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Queen Mary is getting a long-overdue makeover

TOURISM

The company that leases the cruise ship turned floating hotel from the city of Long Beach is investing $5 million to upgrade rooms and restaurants.

March 02, 2010|By Hugo Martín

The Queen has seen better days.

A makeover has been long overdue for the venerable Queen Mary, the retired cruise ship turned tourist attraction and hotel docked in Long Beach Harbor since 1967.

But repairs to the city-owned ship have been delayed because of financial crisis and organizational wrangling.

Long Beach officials now believe the ship is getting its long-overdue upgrades under a new management company that also operates hotels and restaurants in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"We are optimistic about the future," said Victor Grgas, Long Beach property services manager.

The city turned over management to the Delaware North Cos., a New York hospitality and food service company, in September. Company officials say their strategy is to restore the ship to much of its Art Deco splendor while incorporating modern-day amenities.

For example, as it begins to remodel the 314 staterooms, the company has refurbished the room's original portholes and bathtubs -- including knobs for hot and cold saltwater -- but also added flat-screen televisions, hair dryers and iPod docking stations.

"I think people are looking for something different, and this will offer that," said Uwe Roggenthien, the general manager of the ship.

Roggenthien declined to say how much Delaware North has spent on the ship, but the lease operator that hired Delaware North signed an agreement with the city of Long Beach to invest more than $5 million in upgrades over a two-year period that began in 2008. More than half of that sum has already been spent, and at least a third of the renovations are completed, according to city officials and Delaware North representatives. The renovations are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

The Queen Mary's history has been star-studded and stirring.

The ship was built in 1934, dubbed the fastest and most luxurious cruise ship in the world. On the seas, it hosted celebrities and royalty, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor -- the first guest to pay extra to bring a poodle onboard -- and Bob Hope. During World War II, the ship was known as the Gray Ghost when it transported soldiers to the European front.

The city of Long Beach bought the Queen Mary in 1967 from the Cunard Line shipping company. Since then, the city has brought in several firms -- including the Walt Disney Co. -- to manage the ship and develop roughly 45 acres of adjacent oceanfront property. In addition to the hotel, the ship offers three sit-down restaurants and several ornate ballrooms.

In 1995, Queen's Seaport Development Inc., the company that controlled a 66-year lease agreement, filed for bankruptcy.

New York-based Garrison Investment Group stepped in two years later, and in September it hired Delaware North to operate and renovate the ship.

But the recession has drained demand for travel and lodging and cut the Queen Mary's revenues from hotel rentals, food and drink sales and other services.

In the first nine months of 2009, the occupancy rate at the hotel dropped to about 50% from 57% during the same period in 2008, according to a financial statement from the city of Long Beach.

In the same period, revenue from food and beverage sales on the ship dropped about 20% to $7.7 million, according to the same city report.

The only good news for Long Beach was a $112,000, or 7%, increase in revenue from renting out space for meetings, weddings and parties.

Bob Maguglin, the public relations director for the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he was encouraged by the experience of the staff now in charge of the ship.

"The Delaware North people seem to be some of the best people to operate the ship," he said.

Maguglin, a former tour guide on the ship, said he has seen some of the restoration projects on the ship and is impressed. "It requires a lot of tender loving care to keep it up and keep it in beautiful condition," he added.

Delaware North officials say they hope to draw more visitors to the ship by promoting it with e-mails and direct-mail ads to the more than 1 million tourists who have visited the other company-managed restaurants.

But bringing the Queen Mary back to its regal splendor won't be easy. The ship's rooms and halls are decorated with 58 types of wood, ornate brass carvings, onyx fireplaces, marble countertops and other vintage details.

Still, Roggenthien said the biggest challenge won't be to preserve and refurbish the 76-year-old ship but to offer a unique experience that will compete with other local attractions.

"We are going to take you back in time," he said.

Already, 75 of the 314 rooms and two of the three restaurants have been renovated.

At Sir Winston, the ship's "signature dining" room, Delaware North replaced the 1980s-era silverware and glassware, the drapes and carpets, repainted the dining hall a brighter color and updated the menu with healthier portions and more seafood choices.

Guests seem to like the improvements. In the last few months, Sir Winston's ratings on Internet websites such as Yelp.com and OpenTable.com have been mostly positive.

Said food and beverage director Keith Landry: "We want to make it a lot more fun and accessible to a lot more diners."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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