When Mike Shea founded Green Mountain Boat Lines in 1984, his signature vessel was a 149-passenger paddle wheeler called the Spirit of Ethan Allen, which set sail from Burlington, VT, every summer and provided scenic tours of Lake Champlain. Since then, Shea's company has expanded both its fleet and offerings, which now include theme dinners and charter cruises for corporate groups aboard Shea's third-generation cruise liner, the Spirit of Ethan Allen III.
"We do four scenic tours daily, and that's how our company started," said Rachel Connor, director of sales and marketing for the Spirit of Ethan Allen III. "We've evolved, however, and we've recently been trying to attract more meetings because we've realized that groups are really looking for something different."
According to Connor, Burlington has long been a popular meetings destination for New England-based groups, thanks to its natural mountain setting, nearby airport, and vibrant downtown, which includes several hotels, restaurants, and shops. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before groups found their way to Lake Champlain, which is over 110 miles long and bordered by New York to the west, Vermont to the east, and Quebec to the north.
"The lake's the perfect place for people who want to meet somewhere that's inspirational," Connor said. "We're not set up for the traditional PowerPoint meeting; we're more interested in meetings where people want to be surrounded by nature so that they can brainstorm, be creative, and build relationships."
Although the Lake Champlain area is ideally suited for smaller, more intimate meetings, the Spirit of Ethan Allen III can accommodate as many as 424 passengers on three separate decks: the Admiral Deck, which seats 210; the Horizon Deck, which seats 150; and the upper Sky Deck, which seats 100 and features retractable glass walls in order to facilitate open-air events.
Although it's the largest boat on Lake Champlain, the Spirit of Ethan Allen III isn't the only one. In fact, Green Mountain Boat Lines launched a group-friendly yacht last year. Called the Moon-light Lady, it's the first overnight cruise ship to operate on Lake Champlain since 1932, according to the boat's sales and marketing director, Gwendy Lauritzen.
Like the Spirit of Ethan Allen III, the Moonlight Lady has three separate decks: a lower deck that's designed for entertaining, with books, nautical charts, board games, and movies; a middle deck that features eight private cabins that sleep a total of 16; and an upper deck that can seat 40 and includes an open kitchen, a bar, and a lounge.
"It's great for small meetings, if you want to get away from cell phones, faxes, and e-mails for a two-day, one-night think tank," Lauritzen said. "Or, for larger groups, you can go out for an entire day on the upper deck."
In May, the Moonlight Lady will commence its second season, and the Spirit of Ethan Allen III its eighth. The two boats will sail in the midst of a yearlong celebration honoring Lake Champlain's 400th anniversary.
Originally published Jan. 5, 2009