By Andrea Hansen
The Prairie Lily has graced the shores of the South Saskatchewan River for the past seven years and has become an icon in the City of Bridges. But how does a ship named the Fiesta Queen, plying the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nevada, find its home in Saskatoon? Who knew there was another steamship, the Lily, that went up and down this river in the 1800s, unknowingly foretelling the modern day Prairie Lily?
The story of The Prairie Lily began between Mike and Joan Steckhan and previous Saskatoon boat operators Peter and Val Kingsmill. Mike Steckhan was in the Canadian Forces Naval Reserve, and 2010 was the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy. Planning for celebrations had begun and the Navy wanted something high profile and on the water. Steckhan approached Peter Kingsmill – he owned the Saskatoon Princess and the Meewasin Queen, small tour boats. Peter’s grandfather was Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, the first director of the Canadian Naval Service.
The 100th Anniversary celebrations were a success and Steckhan and Kingsmill continued to build their relationship. They helped each other, and Steckhan helped fix Kingsmill’s boats. When Kingsmill was getting ready to retire, the question would have been, who could afford to buy a large brand-new tour boat and was crazy enough to do so? The successor was obvious, and soon “Captain Mike” and “Purser Joan” were shopping for and eventually purchased the Lily and brought her to the South Saskatchewan River.
It doesn’t matter what business you have, you’re always subject to economic swings.
Mike, after 27 years in the Canadian Naval Reserve, was it a big transition to owning The Prairie Lily?
I always had a sole proprietorship as a backyard mechanic. Also, we own an on-water industrial and marine technology company called Inland Marine Technologies (IMT), so it wasn’t a big leap to buy The Prairie Lily. IMT provides support services to The Prairie Lily because there is no dockyard in Saskatoon that can provide the needed services. Most importantly, IMT’s ability to produce 3D sonar images of the riverbed ensures The Prairie Lily has a navigable channel to cruise in – important to the safety of our passengers, crew, and ship. Another simple example is that an IMT barge is pushed up against the side of The Prairie Lily for the winter. We have a lot fewer worries about the ship getting away in the wintertime and I can sleep at night. It’s a big industrial piece of equipment but in the off season, it’s certainly handy here. These little things save us money. Our staff on the operations side of the river cruises is cross-trained for the industrial technology work.
Anything strategic, we do together. Working together has become part of our lifestyle. You don’t leave work, which has its own drawbacks, and there is no such thing as work-life balance.
Joan, was this always part of the plan to work alongside Mike?
Originally, I am from the Yukon and have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan, which originally brought me here. I am also a CPA and spent 20 years running not-for-profits, including 12 years with the Kinsmen Foundation. Originally, we thought I could continue as executive director of the Kinsmen Foundation and take care of the financials of our business. As things changed, I took on a larger role here and simply couldn’t do both. It was difficult for me to leave the Kinsmen Foundation because the work was meaningful.
So how does it work as a couple in business?
Mike says, “The beauty is we each have our individual talents and as a couple, we have both sets of talents in use. There’s the business part, which Joan runs. Then there’s the on-water part, the ship and marine technology, which is my end. We’re not interfering with each other.”
“No, I will never change the oil,” says Joan.
Mike replies, “I’ll never poke at her programs. Anything strategic, we do together. Working together has become part of our lifestyle. You don’t leave work, which has its own drawbacks, and there is no such thing as work-life balance.”
Joan replies, “I really enjoy Mike’s company and we spend a lot of time together. We have our own little worlds, but it works for us. We can wallpaper together too.”
Mike, thinking about the viability of a riverboat on the Prairies, did you feel this was a risky venture?
Right from the start, it was Joan who did the business analysis and plan. I just had a hunch that we would be fine. I just look at a ship and know whether it’s the right ship for the environment it’s in, whether the machinery is good; can I get it here and make it work?
The Prairie Lily has done well and on par with expectations. It doesn’t matter what business you have, you’re always subject to economic swings. When we bought this ship, the economy was pretty good. What if it all goes south? We rely on income that people spend and that’s a competitive market. We’ve found from an economic perspective, when things are good, we have done well. But if money is tight, rather than the Caribbean cruise, Saskatonians have a staycation, which includes The Prairie Lily. It appears we do well either way because we’ve had consistent growth and been able to adapt to the market.
Other than buying the ship, what business decision had the biggest impact on where you are today?
Before we even bought the ship, we discussed what the intent was going to be. We had looked at a couple of boats in Winnipeg, and when we met the owner all he could talk about was how much money the party boats make doing booze cruises. We decided we were not going there. We are a cruise boat that serves meals. The baseline of a party boat means you can make a lot of money in a short time.
Our decision was strategic. You might not make money quickly, but you’ve got longevity and that’s the core of the business plan. When you’re the only riverboat option in the community and 90% of your customers are from Saskatoon, you live and die fast. Saskatoon is a word-of-mouth town and if you have a nice product, you win. But the reverse is also true. You screw up once and you’re finished.
What keeps you going?
Customers are already happy to join us, so you start on the right foot. It’s about an experience, and the river valley is so beautiful. We get to do what we want to do and make money doing it, and we have the ability to share something that people can’t otherwise engage in. One of the most common comments we get is that the city looks so different from the river. Until you are on the ship, you don’t believe it.
The experience on the boat means something different to everyone. There’s one fellow, over the last couple of years, that I would see every Friday for the 4 o’clock cruise. He would get a pint of cold beer and lean on the rail on the port bow for the whole cruise. He’s a small business owner of a software company with a lot of stress, and he says, “It’s the only way I can get away.” So, every Friday he comes for a beer in the boat to just relax. It’s the only way to get away in the middle of the city.
First published in the March 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.