Corporate boat cruises offer fresh perspectives, experiences

Area companies trade indoor event venues for waterways

Attendees socialize on the back deck of Milwaukee River Cruise Line’s Harbor Lady vessel.
Attendees socialize on the back deck of Milwaukee River Cruise Line’s Harbor Lady vessel. Credit: Milwaukee River Cruise Line

Home to the shoreline of Lake Michigan and confluence of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers, it’s no wonder Milwaukeeans like to say they are located on America’s Third Coast.

Water is considered a major part of local culture, especially during summer, when both locals and visitors take full advantage of the long-awaited sunshine and warmer temperatures, playing volleyball at Bradford Beach, walking along the Milwaukee RiverWalk, attending festivals on the lakefront and kayaking down the Milwaukee River.

For local businesses, summertime in a water-centric city can also provide an opportunity to make a splash when hosting corporate events.

“Taking events off land and onto the water allows us to use one of the region’s most valued cultural and economic assets while showcasing the city from a different perspective,” said Sarah Zens, events manager at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

MMAC in recent years has hosted a number of events on the city’s waterways, ranging from riverboat cruises and tours to young professional kayaking events to networking on the Lake Express ferry.

Earlier this summer MMAC organized a five-hour fishing cruise on Lake Michigan, attracting a sellout crowd that filled 10 six-person charters. And plans are underway to expand the event next year, Zens said.

From a planning perspective, corporate boating events present their own unique challenges, such as capacity limits, departure times, safety concerns and the possibility of inclement weather. But, Zens said, “it’s worth it when you see attendees experience Milwaukee’s beauty from the water and connect with their community.”

The occasional rain shower or drop in temperature doesn’t concern Dan Jorgenson, owner of Milwaukee River Cruise Line, one of several local boat cruise businesses.

The company’s five vessels—Lakeside Spirit, Harbor Lady, Miss Wisconsin and Edelweiss I and Edelweiss II— are equipped with fully enclosed, climate-controlled cabins, which allows the river cruise season to start as early as March and run as late as November. Other amenities onboard include outdoor decks, interior bar areas and sound systems.

Jorgenson started the company in 2006 and has since built out both its public and private charter programs. It currently offers nearly 20 public cruises, many of which take place on a weekly basis, including Wednesday Classic Dinner Cruise, Friday Margarita Fiesta Cruise and Saturday Beer and Brat Cruise.

But the brand throughout the years has worked to position itself as a private charter for corporate events, small weddings and other private parties, he said.

“(A cruise) showcases the city in its best light,” Jorgenson said. “For employees, going to a game at Miller Park year after year just gets old and the typical company party in a hotel gets boring. This breaks it up.”

Private cruises begin at the company-owned restaurant Pier 106, the former Port of Call located on West Wells Street along the riverfront. Vessels travel downtown via the Milwaukee River into Lake Michigan’s breakwater, looping around at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

With an in-house event planner and catering arm (through Pier 106), the cruise line has planned and executed corporate events for groups ranging from 20 to more than 150 people. The Harbor Lady is the largest vessel with a capacity of 145.

Jorgenson said his company has hosted events for large international companies, such as Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, ManpowerGroup and Northwestern Mutual, looking to entertain out-of-town clients and employees. Introducing visitors to the city by boat is the best way to show it off, Jorgenson said.

It also provides a better view of the development and revitalization that has taken place along Milwaukee’s riverfront in recent years, said Corey Zetts, executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners Inc.

The nonprofit organization recently hosted the Urban Manufacturing Alliance’s national conference, which was held in Milwaukee in early June. The three-day event kicked off with a boat tour of the city’s Menomonee River Valley and Harbor District areas.

“I think what people who came from out of town took away was the surprise and excitement of seeing how beautiful Milwaukee is and seeing how vibrant it is, but from the river’s perspective,” Zetts said.

Zetts said the tour, chartered by Riverwalk Boat Tours, was the first event of the conference to sell out, filling two 40-person boats. Parts of the tour were guided so attendees could learn about Milwaukee’s manufacturing history and key redevelopment sites along the riverfront, Zetts said.

“When we were planning this, we thought that taking people on a boat tour of Milwaukee was something really special,” Zetts said. “You could see the history of Milwaukee, with historical buildings along the way and the renaissance that’s been going throughout the city. It was such a great opportunity for people who might not otherwise see how vibrant the river is and all that the city has invested into the riverfront.”

Menomonee Valley Partners plans to host additional boat cruise events during its weeklong 20th anniversary celebration in late September. Zetts said she hopes it will showcase the progress that’s been made in the Valley over the past two decades and build excitement about the development that is yet to come.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.