Letter: Dissatisfaction over recent changes with the Chi-cheemaun ferry

Travelling in good spirits should be more than just a slogan

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

Dear Ms. Schrempf,

Over the past several years, I have written to you on several occasions as a frequent user of the ferry service to Manitoulin Island. In recent years and following the public meetings (which I attended) and the market feasibility study completed in January 2013, you finally made some noteworthy changes to the service including eliminating some of the ill-conceived and poorly implemented marketing efforts and policies that had been thrust upon your customers causing inconvenience and added expense for using the service. These policies no doubt also played some role in the 27 percent ridership decrease OSTC experienced from 2005 to 2011.

While I, like many, appreciate the recent initiatives you have put forth to enhance the “user experience” for those who use the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service, I am once again writing to convey my extreme dissatisfaction and that of others with two recent policy changes that you have brought forward after the start of the season with literally no notice to those of us who use the ferry on a regular basis.

This year marks my 66th year of continuous ferry use to Manitoulin. As of this letter I have made eight trips on the ferry from my home in Thornbury/Clarksbury to my cottage at South Baymouth. Further, I have eight additional reservations booked for the months of July and August and will also be making trips in the fall.

Recently I became inadvertently aware of two changes that were being implemented by OSTC, one pertaining to reservation changes/cancellations, the other for commuter parking at the Tobermory and South Baymouth terminals. After years of not being able to book reservations on the two middle trips of the summer schedule, OSTC finally relented and began taking ferry reservations for these two high traffic ferry crossings but at a then cost of $20. That fee was subsequently reduced to $15 but was also added to the first and last crossings of the day which we had previously booked at no additional cost for over 35 years. It was a welcome relief when the practice of charging a reservation fee, which I felt was nothing more than a surcharge or tax, was eliminated altogether. This enhancement to the reservation process has no doubt helped to drive an increase in ferry use after the many years of ongoing decline as mentioned above.

I, like many, have had no problem with and understand the need for the long established policy of requiring 24 hours notice for reservation changes or cancellations. I strongly object, however to your revised policy effective June 14 of charging either a full of half vehicle fare for changes made “within 24 hours” or “within 48-24 hours” respectively of your original departure time. On June 12 I phoned (24 hours) in advance to change my reservation for June 13 to the following day, June 14. That same one day change will now cost a user $37.70. Under no circumstances, as you claim, does this “maximize opportunities for customers to make reservations.” It’s nothing more than an additional cost that is sure to drive users away as it effectively adds a significant increase to your user’s ferry expenses.

The other issue is the implementation of a “parking fee” for walk-on passengers that are leaving their vehicles at either Tobermory or South Baymouth. In a recent Twitter post, OSTC boasted “customers to enjoy free parking at Tobermory and South Baymouth terminals this Canada Day weekend” as the planned implementation date for the parking fee was being postponed to August 1. The fact is that for the past 45 years, since the Chi-Cheemaun commenced service in 1974, parking has been free at these terminals year-round so your Twitter post was hardly truthful. This new policy has outraged many whose family and or friends use the ferry for weekend visits to their Island properties. A couple now planning a trip to Manitoulin for such a visit for a two or three day period are now facing $67.40 in passenger fees round trip plus a further $20 to $30 or more for parking. Several lanes of parking in Tobermory previously used to stage vehicles prior to ferry boarding have remained vacant for years and parking is no longer allowed anywhere on Highway 6. Parking at South Baymouth is extremely limited although the demand for commuter parking on that side is minimal. At the same time I have read where large trailers and RVs are now being allowed to camp overnight on your Tobermory loading lot, seemingly for free. It would appear to be very inconsistent to charge parking for some customers but not for others.

Many of us that have been using the ferry for years are fully aware that annual subsidies are depended on to ensure the continuation of the Tobermory to South Baymouth service.

According to your current business plan, which I found online, this subsidy for the 2018/2019 season is approaching $2 million. Increasing ridership, both passenger and vehicular is essential to maintain the long-term viability of this much needed service. Implementing poorly conceived initiatives will serve only to drive users away and, further, this could significantly impact the tourism economy on Manitoulin Island. As I have stated in my previous correspondence, you do have competition and we as travelers have options, it’s Highway 69 which will soon be four lanes all the way to Sudbury.

As a frequent user and reservation holder you have on file my name, address, phone number, email address and credit card information. Was any of the policy change information I have outlined herein communicated to me or others? No, it is buried in the “public notice” tab of OSTC’s website, which I am confident very few people read.

Many of today’s customer-driven, progressive companies have customer user groups whose opinions and thoughts are sought to allow those businesses to make informed, effective decisions regarding products, services, policies and other matters that will enhance their overall revenue and profitability and their customer’s experience and loyalty. With a lengthy career in corporate business and now real estate, I personally believe that OSTC could benefit from such an initiative. Please do not interpret this letter as a mere complaint(s). Rather, I am simply sharing my experience as a regular user and my fear is that in continuing down the path you are heading will do little to secure the long-term viability of the current ferry service. For many of us “Travelling In Good Spirits” is becoming nothing more than a slogan versus the service we experience.

Respectfully submitted,

Rick Crouch