SAN DIEGO — Bahia Resort Hotel, which already has one riverboat, recently paid more than $4 million for a second, spanking new paddle-wheeler.
The San Diego Hilton Beach & Tennis Resort, which already has two motor yachts, just spent $600,000 to turn an aging, 42-year-old ferryboat into an 1890s-style riverboat.
Mission Bay suddenly has enough riverboats to stage a paddle-wheel race and present awards to the top three finishers.
The battle of the boats has been fueled by increased competition among hotels that cater to business meetings, according to Rosemary Green, convention manager for the Glendale-based Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, which next month will hold its annual meeting on the new Hilton Queen.
"Competition is wonderful for (meeting planners) because we want to go back to hotels that will do something special for us," Green said. "It's just so wonderful to walk to the end of a pier and plop yourself down on that gorgeous little boat. It's wonderful, exciting and your people can get just a little bit silly when (the boat) leaves shore."
Eileen Zirpolo, social director for the San Diego Ad Club, said, "Who wants to go to a ho-hum meeting when you can do something different? It got us out of the usual pace of working with a hotel in a typical, boring meeting space." The Ad Club recently held an awards program on the Bahia's William D. Evans riverboat.
Meeting rooms that float are a logical extension for hotels that enjoy waterfront
locations but have limited space to expand, according to Michael Fischer, Hilton's director of sales and marketing.
However, he added, the brightly decorated riverboats that make for pretty pictures as they cruise Mission Bay must function as profit centers.
"You can't ignore that fact because when you start making a million-dollar investment, it can't just be an attractive service. . . . It has to provide some sort of revenue stream to pay back that investment," Fischer said.
Gambling on a riverboat's ability to boost business "isn't a necessity, but hotels must go to different lengths to stay competitive," said Bahia General Manager Bill Evans. "We've had some kind of revenue outlet on the water since 1963."
None, however, has been as expensive as the extravagant William D. Evans paddle-wheeler, which bears the name of Evans' late father. The riverboat features a galley, meeting facilities and an elevator to move passengers between floors.
"It's more than a run-of-the-mill boat," Zirpolo said. "It's a work of art."
The boats have other attractions for meeting planners.
Joe Payson, treasurer of the San Diego Honorary Deputy Sheriff's Assn., said, "Our attendance has gone up since we started" meeting on the Hilton Queen. He said the last meeting drew 95% attendance, up from about 75%.
The sheriff's association board members "get more accomplished on the boat," Payson said. "The cast of characters is the same, but the environment has changed. It's like we've gone out on a vacation together."
Marilyn Spooner, manager of corporate events for Pittsburgh-based Rockwell International, suggested, "People get tired of meeting and eating indoors, even in lovely San Diego." Rockwell will use the Hilton Queen later this year when its engineering staff meets at the Hilton.
"This (boat) allows us to move the group around and not stay in a dry room," Spooner said. "Why not sell that sort of thing, especially in the winter to people from Back East."
And, once under way, the riverboat "assists in making the group interact," Spooner said. "You've got a captive audience out there on the water."
The boats also offer a down-to-earth benefit to out-of-town groups registered at the hotels.
Green said, "We will be hosting a cocktail party (on the Hilton Queen), and we don't want people wandering out into cars and having to travel. At the Hilton, they can walk off the boat and go to a restaurant or their room. That's a big plus for any planner."
The new breed of riverboats are powered by propellers and are subjected to tough safety checks by the Coast Guard, which determines how many passengers each ship can carry as they splash along on the calm waters of Mission Bay.
"That's inland water, so you're not talking about rough seas and people throwing up all over the place," quipped James Cutfield, director of catering at the Hilton, who has booked conventions, corporate meetings, weddings and receptions on the Hilton Queen, which can seat 150 people.
The Bahia, which is booking similar functions on its 600-passenger William D. Evans, also plans to invite the general public to come aboard for cruises.
"We've spent $100,000 to mitigate city and state concerns about parking and (street) lighting," Evans said. "And, if a competing hotel would like to use (the boat), we'd probably make it available because it's operating as an independent corporation and it has a responsibility to make a profit."