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WisBiz In-Depth: Competition on the Big Pond for Ferry Passengers

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE -- The Lake Express ferry will make its first high-speed trip from Muskegon, Mich., to Milwaukee on Tuesday amidst a fair amount of hoopla.

About the same time, the S.S. Badger will make a somewhat slower, low-key voyage from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich., just like it has for years.

The fact both ferries are running raises two big questions: Will there be rough financial waters ahead for one or both of the ferry services? Is the Big Pond big enough for two ferry services?

If you listen to spokespersons for both services, the answer to the first question is “hopefully not” and to the second is “yes.”

“From our first marketing surveys on, the Lake Express has never been about cannibalizing the clientele of the Badger,” says Jeff Fleming of the Zizzo Group, which is handling some of the Lake Express media relations. “It’s about connecting Milwaukee and the Muskegon-Grand Rapids-Holland areas.”

Fleming points out that the tri-city area in Michigan is comparable size to Milwaukee, and that many passengers will take the respective ferries for different reasons.

“Comparing the Badger with the Lake Express is like comparing Amtrak service to Chicago with Greyhound service to Appleton. It’s comparing apples and oranges,” Fleming said.

“The Badger offers a slower speed, sentimental cruise between two towns of similar sizes. Lake Express is providing high-speed ferry service between two larger communities.”

Linda Daugherty, director of media relations for the Lake Michigan Car Ferry service, which runs the Badger, was less eager to compare the two services, but said her company is hopeful that the market is indeed big enough to support both.

Daugherty said that while it is very early in the season “passenger counts look similar” to last season, when around 3,000 Harley Davidson passengers made the trip on the Badger for the 100th anniversary celebration of that motorcycle company.

She also pointed out that the Badger has added several innovations and amenities, just in case the Lake Express does cut into the market.

“For example, we have a new program called 'Cruise and Learn,' through which presenters offer educational programs for passengers,” Daugherty said. Topics range from lighthouses to the eco-system of the Great Lakes to the fisheries. The topics were developed from passengers’ feedback on their interests.

“We’ve added other things to our entertainment on board,” she said. “We still have large outside decks and lounge areas. We truly like to provide a cruise-like experience. We’ve had many of our passengers tell us it’s the closest thing they will ever come to taking a cruise.”
The prices for the two services are similar, with the S.S. Badger coming in a little cheaper. For round-trip tickets, the Lake Express costs $85 for adults, $82 for seniors and $40 for kids and $118 for autos. The Badger is $78 round trip, $66 for seniors and $35 for kids; vehicles are $49 each way. The Lake Express also includes a business class, which costs $120 round trip or $65 one-way.
Fleming said marketing studies estimate that up to 20 percent of the Lake Express ridership eventually could be for business. One of the strongest appeals of the service, according to the studies, is that business travelers and tourists alike can avoid the traffic around the south end of the lake and through Chicago.

“When you look at a map of the U.S., one of the most logical routes for a ferry is between Muskegon and Milwaukee,” Fleming said.

Ferries have run along that route in the past. The S.S. Milwaukee, now dry-docked in Manistee, Mich., made the trip for years. The Milwaukee Clipper, now docked in Muskegon, also provided service. The last ferry service to run out of Milwaukee ended in 1980.

Manitowoc also has been a port for ferries for quite some time. The Badger first started running from there in 1953. It was out of business for a year and a half before resuming service in 1992, under the ownership of Lake Michigan Car Ferry Inc.

Built in Sturgeon Bay, the Badger measures 410 feet long and weighs 4,244 gross tons. It has 42 staterooms and 84 berths for sleeping. It can accommodate 620 passengers, 180 autos and RVs, semis and other cargo.

The Badger makes the 60-mile journey between Manitowoc and Ludington in about four hours, at a speed of about 18 miles per hour.

Lake Express, owned by Lubar and Co., features the first U.S.-built high-speed ferry to run on the Great Lakes. It will make its trip in about 2 ? hours at around 40 m.p.h. It includes a business-class cabin and food service.

New terminals in Muskegon and Milwaukee have had some cost over-runs. The Milwaukee terminal is still under construction near the Coast Guard facility at the south end of the Hoan Bridge.

A press conference is planned Tuesday afternoon after the first ferry arrives from Muskegon. Gov. Jim Doyle and other dignitaries have been invited, according to Fleming.

Pessimists will likely point to the fact competitive ferry services have not run on Lake Michigan since the 1970s. They will question if the market is big enough, and point to Americans’ love affair with travel by car.

But soaring gas prices have made auto travel less appealing to many. And development along the southwest coast of Michigan in recent years has extended the Chicagoland traffic hassle.Plus, the high-speed ferry could offer something business-types often pay for: convenience and efficiency.

If the marketing studies are correct, and the S.S. Badger and Lake Express can attract their own viable audiences, then the Big Pond could indeed end up big enough for two ferry services. And business people and tourists will have more options on how to travel.

“Ferry service on Lake Michigan is a century-old idea,” Fleming said. “We believe that our service could help promote the idea even more, and both services could benefit.”

--Hoffmann, a former UW-Milwaukee journalism instructor, is moving from Milwaukee to Westby.


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