Jack Fennimore
City Business

Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals

Russ Davis has built a small empire on the river with three waterside restaurants and his themed tours by boat offering food, drinks and fun.

By - Jul 20th, 2015 12:07 pm
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Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rental. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rental. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

Whether you want a boat cruise that happens to offer food and drinks, or a food and drinks purveyor that happens to offer a boat cruise, you can’t go wrong with the Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals.

With the boat tour you can cruise down the winding Milwaukee River and then out onto Lake Michigan while enjoying music, chatting it up with loved ones, and, of course, eating a variety of appetizers and drinking a variety of brews and other concoctions. The theme of the cruise changes depending on what day you want to go; options include Tiki Tuesdays, Wild Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays and Funky Fridays. There’s also a special Pub Cruise and a Brewery Tour. And for those that want to take the reins themselves, there are also hourly rentals for everything from 10 people party barges all the way up to 45 foot long, 40-49 people pontoon boats.

I was able to talk to Russ Davis, the entrepreneurial owner of the company (and owner of three restaurants in the city) about the history of his unique touring company.

Davis grew up in Milwaukee but traveled all over the country for 250 days out of the year as a Sports Illustrated lighting technician. During his travels in places like San Antonio, he noticed that a lot of cities have thriving businesses along their rivers. At the time, Milwaukee was just starting to build the Riverwalk. So Davis thought a boat rental business would be perfect for this city.

So after he opened up his first restaurant in Milwaukee, the now defunct Café Vecchio Mondo on Third Street, he opened up the boat business. That was in 1998. He started off with four paddle boats and one rental pontoon boat, which eventually grew to 19 boats (with five of them used for touring and the rest for rental) today. There were other boat businesses established before Davis’, but they didn’t focus on smaller tour and rental boats like he did. And while he faced many challenges along the way, it all worked out in the end. Along the way, he opened several other restaurants, including the Lakefront Brewery, Hubbard Park Lodge, and the Twisted Fisherman, all located along the Milwaukee River. “I think we helped grow the downtown area because bringing in more events and more things that tourists can do really helps the city as a whole,” says Davis.

His Riverwalk tours also include a Saturday “3 Pub Cruise” that makes stops at the Twisted Fisherman, Milwaukee Sail Loft and The Wherehouse.  The “Sunday 2 Brewery” tour, billed as “America’s Only Brewery Tour By Boat,” makes stops at Lakefront Brewery and the Milwaukee Ale House.

Davis finds Milwaukee to be a “pretty attractive and pretty friendly” city which has allowed him to set up all of his different businesses. He also credits his managers for keeping each business working.

As for his work philosophy, Davis says you have to “work harder than your employees.” You also have to make sure your employees are doing their job so your work can complement theirs. For start-ups looking to create their own company, Davis offer this advice:“Do all your research first, your due diligence. Be Careful.” He also says to make sure you have enough capital to take you through tougher times, which is especially important for seasonal businesses such as the boat tours.

Davis is looking at expanding, but he must take care of his core businesses before doing so. He says he’s looking into other types of tours to offer.

Davis says Milwaukee is well worth touring is because of its beauty and continuous change and growth. Touring Milwaukee by water is almost like seeing an entirely different city. “Anybody that takes our tours, they go on the river and are like, ‘Wow! I never knew Milwaukee was like that.’”

The tours are also a great way to learn more about the city. You can become more knowledgeable about Milwaukee, he notes,  and that will change “what you show to people when they come over to visit.”

Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals is located at Pere Marquette Park on 950 N. Old World 3rd St., Milwaukee, WI 53202. You can also check them out on their website. Most tours are $23 to $30 per person depending on what time you go (with 5.6 percent sales tax) and party barge rates start at $55 an hour. Renting the pontoon boats is considerably more pricey.

Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals

Categories: Business, City Business

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