Ferry users will have to be pried away from the show-up-and-go model that has lasted for more than 50 years if B.C. Ferries is going to succeed with major changes to its fare system.
Even 17 years after a reservation system was introduced, the vast majority of passengers just go to the terminal and wait for the next sailing.
About 16 per cent of the traffic on major routes reserves space and the low take-up is mostly due to the high cost of a reservation, now $22.
Desperate to cut costs and enhance revenues in the face of an ongoing fiscal crunch, the ferry corporation took a big step Wednesday toward rethinking the whole point-of-sale system. It applied to the independent commissioner for approval to build a multimillion-dollar new online system that could turn the traditional way of doing business on its head.
Reservations — without the fee — would be the order of the day and it will be the people without reservations paying extra, rather than the other way around.
Approval is expected, given that the commissioner suggested the idea two years ago.
It’s the second radical notion to be aired in as many months. The first one was a quiet plan to consider rerouting Nanaimo traffic away from West Vancouver’s clogged Horseshoe Bay terminal to avoid the necessity of an expensive upgrade there.
That blew up in their faces after Transportation Minister Todd Stone backtracked and killed the idea.
The latest idea looks to have a better chance of at least being implemented. Whether or not it would work will be up for debate over the next few years.
The upside could include discounted fares at off-peak times, reduced pressure on never-ending fare hikes and easier bookings.
The downside is that it requires a wholesale information-technology conversion in the ballpark of $10 million, something that can be fraught with peril, particularly in the public sector.
It would require a major adjustment by the travelling public. And it leaves out of the picture that portion of the population who still aren’t online.
B.C. Ferries has broken the conversion into two parts. The first is fare-flexibility strategy that’s touted as a better way to set prices, sell travel and manage loads. It cut could wait times, improve efficiency and include loyalty cards that offer discounts for frequent users.
The second part is a massive computer upgrade that would be needed to accomplish all those innovations. The corporation acknowledges its website — which gets 1.4 million visits a month — and its systems are outdated, rigid and inflexible and can’t support new approaches to marketing.
The system offers only one fixed price per route. The only variations are a modest discount on minor routes for those with an “experience card” and the ability to buy assured loading tickets on major routes.
The company’s brief to the commissioner suggests that it is hamstrung when it comes to modernizing pricing by computer systems that can’t accommodate any changes.
Once the system is beefed up and streamlined, the company is counting on a 400 per cent increase in online transactions.
Revenue gathered online is currently $10 million a year, less than two per cent of fare revenue. Airlines, by contrast, sell 98 per cent of tickets online.
Also touted is the advantage of better capacity management. The fleet now sails at scarcely 50 per cent capacity and extra sailings are ordered — handled by crews on standby — when traffic builds up at terminals. More reservations could better match capacity and demand.
The corporation’s brief acknowledges all the usual risks for such a project, including “that customers may not embrace the new advance purchase model as anticipated, resulting in lower traffic and revenue.”
Just So You Know: The idea of putting slot machines on some ferries to generate extra revenue looks to be dead. Word from the corporation is that the concept was examined and found to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Transportation Minister Stone floated the idea a year ago, suggesting a pilot project on a major route.
Unofficial word is that the machines wouldn’t make enough money to be worth the effort.