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Hornblower Cruises hopes to persuade Maid of the Mist tour operator to exit

When a San Francisco company begins operating boat tours in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2014, it won't be with the iconic Maid of the Mist name.

And if Hornblower Cruises & Events gets its way, it will be the only tour boat operator in the Niagara Gorge.

"We're not anxious to share space," Hornblower chief executive Terry MacRae said Monday. "I think when we all meet [with Maid of the Mist officials] and discuss, they'll find out it's great timing to exit, and we'll do our best to help that happen gracefully."

MacRae's comments come five days after his company was awarded a 30-year lease to run boat tours on the Canadian side. The Glynn family has used that land to store boats for its American Maid of the Mist operation, and President Christopher M. Glynn said last week his business "may soon come to an end" because of the Canadian decision.

Others held out hope the Glynns could preserve their American business by building storage facilities on the less pliable American shore.

While MacRae stopped short of saying his company would like to operate the American boat tours, he said he's opposed to the idea of two companies operating in the same waters.

Glynn, whose family has run the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. for four decades, declined to comment. The family has a 40-year lease with New York State for the American tour operations, and the state's ability to terminate that lease depends mostly on financial insolvency or lease violations by the Maid of the Mist.

MacRae said he viewed the Glynns as partners in a transition rather than adversaries in a territorial fight, adding he believed the Glynns would continue to operate their tours this summer despite an earlier Glynn warning saying that was uncertain.

"They're not going to give up all the good will in the community [to show] that they're not happy here," MacRae said. "They're good people who have done a great job for the community."

What will happen if the Glynn family decides not to operate the tours before 2014?

"If they do something unpredictable, then we'll try to mitigate that, too," MacRae said.

The Canadian tours will be sent out without the iconic Maid of the Mist name, which the Glynns have attempted to trademark.

"In this day and age, the critical part of the name is not how long you have been around, not how cute it is," MacRae said. "The most important thing is doing the right job in cyberspace," where many boat trips are booked.

MacRae has chosen Niagara Falls Cruises as a working name, though he said that may change by the launch date.

Money played a role in Canada's decision to pick the San Francisco company to operate boat tours at the falls starting in 2014 -- the Niagara Parks Commission will make $300 million more than it did from its long-standing deal with the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co.

But Hornblower also won the 30-year lease of prime Canadian land, officials said, because it plans to make the tours more exciting for the average tourist.

"I think we'll try to create a little more of a destination for them," MacRae said.

The company's plan for improving boat-tour operations is threefold: draw more tourists from around the world, make it easier for them to get to the boats and give them an unforgettable experience before they leave.

Of course, the main attraction will continue to be the mountain of tumbling water that has drawn tourists for centuries. But, according to MacRae's vision, man-made upgrades to the tours will help the product, too.

Most noticeable will be the new boats, which will carry the same number of passengers as the Maid's fleet but will feature wider viewing platforms on the upper deck and a less-enclosed platform on the lower deck. The environmentally friendly boats, which have not been built, will include seating for the disabled, "dry zones," restrooms and on-board concessions.

The docking area along the Canadian shore will also see upgrades, including a new Falls View Deck with outdoor dining and viewing attached to an existing administration building. Those wishing to view the ride without braving the waters will be able to do so at a visitor pavilion and picnic area.

Tourists will have an easier time getting to the attraction, officials said, after Hornblower rebuilds an incline with an elevator car and provides a shuttle tram to take tourists to the docking area and disabled riders to the boats.

Tickets, which can be scanned directly from a smart phone, are not expected to rise in price from $15. Price increases are subject to Parks Commission approval.

Hornblower, which created a Canadian company to bid on the Niagara Falls tour rights, has an extensive history of boat tourism in the United States.

It puts on wedding, dinner and birthday cruises and private and corporate events on luxurious yachts in New York; San Francisco; San Diego; Marina Del Ray, Calif.; and Long Beach, Calif.

It also operates the two largest ferry concessions for the National Park Service at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com