A Willing Spirit

by Janet Essman Franz

This boat floats

Mike SheaIn 1984, Mike Shea, the founder of Lake Champlain Shoreline Cruises in Burlington, launched a 149-passenger paddle boat, the Spirit of Ethan Allen, on the lake. This summer, the tripledecker, 500-passenger Spirit of Ethan Allen III will continue to entertain individuals, conventions, weddings and tour groups with cruises of all kinds.

As the Burlington waterfront was evolving from an industrial zone into a popular destination for visitors and residents, Mike Shea was there to ride the wave. He parlayed the region’s growth as a tourism and conference hub into a thriving venture, Lake Champlain Shoreline Cruises. His ship, the Spirit of Ethan Allen III, is an icon of lake life in the Burlington harbor. It sails five times daily throughout the summer, providing a venue for a party with a view.

A skilled multi-tasker, Shea thrives when doing several jobs simultaneously. Having grown up in Worthington, Mass., and graduated from Greenfield Community College with a degree in environmental science, he began his career as an airline pilot and moved to Vermont in 1981 to fly for the now-defunct Air Vermont in Morrisville. He became manager of the Stowe-Morrisville State Airport, maintaining the aircraft while operating a flight school, glider rides and car-rental service there. Through these jobs, he encountered a lot of visitors to the state.

“People would ask me where they could go,” he says. “They had their hands in their pockets, ready to spend money, but they needed a direction.”

When Air Vermont folded in 1984, Shea decided to launch a business that would cater to that need. His parents, Frank and Alberta Shea, were operating a 149-passenger paddle boat, The River Queen, on the Fox River in Green Bay, Wis. Shea saw them running a successful enterprise and believed he could do the same on Lake Champlain. “They gave me the information to start my business,” he says.

He bought a 149-passenger boat called the Dixie in Philadelphia and renamed it the Spirit of Ethan Allen to better reflect the history of the Burlington region. Former Mayor Peter Clavelle, then the director of the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office, and City Attorney John Franco obtained permission to dock the boat at Perkins Pier. Shea’s Green Mountain Boat Lines opened for business May 28, 1984. City leaders welcomed the tour boat and says it heralded a period of new economic growth and urban revitalization.

Group photoIn 1995, Mike Shea hired his first full-time employee, Gwendy Lauritzen (third from left), vice president and director of sales and marketing. She’s pictured with Matt Annis (left), Amy Brunzell, and Corey Gottfried. Chef Robért

“Mayor Sanders proclaimed at the christening that this was the beginning of the new Burlington waterfront,” Shea recalls. “At the time, the waterfront was about to be reclaimed, after years of industrial use that had decayed it into a rust zone, into a new economic zone, so that people would be able to come down to the waterfront again for recreation.”

Shea’s parents moved to Vermont, and in 1986 they took over boat operations while he flew captain for Brockway Air/Piedmont Commuter airlines, then Business Express. He returned to the company in 1992.

Then, as today, customers might encounter Shea — although they may not realize it — selling tickets or sodas, joining them for dinner or emerging from the boat’s engine room with grease on his dungarees. “I like to operate anonymously,” he says. “It gives me a way to talk to customers and find out what’s going on. It makes for a more honest conversation.” He uses what he learns from these conversations to improve service. For example, feedback from customers led him to purchase a new speaker system so seniors could hear the narration better.

As predicted, the waterfront developed into a popular attraction, and the Burlington Community Boathouse and Waterfront Park became focal points of activity. In 1993 Shea moved the Spirit of Ethan Allen to the boathouse to take advantage of this location. “We experienced immediate growth,” he says of the move.

Up the hill from the waterfront, hotels were attracting an increasing number of visitors. Burlington’s tourism and conference industries were growing, and hotels expanded to accommodate that growth. Out-of-towners wanted to enjoy the region’s attractions.

The Spirit of Ethan Allen was a helpful partner to the conference industry. ”When Mike started, it gave us an opportunity to provide another attraction, and it gave conventioneers a reason to spend their entire convention in the Burlington area,” says Rick Milliken, general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel Burlington and former manager of the Sheraton Burlington.

Milliken also served as chairman of the Vermont Con- vention Bureau. “We could recommend the Spirit of Ethan Allen highly,” he says, “because meeting planners and conventioneers came back raving about the service and the food.”

When the Sheraton Burlington expanded into a conference center, the ripple effect upon Shea’s business was powerful. “We saw a growth of tourism,” says Shea. “The Sheraton was bringing in groups of 300 to 600 people. My boat only handled 149, so I decided to grow.”

In 1995, he replaced the Spirit of Ethan Allen with a boat that accommodated 500 people, with dining for 288, and named it the Spirit of Ethan Allen II. Shea hired his first year-round employee, Gwendy Lauritzen, with a background in resort marketing and sales, to keep the new boat filled with customers. Revenue tripled that season.

“My sales efforts were panning out,” says Lauritzen, vice president and director of sales. “The boat was much busier than Mike ever anticipated it would be.”

Chef DekeersgeiterDekeersgeiter is king of the galley, where he oversees creation of thousands of hors d’oeuvres, entrées and pastries daily.

The Spirit of Ethan Allen II became a popular venue for dinner parties, and Lauritzen booked multiple events to take place simultaneously. On a typical summer day, the boat hosted several weddings, company parties and sightseeing tours. “The variety of events, with varied menus and styles of service, and the number of times they happened each day, was a huge challenge for operations,” Lauritzen says. “To have the sales escalate, we had to control the quality of food and service.”

Taking over catering seemed the next logical step. At the end of the 1995 season, Shea purchased the catering company that had served the boat and hired a chef. The operations focus shifted from the boat to the food.

“Having absolutely no knowledge of food — just the idea that I could make it work — it was the craziest and smartest think I ever did,” Shea says. “We went from giving boat rides to being a floating banquet facility.”

During the last 12 years, the company has grown 500 percent. Shea attributes much of it to his collaboration with local business leaders, especially his alliances with real estate businessman Ray Pecor, and with Gary Farrell and Gene Cenci, former owners of the Sheraton.

“They were my mentors,” he says. “They taught me that if we work together to develop the waterfront, it would be a destination. We worked together to get conferences here, knowing they would stay at the Sheraton but they would want to enjoy the Vermont experience.”

As the Internet became a dominant marketing tool, Shea modified the company’s name to make it easier to find in an online search, changing it in 2001 to Lake Champlain Shoreline Cruises.

That same year, to accommodate more people for dining, Shea purchased a triple-deck, 500-passenger boat with meal seating for 425 and an on-board galley. He christened it the Spirit of Ethan Allen III and launched it on Lake Champlain in 2002. The Spirit of Ethan Allen II moved to Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he renamed it the Spirit of Plattsburgh and operated it there for two seasons. Shea found it hard to run the Plattsburgh business as an absentee owner while managing the boat in Burlington. He shut down the Spirit of Plattsburgh and sold the boat in 2005. It now serves Alcatraz Island in San Francisco as The Islander.

The seasonal nature of his business means that Shea must maximize revenue in a short period. From May through October, the boat leaves with a new group five times daily, seven days a week, with all three decks filled. Along with conventions, weddings and arranged tours, each day of the week offers a new themed dinner cruise such as “Rum, Rasta and Reggae,” “All That Jazz,” “Murder Mystery” and “’Lobstah-on-the-Lake.” Chef Robért Dekeersgieter oversees creation of thousands of hors d’oeuvres, entrées and pastries each day.

Quickly turning over multiple events challenges the chef and catering staff, says Lauritzen. “We can have an intimate plated dinner on one level, a New England clambake on another and a banquet buffet on another, with all of the meals created in the ship’s galley. We go from a reception for 250 people with a DJ, head table, favors and flowers, and in less than a half-hour, we reset the tables, change the linens and flowers, set up new entertainment, and we’re welcoming a new party. It’s a miracle every time it happens.”

Another challenge, says Shea, is “the maze of regulatory obligations to satisfy the multitude of agencies that oversee the boat’s operation.” Governing bodies include the city of Burlington, state departments of health and liquor control, the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security.

As revenues have grown, so have expenses. The lease fee with the city of Burlington has increased, along with the prices of food, linens and fuel. Filling the boat’s 7,500-gallon fuel tank today costs $19,000, and the tank is filled eight times each summer. The 2006 linen bill was $37,000.

Payroll and health care costs also continue to rise. The company employs six people year-round and about 70 seasonally. Exchange students from Bulgaria, Russia and Poland are hired each summer to work as waiters, prep cooks, bartenders and banquet staff. Shea arranges the students’ housing and provides their furniture and bedding while they are here. Some of the students return each year and have been promoted to supervisory positions.

“We have found their work ethic to be exemplary,” says Lauritzen. “The Bulgarians, especially, treat our customers like they are guests in their home.”

Shea expects little economic growth this year, so the company will strive to keep expenses low rather than increase rates. “We made a conscious decision that Americans cannot afford a price increase, so we held at 2006 levels to give our customers a break,” he says. Despite a slow economy, bookings are already up 5 percent from 2006. Clientele this season will see the newly enclosed sky deck along with new carpeting and window treatments.

If he’s not tinkering with the boat’s engine or mingling with customers, Shea might be found on the golf course, planning a trip to Eastern Europe or taking flight training to stay current in multi-engine aircraft. But the boat and the business are his passions.

“I enjoy the thrill of it,” he says. “It pulls together everything I learned in flying. Flying is a series of corrections. You’re always tweaking something to make it right.” •