“They’re similar to what we saw in the 2007-2008 timeframe,” says company president and CEO Mark MacDonald. “We’re still very cautious about making any kind of predictions based on the strong advance sales, but we’re optimistic and excited about it.”
The Cat made its first crossing going from Yarmouth to Portland. The season’s start is two weeks earlier than last year. In the fall the season will run two weeks longer. During these extensions the ship won’t run seven days a week to help save expenses during non-peak times. The schedule still includes a morning departure from Yarmouth.
Last year The Cat carried 35,551 passengers over 15-and-a-half weeks. The number was 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.
The Nova Scotia government has committed $9.4 million towards the service this year. Last year the province says Bay Ferries met its budget. The Liberal government has said the goal is to see the level of subsidy decline as the service builds.
The Cat’s season started the day after the Liberal government was elected to another majority government. The government has signed a 10-year agreement with Bay Ferries. The PC Party had campaigned saying it would scrap the current deal and negotiate a new one that made more financial sense. While the party said it was confident it could strike a deal with the current operator, it also said it was prepared to look for a new operator if needed.
There was concern within the tourism industry that this could create service uncertainty or disruption.
Asked for his comment about the election outcome, MacDonald said the company takes no position on politics. “But to the extent that what happened in the election adds to the sense of stability around the service, we’re happy about that because stability is good for business.”
As the season gets underway, Bay Ferries says a major difference over last year is the time they’ve had to prepare for and market the service.
Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association (YASTA) is also looking forward to a stronger year.
“I am very positive about the season ahead. Bookings on the ferry are up well over last year and our room nights are already up for the year when compared to last year,” says Neil MacKenzie, YASTA general manager, who notes the tourism industry is seeing lots of private and public sector investment.
“We are seeing new tourism experiences being created and are also seeing more cooperation and strategic partnerships between tourism operators,” he says. “I am very pleased to see new restaurants, coffee shops and operators recognizing the opportunity. I believe we will have a fantastic year.”
One venture continuing is Sip@Sea, which was very successful onboard The Cat last year. Sip@Sea offered an espresso-type service where it sold its espresso beverages, smoothies, its in-house gelato and a variety of teas. There was the Scotia Market, which offered an assortment of sandwiches, salads, paninis and soups. And there is the Forchu Lounge, which serves higher-end food offerings, such as seafood dishes, in addition to Nova Scotian wines, beers and liqueurs. The Sip@Sea venture involves kitchen operations, bakery operations, stockroom operations, servers, cashiers, etc.
Sip owner Mathieu Maltais says they’ll be updating and expanding the Sip menu and food offerings on the ferry. Maltais is all about supporting local and says they purchase their meats for Sip@Sea from Emin’s Meat Market in Yarmouth.
He says given the extra time to prepare for this season and advance booking numbers, things are looking promising for the season ahead.
“Those projections are historically difficult to rely on, but I know they have at least 15,000 guaranteed bookings so far and today is the first day,” he said on Day 1 of the season. “That’s already about half of what they we had the whole season last year.”
Following the 2016 season Bay Ferries had an independent third party conduct a passenger survey. Of the 3,082 people who responded, 93 per cent said the service met or exceeded expectations and 96 per cent indicated they would recommend the service to a friend.
Maltais says in comparing his food services the operation on the old Cat service, Sip@Sea had doubled sales per passenger last year. Another focus this year will be to feature even more Nova Scotia products on the boat in the food and bar services and gift shop. Already, about 95 per cent of the products on the ferry are Nova Scotia based.
Maltais says the employment Sip@Sea provides is a combination of what’s needed on land and at sea to support it.
“Overall between the production and actually on the Cat I’m probably looking at 20 people,” he says, noting Sip@Sea is providing seasonal employment to those hired for six months.
Bay Ferries also employs people on land in Yarmouth at the Yarmouth terminal. There are jobs in the areas of reservations, security, shuttle, baggage, etc., in addition to the employees of the Canada Border Services Agency. YASTA also has traveler counsellors working on the boat.
Bay Ferries also does its provisioning in Yarmouth, such as fueling the ship and buys the majority of its supplies for the vessel in Nova Scotia.
TIANS LOOKING FORWARD TO TOURISM SEASON
The Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS), meanwhile, says tourism operators in the province are optimistic for a strong tourism season this year.
“Our recent business confidence survey asked over 1,000 operators about their forecast for 2017. Nearly 85 per cent of respondents identified they expect this year to be as good as or better than 2016,” said TIANS Chairman, Glenn Squires. “When adding this data to recent reports from Bay Ferries of strong advance reservations on the international link to the United States, Canada 150 celebrations, and other positive travel indicators, it would appear that we are on track to bring in some healthy tourism revenues for Nova Scotia.”
Last year the tourism industry in Nova Scotia reached $2.6 billion in revenue and generated almost $300 million in tax revenue for all levels of government.