Ferry critic outlines woes and blows assailing ridership numbers

EDITOR’S NOTE: This letter has been sent to Susan Schrempf, president and CEO of the Owen Sound Transportation Company and is reprinted here at the author’s request.

Dear Ms. Schremph,

By nature, I am a very positive minded individual. Needless-to-say after many years of letter writing and frustration, I was very encouraged and enthused when the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) hired a consultant(s) last year and announced a number of new initiatives earlier this spring in an attempt to turn around your sagging ridership.

In addition to the numerous letters I have written over the years outlining my experience and frustrations in using the ferry, I also attended the public information session in Tobermory last fall and provided considerable input to the consultants stemming from my 60 consecutive years of summer visits to Maniltoulin. This year marks the 40th year that I have owned my cottage at South Baymouth.

The following is a summary of my experience just yesterday in attempting to make a reservation for the 6:10 pm sailing from Tobermory tomorrow evening:

Called the Tobermory terminal, no answer.

Called the 1-800 reservation line, received a recorded message that my call was being transferred. Had this message played back six or seven times only to hear another recorded message state “cannot transfer call.” Went onto the OSTC website to book my reservation online, filled out the required information hit search and got an Internet “page error” message. Called back the Tobermory terminal a second time, this time I got an answer and was finally able to secure a reservation.

Rumours are rampant on the street that the reservation system is flawed. Frankly I have never trusted it and have typically called the terminal in Tobermory or walked into the office at South Baymouth to book a crossing. The consultant’s report highlighted the need for: “Clear and transparent reservation rules can enable riders to reduce the risks of losing their space onboard the ferry.” After 39 years of the Chi-Cheemaun being in service is it not time to provide this?

As a regular user, I went searching online yesterday for the rewards program that was promised to us back in the spring. Buried on the news and events page of the website I found it.

Years ago we purchased a Frequent Sailor Discount Card that enabled us to receive a 15 percent discount off our fares. The cost for the card was $50 and was subsequently raised to $75. It was simple, effective and allowed us to recover the cost of the card and then some, off our season’s travel expenses.

The new so-called “Frequent Sailor Loyalty Program” is simply ludicrous.

Obviously when it requires two pages of “frequently asked questions” to clarify the program’s parameters, it is far too complex for both users and even your staff to understand.

Your claim that the program saves you 10 percent plus is false and misleading. Let’s do some math. The total fare for my spouse and I with vehicle is $69.95, which is an increase from 2012. Nine crossings for two people with a vehicle totals $629.55. The 10th crossing is then free for the vehicle and only one passenger, a value of $53.45. Consequently the best case scenario after spending $629.55 is a savings of $53.45 or 8.5 percent of my travel costs to date. If on any of the nine crossings I am towing a trailer, which I frequently do, the percentage savings decreases substantially.

My spouse drives a more fuel efficient smaller vehicle than mine. If we take it for the weekend do we get rewarded for our loyalty? No! Why not? I am the same customer, am I not? I am now making a crossing with a smaller vehicle which effectively leaves you with potentially more space increasing the ship’s capacity.

If we cross for the weekend as walk-on passengers, which we sometimes do since we can walk to the cottage from the South Baymouth terminal, do we get any reward for our loyalty? No! Why not? Again I am the same customer.

If I cross with my box trailer or my 28 foot boat trailer in tow or bring guests for the weekend do I get rewarded for my loyalty and the additional revenue I have generated for the OSTC? No!

If I only make seven or eight trips this season with the specific vehicle registered for the program can I carry the stamps over to 2014? No!

What if I change vehicles mid-season? Tough luck I guess.

What if I lose the card? OSTC is not responsible. Again, tough luck?

This program does not reward the customer. It effectively rewards and recognizes the loyalty of the vehicle, which is just ridiculous. It provides no recognition for the money spent by frequent, repeat users and the revenue we generate for the OSTC whether we own and drive one vehicle or two, whether we are towing a trailer, have one person in the vehicle or six or if we are simply walk-on passengers. It simply acknowledges, if you will, when that one vehicle crosses on the ship with no recognition for who or how many are in the vehicle, what might be attached in the form of a trailer or how much money we spend on fares. Does your board of directors not have to review and approve these marketing initiatives?

According to the consultant’s report, commuters make up 35 percent of your ridership with the key drivers for them being time and cost. As proven yesterday you waste my time with a reservation system that doesn’t work while offering up a so-called loyalty program that does nothing to address the cost issue nor does it effectively or monetarily reward my “loyalty” for taking the ferry. This program will prove to be totally ineffective in rewarding frequent users and or making the ferry more attractive versus Highway 69 your primary competitor.

In terms of reinstating a Frequent Sailor program, the worst case yet most simplest scenario would have been to bring back what we had in the past. A discount card we paid for which could be used all season. The best case scenario would be as follows:

– We sign up for a discount program paid or otherwise. No card is needed, you already have my name and contact information in the system along with my credit card.

– The system recognizes us a being a Frequent Sailor and we receive the preset discount season long. Better yet have a chip card no different than a gift card with a retailer, whereby we pre-purchase a set amount of travel say $200 at a discounted rate ie. $170.

– The card can be used on fares, in the cafeteria, the Boatique etc.

– Another incentive to acknowledge frequent users would be with better reservation privileges ie: we have to arrive half an hour early not one hour before a reserved sailing to hold our reservation.

In terms of the other changes you have made I will offer the following comment.

The off-peak fare structure does nothing to address the ferry’s capacity utilization issues during the middle of the week when traffic is lighter or for the 10 pm sailing from South Baymouth in the summer which seldom has more than eight or 10 vehicles.

All of this is further evidence that the current OSTC management is incapable of developing and implementing programs/initiatives that will counter the impacts of the new economy or address the changing dynamics and demands of today’sconsumers. In nautical terms, a new course has been charted by the consultant’s final report. Your ability to navigate the way is very much in question and under scrutiny.

Unfortunately I have to agree with many of those that are submitting letters to the Manitoulin papers, the history of ferry service to Manitoulin may be drawing to a close. I too fear that as one letter recently proclaimed, “it is only a matter of time before the Chi-Cheemaun is killed,” the result of substantial operating losses stemming from an ever declining ridership and a management that is as much as responsible for its demise as the troubled economic tides you have found yourself in.

Yours truly,
Rick Crouch
and South Baymouth