B.C. Ferries has a perception problem and it knows it.
That was the message from Mark Collins, the company’s president and chief executive officer, to members of the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce last week at the Coast Bastion Hotel.
Collins told an audience of roughly 100 people Feb. 14 that B.C. Ferries is one of the most recognizable brands in the province, but it is also perceived in a negative light by many.
“When you look at the strongest brands in the world, what you find is, not only do people like the brand, the product, the service, but they align their values with those brands, in other words, they love them,” he said. “We are below average when it comes to people’s values aligning with ours.”
Collins, who has been president of B.C. Ferries for less than a year, said despite having one of the best safety records in the world and strong on-time performance, people’s experience is often driven by fares and personal experiences of delays or cancellations and that they often feel B.C. Ferries is out to inconvenience them.
“People have a view that B.C. Ferries is out to do it to us again. That B.C. Ferries must be in it for themselves, not in it for us, not in it for travellers, not in it for British Columbia, but in it for themselves,” he said. “This is a problem.”
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Around $7-8 billion worth of cargo is transported between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland each year accounting for around $90 million in revenue annually, according to Collins, who said the perception from many people in the business community has not always been positive.
Collins said while there are many people who view B.C. Ferries in a positive light, the company knows it needs to do better. Ways to do that, he said, are to listen to people before making decisions, improve the experience onboard and promote values that focus on the community.
“We have to demonstrate that we are open and that we are listening,” he said.
Speaking to the News Bulletin afterward, Collins said one area that needs improving is the onboard wifi service. He acknowledged that their current wifi system does not meet passengers’ expectations but hinted at possibly implementing a satellite wifi system that could accessed for a fee.
“It would be a premium paid service, like on airplanes,” he said.
Collins said all the extra “cruise ship” style amenities and the company’s extra services such as their vacation service and the restaurant help keep fare costs down. He said B.C. Ferries wants to hear from passengers about how the onboard experience can be improved.
“I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but we haven’t always done that and we want to do that now,” he said.
B.C. Ferries is always exploring ways to add alternate revenue sources according to Collins, who said some possibilities could include a store highlighting B.C. wines, but he ruled out any plans to install onboard casinos.
“We don’t favour gaming onboard right now. We are a family service and we think the headaches and lack of return and the other problems that go along with it are incompatible with the kind of service that we offer. It’s risk that I don’t think ferry users would want us to take,” he said.
The company is also working on a long-term redevelopment plan for all of their terminals, but Collins said there are no plans to close Departure Bay or relocate the downtown Nanaimo harbour terminal that connects with Gabriola Island.
“Our long-term plan does not include moving the terminal at this time,” he said. “There is always discussion about should the route go to Duke Point, we have no plans for that at the moment; however, we will be guided by the community.”
With the City of Nanaimo recently unveiling draft plans for redevelopment along Front Street near B.C. Ferries’ downtown Nanaimo terminal, Collins said his company is willing to listen to residents should they express their desire to see the terminal relocated but said the community hasn’t raised the issue yet. He said the plan is to redevelop the terminal to make it as efficient as possible and that increasing capacity on the route will likely be needed in the future.
“It is a very busy route. It has more round trips per day than any other minor route in our system … so it already has got a lot of capacity, but there are times when even that is not enough,” Collins said. “So, within the next five years, I foresee that we will need to make some changes, adding capacity.”
Collins said it is unclear whether an increase in capacity would mean more scheduled trips along the route or adding a bigger ferry. He said B.C. Ferries realizes the impact any increases would have on traffic along Front Street, adding that the company will engage with residents, stakeholders and the city before a decision is made.
“Discharging a larger ship either on Gabriola Island or on Front Street is very, very challenging,” he said. “So we need to have conversations with the planning department at the City of Nanaimo and with our ferry advisory committee on Gabriola Island before we go forward.”