Ronnie Polaneczky: Couple paid in advance for wedding on sinking ship

Brett Condon and Rob Zahorchak outside the Philadelphia Belle, aboard which they planned to wed. (Sarah J Glover / Staff Photographer)
Brett Condon and Rob Zahorchak outside the Philadelphia Belle, aboard which they planned to wed. (Sarah J Glover / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2011

KEVIN McELROY won't speak with me on the phone. So I've been unable to ask this very important businessman a question:

Does he give a damn about the Philadelphia wedding disaster he's unleashed on Brett Condon and Rob Zahorchak?

Condon, 28, and Zahorchak, 31, were supposed to marry on Saturday, Sept. 24, aboard the Philadelphia Belle - the restaurant/catering paddleboat, docked at Penn's Landing, that opened with dazzle in December.

The couple paid their entire $18,998 Belle bill on June 29, two months before it was due. That's because Brett, a new attorney at the Center City law firm Weber Gallagher, and Rob, a manager with GameStop, "scrimped and saved, and the cash was in the bank.

"I didn't want to be tempted to spend it," says Brett.

The fee for the floating fete covered everything: the wedding service (the ship's captain was to officiate); a sit-down dinner and open bar for 100 guests; a live band; an emcee for the reception; flowers, cake and a champagne toast.

By this time last week, Brett and Rob had mailed out the invitations. And they'd gotten a call from Belle management to schedule an appointment with the ship's captain, to discuss the service, and with the pastry vendor, to sample wedding cakes.

"Everything was great," says Brett.

Two days later, it went to hell.

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Belle abruptly ceased operations, citing lack of sales. Panicked, Brett called the Belle's general manager, Perry Miles, to ask about her wedding.

"He had no idea," recalls Brett. "He was very upset. I said, 'I'm getting my money back, right?' He said, 'I don't know if that will happen.' "

Miles told me the same thing, when asked how the Belle planned to fulfill its obligation, not just to Brett and Rob, but also to 1,953 people who, days before the Belle went belly-up, had paid $15 apiece (grand total: $28,834) through Groupon for dinner aboard the ship.

"I have no answers," Miles said. "I was told this morning [by the Belle's owners] to shut things down. It's a terrible situation. A couple big events are canceled. I've got 133 employees out of work. I feel awful."

Brett and Rob feel worse. "We don't know what to do," says Brett. "There isn't enough time to plan a new wedding by Sept. 24. Even if there was, we have no money. The Belle has it."

Which brings us to Kevin McElroy, who has the power to do right by Brett and Rob. McElroy is the president and chief operating officer of CI Travel, the Norfolk, Va., company that owns the Philadelphia Belle.

Last year, when McElroy met with the board of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. to discuss CI's plans to bring the Belle to Philly, he assured everyone that his business was sound.

CI Travel had $150 million in annual sales, he said, fueled by contracts with the Department of Defense, NASA and the SEC. But the company's first love was riverfront entertainment.

The Philadelphia Belle, he said, would "animate Penn's Landing."

Clearly, the business didn't work out, the way business isn't working out for many companies in this economy. I get that. And I get that creditors will have to get in line to be paid.

But Brett and Rob aren't typical creditors. They're a young, responsible couple who believed the Belle's sales pitch and organized the biggest, most expensive day of their lives around it.

Surely McElroy would make amends?

But McElroy wouldn't speak with me on Friday when I called his office. He did say in an email that the Groupon customers would be reimbursed and that Brett's wedding "is our current top priority as we too are moved by this bride being caught up in the closing of the Belle."

So let me offer McElroy a suggestion, which seems easy enough to implement:

Forget reimbursing Brett and Rob their $18,998, since they'd still be left with the headache of organizing a wedding on the fly.

Instead, just reopen the Philadelphia Belle for one day - Saturday, Sept. 24 - and give these lovebirds their wedding.

Because right now, says Brett, they're scrambling. At press time last evening, a Camden Adventure Aquarium official called to say that McElroy had asked whether the aquarium could help Brett and Rob.

But I don't think they should be married in the aquarium. It's not what they paid for. It's not enough.

McElroy and CI Travel need to step up for these kids.

Instead of jumping ship, they should sail it.

Email or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at

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