Reservation fees drive down ridership, not rising fuel prices, says writer

To the Expositor:

Once again I read with a sense of frustration what is becoming an annual article in the paper on the beleaguered business outlook for the Owen Sound Transportation Company (‘Chi-Cheemaun’s management plans major analysis of ridership patterns, February 29, page 1).

On August 5, 2009 you ran a story titled ‘Weather, economy cited for low ferry traffic.’ As a property owner and frequent user of the ferry, I responded with a lengthy letter to the editor at that time acknowledging the difficult economic environment we were in. In that same letter I outlined my experience and issues with the service and along with them, a variety of suggestions from a customer’s perspective on how to make the experience of using the ferry service more enjoyable and user friendly.

On March 2, 2011 you ran a story titled ‘Ferry rates take hike but tariffs for reservations dip this season.” Following this disturbing story, I wrote Ms. Susan Schremph, general manager of the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) a letter with copies to, among others, The Expositor and Recorder papers as well as the Manitoulin Tourist Association.

In my letter I essentially refuted what your paper’s headline stated that “reservations dip.” The fact was that for the first time in 37 years, we were being forced to pay a non-refundable “reservation fee” of $15 on the first sailings of the day from Tobermory and South Baymouth. This reservation tariff effectively raised the cost of a one-way crossing for a car and two passengers by 22 percent.

In my letter of March 2011 I criticized the need for a reservation fee on any sailing, challenging Ms. Schrempf to name one other service provider ie: your doctor, auto mechanic, hairstylist, lawyer, accountant, etc. that charges you for the privilege of simply booking an appointment.

Further, when I can go online and book my own reservation at little or no cost to the OSTC, why should I be charged a non-refundable fee of $15 to do so? In this same letter to Ms. Schremph I also outlined the advantages to the OSTC of having reservations on file as it gives the company advanced notice as to their traffic count days if not weeks in advance. This allows them to plan the ship’s ramp configurations and staffing well in advance.

As a frequent user of the service (this will be my 60th summer on Manitoulin) I have both experienced and criticized how non-consumer friendly the OSTC is to deal with. I have made numerous suggestions from a customer perspective on how to make the ferry easier to use, thus potentially increasinq their traffic and revenue. Back in 2009 I criticized the policy of discounting the fare to a limited number of fuel efficient vehicles stating that vehicle size affects the cost, not what engine is under the hood. The company has since changed that policy to charge less for vehicles under 14 feet in length. With an increased number of smaller vehicles on board, the ship’s capacity is effectively increased so it makes sense to charge less for those vehicles.

In my letter of March 2011, I outlined some of the very issues that were covered in your recent story of February 29, including the fact that there are alternatives to using the ferry such as Highway 69. Refusing to be taxed for simply making a reservation, last summer I drove around from my home in Collingwood to my cottage at South Baymouth on four different occasions versus taking the ferry, thus depriving the OSTC of approximately $275 in fares. How many others did the same?

I maintain that the ferry is little more than a link on Highway 6 between Tobermory and South Baymouth. One only needs to look at the volume of vehicles crossing the bridge at Little Current 45 minutes after the ferry has docked to realize that the majority of ferry users are simply crossing the Island heading to destinations other than Manitoulin. Tourist operators and seasonal property owners have every reason to be concerned about the ongoing viability of the ferry service.

Once again I will reiterate, do not tax us for the privilege of simply booking a reservation.

Eliminate the reservation fee altogether. In doing so I contend this will have a positive effect on traffic count and overall ridership. In my letter of March 2011, I challenged Ms. Schremph to justify the $15 reservation fee. Although Ms. Schremph did respond to my letter, she failed to specifically answer that question.

In reviewing the 2012 season’s fares, I note that the reservation fee is not being charged on the first sailing of the day from Tobermory but is being charged on the first sailing of the day from South Baymouth. Why are passengers on the first sailing of the day from the Manitoulin side being penalized? Further, the ferry’s website reflects that “vehicles and motorcycles with attachments” pay a $15 reservation fee whereas for “vehicles towing trailers” it is only $10. This implies it costs less to make a reservation if you are towing a trailer. Not only is the reservation tariff a deterrent to the ferry’s use, the above conditions show it is completely inconsistent in its application.

There is no question that since 2008 we have endured some trying economic times. The US economy continues to struggle and with the current exchange rate, Americans are just not coming to Canada the way they were and this will not change any time soon. Nonetheless, the characteristics of a well run company with good management is their ability to effectively manage their business in good times and even more so in bad. What is the OSTC going to do in the face of these mounting difficulties? They are going to undertake a “major analysis of ridership patterns.” I have a better less costly suggestion. Solicit input from and listen to your customers!

As pointed out in your February 29 article, Rick McCutcheon, director of the Manitoulin Tourist Association, those that use the ferry as simply a way to access Northern Ontario makes “…those ferry users who use it to just access Manitoulin and the North Shore far more important as a percentage of the ferry’s payload.” As a ferry user in this latter group I certainly don’t feel very “important.” Several years ago the “Frequent Sailor” discount program was discontinued, effectively raising the fares. Now we’ve have this unjustifiable reservation tariff levied against us both of which are deterrents to our continued use of the ferry. My four trips driving around last summer is proof positive the ferry is competing with Highway 69 and this will become an even greater threat when the highway is four lanes all the way to Sudbury.

Today’s consumers are extremely value conscious. They will align themselves with companies that provide great products or service for a competitive cost and above all, are easy to do busy with. For the past 10 years I have been self-employed as a real estate broker. In 2011, despite the economy, I had my best year ever. Recently I received an unsolicited comment from a client that, among other things, commended me for being “consistent and easy to deal with.” It’s long past due for the OSTC to adopt this type of business philosophy. Based on the dire overtones in your most recent article and the continued use of ill-conceived marketing initiatives such as their reservation tariff, I predict we will soon see the Chi-Cheemaun sailing in a sea of red ink, if at all.

Rick Crouch