Maid of the Mist replacement Hornblower talks future plans, its Canadian connection

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

When Niagara Parks Commission awarded the lease for its boat tour operations to a California-based Hornblower Canada, many started wondering about the company that will soon be ferrying passengers through the Niagara Gorge.

Hornblower Canada replaces Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company, the Canadian-run, American-owned ferry service that has operated at the base of the Falls since 1846. The new tour boats are scheduled to start running in 2014.

Reader reaction indicated that many felt the Parks Commission should have given the new contract to a Canadian company, even though the Glynn family of Lewiston, NY, has owned Maid of the Mist since 1971.

On the phone from the San Francisco headquarters, Hornblower spokesperson Tegan Firth hoped to clarify some of those details.

"The parent company is based in California, but Hornblower Canada is a Canadian company," she told Yahoo! Canada News. "The vessels will be Canadian vessels and all of the economic benefit, all of the taxes we pay, all of the people we employ are Canadian."

"One of the things we're trying to do is make sure that we [are] going to return a fair economic benefit to [Canada] and to the community and that's really important for us," she added.

Hornblower cruise service won the contract after a bidding war between six companies, three American and three Canadian.

Janice Thomson, chair of the Niagara Parks Commission, said they evaluated each bid based on a set of criteria that included everything from safety, ticket pricing and innovation, to the lease amount payable to the commission.

A team of outside evaluators scored the criteria and verified the sustainability of each bid. Hornblower came out with the highest overall score.

Thomson addressed criticism that the contract should have gone to a Canadian company by noting that Maid of the Mist was also owned by an American parent company, so the new situation would be no different. She added that the commission awarded the contract to the bid that would "offer the best value to Ontarians."

"It's a company that's obviously going to hire Canadians because the business happens in Canada, so the employees will be from the area and all the materials they use in the course of their business are going to be sourced in Canada," she said.

Firth said the company's first step is to modernize the tour infrastructure all the way through, from upgrading the ticketing service to building a mobile website that people can access through their smartphones.

The new 599-passenger vessels will also be designed to accommodate different types of cruisers, with more seats for those who want to enjoy the view from a more comfortable vantage point, "dry zones," and an enhanced viewing deck for the more adventurous.

Hornblower's expansion into Canada follows the 32-year-old company's recent move toward America's East Coast. In 2008, Hornblower Cruises began operating ferries to New York's Statue of Liberty and Ellis Islands.

While the company specializes in dining cruises, or what Firth calls "maritime hospitality," Niagara Falls represents a new challenge for the company.

"We're absolutely thrilled. It's such an honour," said Firth.

"We're excited to show the community of Niagara Falls what a great job we can do."