“We took a snapshot at the end of April and our advance bookings this year are up. I’m not going to get into absolute numbers, but they're up roughly five-fold over last year,” says Mark MacDonald, president and CEO of Bay Ferries. He says higher June numbers are attributable to the fact last year’s season only started June 14.
MacDonald says the company isn’t going to make any predictions of how many passengers it will carry this season but they’re encouraged by the advance numbers.
“The numbers we are tracking are at a level akin to what we saw in 2007 and 2008 seasons in terms of advance revenue,” MacDonald says.
MacDonald says Bay Ferries, along with other tourism partners, have been aggressively marketing the service and province to prospective visitors. To get a feel for people’s Cat experience last year, Bay Ferries had Corporate Research Associates send out a survey to 10,000 passengers. The survey took roughly 20 minutes to complete.
“We got 3,082 responses, which we were astounded by,” MacDonald says.
Of those who replied, 93 per cent said the service met or exceeded their expectations and 96 per cent indicated they would recommend the service to a friend.
“We think people like the product and the service a lot and we’re hoping that is contributing to some strong early indicators for this year,” MacDonald says.
Last year The Cat – which didn’t have as much lead-up time to the season as this year – carried 35,551 passengers over 15-and-a-half weeks. The number was well below the province’s projection of 60,000 passengers and less than what the Nova Star had carried the two previous season, although the Nova Star’s seasons were roughly six and four weeks longer. Non-service days, adverse weather and sea conditions also affected 18 Cat crossings last season.
On the financial end, last year the province committed $13.1 million for start-up costs, terminal upgrades and the ferry’s retrofit. The committed operating subsidy was $10.2 million. Bay Ferries said it met the financial projection last year. The province had committed $9.4 million towards this year’s service.
The provincial government spent around $41.5 million on the Nova Star service over two years. It chose not to continue on with that ship or the company that operated it. In the spring of 2016 Nova Star Cruises filed for bankruptcy, saying it had debts owing of more than $15 million.
Asked about the current provincial election – the PC Party’s leader, for instance, has repeatedly stated that, if elected, the PCs will scrap the current ferry deal and look to negotiate a better one – MacDonald offered a “no comment.”
The Cat’s season will end later this year, running to Oct. 15. Departure time from Yarmouth for the full season is 8:30 a.m. From May 31-June 28 it will sail five days a week. From June 29-July 27 it will sail six days. July 28-Sept. 2 will see crossings seven days a week. From Sept. 3-Oct. 2 sailings decrease to five days a week. From Oct. 3-15 the Cat will sail four days a week.
“The hope is that we can carry most of the passengers that we would have in a seven-day period on those four crossing days,” says MacDonald about the last two weeks in October. “What we’re trying to do, of course, is extend the season for the industry.”'
The Sip@Sea venture onboard the Cat, which proved very successful last year, will be back.
MacDonald notes at travel shows Bay Ferries has attended over the winter the reception has been great. “Every time our people go to one of those shows they come away astounded by the recognition of the service and the province and the number of people who say I want to do that sometime.”
Meanwhile, motorcoach tours for the Cat are trending about three times higher than last year.
“But last year is not a fair comparison year given that we were starting up and all of the turmoil around the Nova Star bankruptcy and everything else,” MacDonald says. “But what we’re happy about is it is building and building nicely. We plan for it to continue to do so.”
The City of Portland doesn't allow commercial trucks at its terminal facility so those couldn't be carried last year by The Cat.
IN OTHER FERRY NEWS....
The federal government announced Friday, May 5 that it is seeking a long-term approach to Eastern Canada’s ferry industry by exploring the concept of long-term contracts for three of its services.
The services include:
• Digby, N.S. to Saint John, N.B.
• Wood Islands, P.E.I., to Caribou, N.S.
• Souris, P.E.I., to Îles de la Madeleine, Que.
Northumberland Ferries Limited and Bay Ferries Limited welcomed the announcement of a long-term commitment . "We are pleased, for our customers, our employees, and the communities we serve, that the Government of Canada is making a strong and long-term commitment to the Wood Islands/Caribou and Saint John/Digby ferry services,” said Mark MacDonald, CEO of Northumberland Ferries Limited and Bay Ferries Limited.
The Digby-Saint John service operates year-round except during periods of vessel refit. Traffic volumes on the Saint John/Digby service have increased approximately 30 per cent over the past two years of operation. In 2015, Ottawa spent $44.6 million to purchase a new ferry for the run, the Fundy Rose. The service receives financial support from the
Ferry service between Wood Islands and Caribou resumed on May 1.
The federal budget will provide $278.3 million, over five years, for the operations of these three ferry services.