good Foundation, the plan is to purchase and provide free branded cafe tables, chairs, umbrellas and planters to Newport businesses to create a cohesive and inviting Newport experience for all along its streets.

He noted that the year has been rough on businesses, residents and the city. Yet, many of the projects now unfolding were planned and moving ahead before the pandemic. He is excited, he said, for what is coming.

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

Holding on and getting through the past year


BB Riverboats, unlike restaurants and businesses on land, faces a whole different set of challenges in the day to day. In the spring, flooding is an issue, and there are always storms and weather threats throughout the year. Yet, Bernstein said they have learned to go with the flow.

The pandemic-related shut downs hit the business as it hit so many others. It was touch and go, said Bernstein. "It was challenging to say the least. We were shut down in March [2020] like a lot of other people, and we stayed shut down."

When things began to ease and open up, he said, they ran with a much-reduced staff and offerings, following all the CDC guidelines and recommendations. "Our business was reduced by about 80 percent last year. It was difficult and without some of the government programs...we very well could not have been here today. We are certainly thankful for those programs."

They hit pause while waiting out the storm. "We bided our time. The whole time through it all we would tell each other, let’s just live to fight another day. Kick that can down the road, try to gain time and see how things develop. It turned out to be a pretty good strategy."

Things are slowly returning to normal, Bernstein said. Business for public cruises and family events has picked up, but company-based events are returning at a much slower pace. In a normal year, BB Riverboats serves about 150,000 customers. Their staff fluctuates with the seasons, but they usually have between 125 and 150 employees. Right now, they are operating with around 80.

As with other businesses, BB Riverboats is handling a staffing shortage, but Bernstein said they are extremely grateful for many of their longtime staff members who went above and beyond to help out. His is a family business but that family, he said, has expanded to many more people.

Indeed, the Bernsteins as a family are still very hands-on. Ben serves as the business manager and his sister takes care of the operations. Bernstein’s father comes to work everyday and shares his enthusiasm for all things along the river every chance he gets. Bernstein’s mother is semi-retired but still stops by once a week. 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.

In the business of experiences


Bernstein is in touch with other riverboat operations across the country. He notes that many have reduced the services they offer to get by. It has been a necessity to cut back some, but, he said, he feels being able to offer a genuine and personal experience is key to his success.

The pause and uncertainty over the last year, just drove home his beliefs, he said. "I still believe in the personal touch, the customer service aspect. I think our world is moving more and more away from that with all the technology taking over and people not wanting to converse as much, where text messages rule over phone calls...Where people rely on apps, ordering online, and having food delivered..."

Moving to that sort of operation, "Is not something I would want to do... I think the enjoyment of coming on one of our cruises is to be able to can go up and talk to the captain or listen to history about surrounding area."

To be honest, he said, the personal touch is not a necessity, and some operations have found they save in staffing and food costs by cutting that out, but, to him, it’s not all about dollars and cents. "You certainly have to listen to that, but experience is the big deal for us. And I don’t know you can get that without those personal touches."

Bernstein is definitely a river person. He grew up on the river, and said, it gets into your bones. "When you are on the water there’s nothing better." It’s one thing to be along the river and quite another to move with it, he said.

He wants to share that love with everyone who comes aboard BB Riverboats. "Just the feeling you get to be on the water and moving...Every minute the view changes, such a cool thing. On top of it all you can have a great meal, listen to some great entertainment and have a great time. That’s what we’ve always sold and that’ll never change. It’s what we do, why we’ve lasted as long as we have."

About Southbank Partners

Southbank Partners, Inc,, is a community and economic development organization that coordinates activity with the cities that lie along Northern Kentucky's bank of the Ohio River. Their purpose is to support the cities through promoting and coordinating development activities, fostering teamwork and collaboration, and providing a unified voice for the partner cities in advocating common positions to state and federal government, as well as to other communities. Members are: Bellevue, Covington, Dayton, Fort Thomas, Silver Grove, Ludlow and Newport. 

Check out more of the River City Resilience Series on Fort Thomas Matters:
 

Photos: Phil Armstrong. Fort Thomas Matters.












 

More photos of fun on BB Riverboats on the river and in the event center


















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