WisBusiness: Ferry services, new and old, journey across Lake Michigan

By Brian E. Clark

The Lake Michigan ferry season has begun.

And the companies operating the two ships that cross the 60-mile wide lake have made investments of more than $550,000 to upgrade service and attract more riders for the 2005 season.

The S.S Badger, which began service Thursday, got a $100,000 injection from its owners to expand what a spokeswoman calls “family friendly” activities, update the ship’s décor and even add accommodations for pets.

It makes two crossings a day and round-trip fare for an adult is $78 in the spring and fall, $82 in the summer. Children 4 and under are free. The roundtrip cost for a car is $106, while recreational vehicles and motorhomes are $4.95 a foot.

The 410-foot Badger is in its 53rd season and sails between Manitowoc and Ludington, Michigan. Crossings on the 620-passenger, 180-vehicle ship take about four hours and will continue until October 16. The ship is owned by Bob Maglitz, Jim Anderson and John Clingan of Ludington. Their company is called the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee-based Lake Express starts its second season on Saturday. Workers at the Bay Shipbuilding Corp. in Sturgeon Bay added wing-like stabilizers worth $450,000 to each of the ferry’s two hulls earlier this year.

Company owners also made other improvements to the 192-foot-long ship, which carries 250 passengers and 46 cars. It makes three crossings a day and will offer service through December.

The $18 million catamaran can travel at speeds up to 40 miles per hour and make the crossing between Milwaukee and Muskegon in two-and-one-half hours. Its schedule runs through December. Roundtrip adult fare is $85, plus a $1.25 fuel surcharge. Children 4 and under are free. The roundtrip cost for a car is $118. The Lake Express does not carry buses or recreational vehicles.

The computer-controlled stabilizers should make the ride smoother for passengers this season. Last year, some travelers complained of rough rides. On occasion, trips had to be cancelled because of foul weather on the lake. Ferry officials hope the wings will improve the comfort of the ride through large waves.

Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the Lake Express, said the ship carried about 100,000 passengers during its first year. He declined to say how many crossings were cancelled because of bad weather.

“There will still be some cancellations because Lake Michigan can have large waves,” he said. “And while the ship can handle them, they aren’t comfortable for the passengers.

“But the stabilizers will make the rides a lot smoother,” he said.

Fleming said seating has been added on the top deck of the Lake Express.

“Frankly, we did not think that people would want to stand out in the open in 40 mph winds,” he said. “But they did, so we’ve added some benches up there.”

In addition, he said upgrades have been made to the premier class section of the catamaran, and food service has been added to the terminals.

Fleming said the company is counting on group bookings to help boost numbers this year. Service last year started in June.

“We’re getting car clubs, bus loads of seniors, religious organizations and other groups,” he said. “There was a little reluctance last year to make a commitment to us because they didn’t know if we’d get underway.”

He said the ferry, which is owned by the Lubar and Co. investment firm of Milwaukee, gets 60 percent of its business from Michigan residents who want to visit Wisconsin.

“People in Wisconsin don’t know much about Michigan’s beaches, how wide and sandy and warm they are,” he said. “This year in our marketing efforts, we will be talking more about the destinations, rather than just the trip.”

He said the ferry’s telephone reservation service also has been improved, as has the Internet reservation system.

“Last year was the shakedown season for us in a lot of ways,” he said. “We think people will like the improvements we’ve made in a lot of areas.”

Fleming said that while Lake Express owners are well aware of the S.S. Badger, it did not figure into the high-speed ferry’s business plan.

“None of our market studies relied on competing with the Badger,” he said. “We view this as an entirely new market.

“Our competition is airline service to Muskegon and Grand Rapids,” he said. “It takes two-and-one-half hours on the Lake Express, about the same time it would take you to fly, if you add on airport security delays.”

Fleming described the Badger as a traditional ferry that markets its trips as an experience.

“You really can’t compare what we offer,” he said. “Moreover, our ports are 90 minutes away from each other in Wisconsin and Michigan.”

Lynda Daugherty, a spokeswoman for the Badger, agreed that the Lake Express and her company’s ferry are quite different.

“Our ship is historic and offers a lot to do,” she said. “We have a big outside bow area, live entertainment, a theater and other amenities.”

Daugherty said the Badger has great appeal to vacationing families who have a little more time to spend. She also noted, however, that the Badger did not cancel a single trip last year.

Daugherty said her ferry carried about 100,000 passengers in 2004, down slightly from 2003.

“In part, it was because of the weather and high gas prices,” she said. “But we also had competition for the first time on the lake.

“We’re hoping to grow this season, and we hope that people will like the changes we’ve made,” she said.

For more information on the S.S. Badger, see www.ssbadger.com or call or call (888) 337-7948. For details on the Lake Express, see www.lake-express.com or call 866-914-1010.