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At the helm of Vista Fleet

Each year, nearly a quarter of a million passengers board the Vista Fleet for an outing on Lake Superior or a tour of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Moving that many people is no easy task, but Sarah and Justin Steinbach -- now in their fourth seaso...

On the Vista Queen
Passengers on the Vista Queen take pictures of the St. Clair as the tour ship followed the laker out of Duluth recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Each year, nearly a quarter of a million passengers board the Vista Fleet for an outing on Lake Superior or a tour of the Duluth-Superior Harbor.
Moving that many people is no easy task, but Sarah and Justin Steinbach - now in their fourth season as owners of the iconic Duluth business - enjoy the challenge.
The Steinbachs said they’ve found themselves under a bit of pressure. They’ve taken on a company that has been in operation for 60 years - and as a result, is known a certain way. But they also want to incorporate their own ideas and grow the business.
“We took on history, so you have a battle; it’s a game,” Sarah said. “Obviously there’s this embedded tradition that people know that we’re the sightseeing boat … It’s a pro and a con because you also want to take that (tradition) and go with it because that is part of who we are.”
At the same time, “we wanted to make it a little bit more fun. A little bit more appealing to the locals, to the tourists, to all of that,” Justin said.
Buying the business

Prior to buying Vista Fleet, Sarah, 34, and Justin, 32, each worked at the Edgewater Resort and Waterpark, where Justin was director of aquatics, then general manager. He took various roles at other ZMC Hotels, owned by the Goldfine family, who owned the Vista Fleet at the time, too.
Sarah had been hired at Vista Fleet and was assistant general manager and director of marketing and sales.
Justin reflected on his decision-making process when he learned the Vista Fleet - which now includes the Vista Star and the smaller Vista Queen - was for sale.
“For me, it was an evaluation of what’s that next step in your career,” he said. “And it was either you continue climbing the corporate ladder, you go work for a bigger corporation or - with a little bit of the spirit of entrepreneurship - kind of go into business for ourselves.”
The couple made the move to buy the Vista Fleet in December 2011, but they found the process challenging. Of the six banks that Justin visited for financing, only one gave him consideration. Luckily, he said, they managed to pull it off.
In their free time, the couple balances work and family as they raise four young children - ages 6, 4, and 2-year-old twins. At their house near Saginaw, they seek refuge from the hectic nature of their jobs.
Year-round business

No longer just a small piece in a large company, the Vista Fleet receives a lot of personal attention under the Steinbachs.
“As small business operators, we had to get real agile,” Justin said. “They were a big company with deep pockets, who could take a loss at the end of the year, but us being a small business, we couldn’t take a loss to get to the next season.”
The company has turned a profit each year since the purchase, he said, but the weather can determine the strength of the season.
“Some years have been tougher than others,” Justin said. “In fact the last two years we had no spring and barely summer - and that’s tough.”
During the winter, which is sometimes longer than they want, they’ve rebranded themselves, moving past the logo that had been used for 10 years.
“If we want to present ourselves in a new, fresh light, we’re going to have to spend the money to do that,” Justin said.
They renovated the interior of the Vista Star, too, which matches their new branding.
“Winter is not a down time; we’re constantly rethinking what we can do next,” Sarah said.
Although the Steinbachs work year-round, most of the Vista Fleet’s 40 to 50 annual employees work only from April to October, while about 12 workers work nine or 10 months out of the year.
Tour changes

Since taking over, the Steinbachs have initiated a number of changes. They’ve moved away from handling much of the food operation. Instead, the food now comes from some of Duluth’s most recognizable restaurants: Grandma’s, Black Woods, Duluth Grill and Bellisio’s.
“We’ve changed the feel of the cruises,” Justin said.
They’ve also made scheduling changes. Vista Fleet used to offer cruises of an hour and 45 minutes to two hours, but the Steinbachs have designed tours of various lengths that cater to a number of audiences. The long tour still exists, but is offered only once a day. Now, customers can take a ride as short as 45 minutes.
“The reason we started (shorter tours) is because the other boats were too long for some people. They just want to come out, see the lake, go back in. Canal Park is a big area, (and) they just want to continue on with what they came to do,” said Tim Hall, a captain and mechanic for Vista Fleet.
Following the shore up to Leif Erikson Park, the quick-tour option turns back to pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge and make a short loop in the harbor before returning to the DECC.
Lively narration

The Steinbachs also have made an effort to make the tours more fun, particularly with the tour guides.
“We would literally have people complain about these narrators, if you will, and it’s because we were … putting the wrong people in that role,” Sarah said.
Sarah, who has a theater degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth, has worked to make the narration more lively and entertaining by reaching out to local actors and theater students.
Lauren Schulke has been a tour guide for two summers. She’ll be a senior theater student this fall at UMD.
“I think we kind of come in with a natural cadence of being kind of fun and goofy. (It’s) a nice added touch,” she said.
Instead of just listing off facts, names and dates, Schulke pairs them with her own anecdotes or jokes - for example, telling kids that Harry Potter went to the Historic Old Central High School, which she identifies as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. On a recent tour, in one breath she listed as many Aerial Lift Bridge facts as she could. The approach seems to be working - facts that might have otherwise been ignored caused audible sighs of astonishment among the passengers.
Sarah Steinbach said the amount of tips the tour guides receive skyrocketed after actors took over the role, an indication that customers are enjoying it.
Typically Vista Fleet attracts mostly summer tourists - but the Steinbachs implemented $5 Tuesdays, when every tour is $5 per ticket, in an effort to draw local residents.
“We’re really kind of keeping it a local thing. A tourist that comes in on a Tuesday is going to get a $5 (ticket), but that’s not our market. It’s really trying to touch base with these locals,” Sarah said.
It seems to be working. Tuesday is no longer Vista Fleet’s slow day.
“We’ve been getting huge numbers on Tuesdays,” Schulke said.
Moving forward

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Sarah Steinbach said finding appropriate changes without disrupting the company’s tradition can be a challenge - but finding what worked in the past and using that can work just as well.
“You recycle things. … Times change and sometimes it calls to bring something back that worked, and sometimes you try something and it flops,” she said.
Looking forward to the next five to 10 years, Justin Steinbach said they are looking to grow to company by reinvesting in it. That could mean a new boat or new attraction - they aren’t sure yet.
“We definitely aren’t settle people; we like to keep moving forward,” Sarah said.

Related Topics: LAKE SUPERIORCANAL PARK
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