With docking issues resolved, Chi-Cheemaun management focusses on marketing, ridership

OWEN SOUND—The crisis surrounding the cancellation of the start of the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry’s spring schedule due to low water levels and the need to modify the fenders at the ferry’s berths in Tobermory and South Baymouth provided an unwanted distraction from the other crisis facing Manitoulin Island’s link to southern Ontario, that of a precipitous 27 percent decline in ridership on the ferry over the past couple of years. But with the low water crisis in abeyance, at least temporarily, and repairs underway on the offending fenders, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), the ferry’s operators, can now refocus their efforts on building ferry ridership back up to sustainable levels.

“We only have five staff here (at the OSTC head office in Owen Sound) and our hands have been full getting the repairs underway,” said OSTC CEO and President Susan Schrempf. “Now we can get back on putting together a plan to market the ferry.”

A marketing study was conducted last year that outlined the challenges behind the drop in ridership on the ferry and possible solutions and approaches to turn that trend around. An economic impact study that was completed concurrent with the marketing study released earlier this spring has not yet been released by the province, but the bottom line of that study indicates that the ferry’s economic impact to the region is well north of $30 million.

The first stage required in the marketing plan is to engage a marketing firm. “We have to acquire a qualified firm,” said Ms. Schrempf. “That means submitting our requirements to the provincial Advertising Review Board.”

Although the marketing study indicated that the way forward for the ferry will be to engage local stakeholders in packaging partnerships that will prove attractive to targeted markets (likely in the largely untapped Greater Toronto Area, according to the ferry marketing study) the process is not yet advanced enough to undertake that engagement. “Not in the early stage,” said Ms. Schrempf. “We need to have identified the appropriate markets before we can proceed with building packages. It is not something we can leap into if we want to do this successfully. There needs to be a co-ordinated effort.”

Once the marketing firm has been selected and the markets identified there will “absolutely” be a place for local stakeholders and operators to become engaged in the process of turning the ridership numbers around, said Ms Schrempf.

Michael Erskine