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Princess Riverboats: Where History, Tradition and the Future Meet

June 2, 2022

Originally featured in SBAM’s FOCUS Magazine

Princess Riverboats is steeped in history, yet its owner, Chris Chamberlain, always has his eye on the future. As CEO and Captain, he continues to carry forward the dreams and traditions of his parents while growing an historic, thriving and much-loved small business.

Starting as a small canoe rental business more than four decades ago, Princess Riverboats now operates five boats across the state—the Detroit Princess, the Michigan Princess, the Grand Princess, the Petoskey Princess and the Little Traverse Bay Ferry. Throughout the years, they have taken over 1.5 million people for boat rides around Michigan’s rivers and lakes.

While they host many special events, including weddings, field trips and senior lunches, half of their business comes from the general public on their popular cruises. Chamberlain’s main goal as he grows the business is to create fond memories for generations of passengers and their families.

We asked Chamberlain about community engagement, how he works through obstacles and how he balances stability and growth:

Focus: Tell readers a bit about the history of Princess Riverboats.

Chamberlain: Well, my folks started with a canoe rental at Potter Park Zoo in the 1970’s and that led to one little boat…and another and another and so on.

Focus: Not only do you run the business, but you also pilot the Lansing area boats. How do you manage both?

Chamberlain: In small business you wear many hats. Sometimes that’s the captain’s hat, sometimes the bandana for doing dishes. I wouldn’t ask an employee to do a job I wouldn’t do myself. I also find getting out on the boats helps me keep an eye on the day to day issues, so I can make sure the team has what they need to do the best job possible.

Focus: How are you carrying on the traditions that your family established in Princess Riverboats?

Chamberlain: Tradition—that word carries a lot of weight, like responsibility. I think of it in two parts really. First, we always try to maintain the service and cruises that many of our customers have come to know and love. The second part of the tradition is to grow the business.

Ultimately, we want to serve as many people as possible. My father and I often spoke of what it was we were actually in the business of doing. We decided we’re in the business of providing people a fond memory. I can’t begin to tell you how many people come back and reminisce with us about trips of the past. Keeping that alive, where multiple generations of a family can come back and reminisce, is the tradition I am trying to carry on.

Focus: What has been one of your biggest obstacles and how did you overcome it?

Chamberlain: COVID, by far, was the hardest thing we have ever been through. When you close for 18 months, there’s no automatic switch to flip everything back on or a way to return to the “same-old same-old.” Getting up and running again was an awful lot like starting over.

I don’t think it was a matter of overcoming it, though, because it was more like a wave we had to surf versus climbing a mountain. It seemed the only thing we could do was paddle until we were able to stand up on the board again. Sometimes we were struggling just to keep our head above water. I’m not sure we have fully overcome it yet, but I’m optimistic about this year.

Focus: Beyond special events, like weddings and private parties, what other types of cruises do you offer?

Chamberlain: Actually 50 percent of our business is from individuals on public events. Our most popular public cruise in Detroit is the “Motown Review” featuring the Prolifics. In Lansing, our “Comedy Murder Mystery Cruise” is really a fun way to relax and have a few laughs. Up north, you just can’t beat the sunset cruise on Little Traverse Bay.

Focus: In this issue of Focus, some articles discuss employee happiness and engagement. Tell us a few strategies you use to keep your employees on point.

Chamberlain: Well who doesn’t like going for a boat cruise? Joking aside, it’s the human aspect more than anything. We’re all on a team together. We’re working together; not just punching the clock. We’ve really been focusing in on our staff and their needs. Some of our staff have needed help with housing or transportation to and from work. We may not always have a solution, but we’re here to listen and try to help them however we can.

Focus: Stability and growth are two of you major goals. How are you working toward fulfilling these?

Chamberlain: As a small business owner, too often you end up as the glue that holds all the pieces together. Learning to let go and trust others helps with stability, and allows for growth. Letting go has really been one of the harder things I’ve had to learn to do. It’s a lot like letting your kid go off on their own.

I also think growth can be overlooked, especially from the outside. It’s easy to say just add more boats and take more people for rides. Believe me, if that’s all I had to do, I would do it.

You reach a point, especially in small business, when you realize you’re doing all you can do. We’ve had to spend a great deal of time behind the scenes getting our ducks in a row for growth. It really is a balancing act between growth and stability.

Focus: Giving back is another important aspect of your business. Speaking as a member of SBAM’s Leadership Council, why is community engagement so important for a small business?

Chamberlain: Community engagement is so important for small business. You have the ability to interact in ways that just aren’t possible on an individual level. Being a small business in the community, you know that your customers are also your neighbors. Especially when you’re a service-based business. Anecdotally, for us, we love to see school kids out for field trips on the boats or the senior centers joining us for a lunch cruise. You can’t put a value on the smiles we see from kids when they get a turn driving the boat. It really is the best part of the job.

Bona Van Dis is Editor of FOCUS.

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