Scott Ball / Rivard Repot
On Sunday, Go Rio Cruises will begin operating San Antonio's new multicolored fleet of electrically powered river barges. The company has 26 boats to start and will have all 44 navigating the channels by Dec. 1.
The new barges were designed by Houston-based firm Metalab and replace the nearly 50-year-old barge design originally created for HemisFair '68. Punched aluminum panels surround the boats' modular shape with designs that reference the city's historic missions, military influence, and upcoming Tricentennial celebrations. Neon lights wrap the underside of the boats and color the water underneath.
All of the old river barges will be decommissioned Saturday and put into storage. Due to the manufacturing schedule, Go Rio Cruises will begin operating with just a little over half the amount of boats that are usually in the water at any given moment.
The new barges will sit higher in the water and feature reimagined seating arrangements. Regular tour barges can accommodate 40 passengers and the average dinner ride will seat around 18.
Beginning next year, Go Rio Cruises will begin offering speciality cruises of self-described foodie adventures, ghost tours, yoga and spin-classes, and early morning ¡Buenos días, San Antonio! tours.
"Historically a lot of our barges, boat tours, and dinner barges are in the evening," said Lisa Wong, who shares majority control of Go Rio Cruises alongside Hope Andrade and operating partner Landry's. Wong and Andrade spoke to the Rivard Report Friday inside the City's river boat marina. The duo believes that the new barge programming will appeal to younger, local San Antonians along with the tourists that the river trips usually attract.
"We want to feature the beauty of our River Walk earlier in the morning or earlier in the day for those locals, conventioneers, and tourists that have an earlier start to the day," Wong said.
City Council voted 10-1 in May to award the contract to Wong and Andrade's company following a contentious competition that led to several appeals questioning the validity of the selection. Despite attempts to alter the City's decision, Wong says the company was focused on taking control of the contract.
"While that was going on, it may have been a distraction, but we were confident that we were going to move on," Wong said. "Because there was nothing [we were] accused of that we believe was wrong."
There also were concerns about the future of river barge dining and how that would change under Landry's growing footprint on the San Antonio River Walk. Wong said most of the current dinner operations will remain the same, with a few new speciality dinners on the barges.
"All the River Walk restaurants and hotels up and down the [river] will have the same opportunities of years past to participate," Wong said. "[Customer service and hospitality] partnering with our River Walk stakeholders I think is the perfect equation for success."
The transition from former barge operator Rio San Antonio has been professional, Wong and Andrade said. Moreover, they stated that 95% of the current boat captains were re-hired by Go Rio. All employees are starting at $14 an hour, a considerable increase from previous years, according to Wong.
Also increasing is the standard ticket price for a boat tour, which Go Rio raised from $10 to $12. However, there are discounts for local residents, children, seniors, and military members.
Of the first 26 electric barges going into use, two will be used for water taxi service, five to six will be used for dinner service, and the others will be used for tours, according to Wong. She expects lines of riders due to the initial reduction in boats, new ride excitement, and the holiday season influx.
Tickets can be purchased from the Go Rio Cruises website in advance, to reduce wait times.