By DON CUDDY
Standard Times Staff Writer
NEW BEDFORD — As the New England Fast Ferry enters the fourth year of its eight-year licensing agreement to link New Bedford with Martha’s Vineyard, the outlook is bright, according to company President Michael Glasfeld.
“We’re very happy with the key trends we’re seeing. Advance bookings are up more than 30 percent over last year. Also, weekend travel is up 15 percent over the last couple of weekends, which shows winter is gone and people are beginning to come out.”
The ferry draws on three disparate groups for its ridership, Mr. Glasfeld said.
“In winter it’s mostly contractors going out there, building or renovating homes. That was off this year, which reflects the downturn in the building trade. The other segments are vacationers, who come principally from New Jersey and Connecticut, and then you have day-trippers who are mostly from Rhode Island and the SouthCoast.”
To reach out-of-state visitors, the ferry relies on electronic media. “The first thing visitors do is book their B&B or their vacation rental. Then they think about getting over there. So we spend a lot of time inhouse, massaging the search engines,” he said. “If someone types in ‘MV ferry’ we want to be in the top four results. You have to figure out what clients are thinking, so it also has to include folks who might misspell ‘ferry’ or ‘New Bedford.’
More passengers are welcome since the cost of fuel has been an ongoing concern. A ferry burns about 100 gallons of fuel on each leg of a trip. “Three years ago, fuel was 80 cents per gallon, and now it’s $2.10. It’s our single biggest line item,” Mr. Glasfeld reported.
John Tiernan is general manager of the fast ferry. An island resident, his family has lived on the Vineyard for 150 years.
“For a walk-on service like ours, to see advance bookings increase 30 percent is unprecedented,” he said. “Islanders are skeptical people, but I think the fast ferry is winning them over. We’re starting to see our athletic teams going to New Bedford; more people are going for their medical appointments and, from the third grade up, school kids are going there on field trips.”
Anne Brengle, executive director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, has witnessed the contribution that the ferry has made to the city. “My office is on Union Street, so I see the people going by with bags and suitcases. Our paid visitations are up 10 percent this year, and that is because we now have groups and school trips coming to the museum from the island.”
Another beneficiary has been Town Car Travel, which offers travelers connections to and from the Providence Amtrak station and T.F. Green Airport.
Vice President Stephen Higginbottom Jr. has seen his business pick up since becoming partners with the ferry. “They run a good business,” he said, “and we enjoy working with their clientele.”
Mr. Tiernan said he believes that comfort and reliability have been key factors in the company’s success.
“The other fast ferries use jets,” he said. “We have conventional propellers, but our boats have trim tabs for stability. These are computer actuated and can adjust for any sea conditions once the boat is up to speed.”
Both ferries operating on the route are also products of New England, built at Derecktor Shipyard in Bridgeport, Conn.
Speaking last Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Tiernan noted that weather had forced cancellation of the Steamship Authority boat to Oak Bluffs that morning, but the fast ferry had arrived from New Bedford, as scheduled. “The nor’easter was kicking our butt but people getting off that boat were amazed at how smooth the ride was,” he said.
While running a successful business is the first priority, its relationship with New Bedford is also important to his company, Mr. Glasfeld said.
“We’re stalwart supporters of the city, and I feel proud that we have a knock-on positive effect. We’re also probably the biggest advertisers for New Bedford. We spend $250,000 annually promoting our service. We have ads on Comcast and on area radio stations, and we also have our billboards.”
However the main reason ridership has increased is because travelers are recognizing the service as a better option, he said.
“We spend a lot on educating Bostonians about the advantages of avoiding the bridge. Most people are smart enough to see that.”
Although more passengers could lead to future expansion, the company will continue to act prudently. “We’re always looking at opportunities. We could probably triple our capacity on a great weekend in the summer, but you have to balance that against the winter, so it’s a constant tension. We’re now looking at an invitation to bid on service from New Bedford to Woods Hole put out by the city of New Bedford.”
Publication date: June 17, 2007
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By DON CUDDY