When a 2013 market feasibility study prepared for the MS Chi-Cheemaun showed a steady decline in the ferry’s ridership, the ship’s operator, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), sat up and took notice.
The report predicted dire consequences for the ferry if it didn’t make some changes to reverse the declining trend.
“We took the recommendations from the report to heart, because they went out there and they found out: what do people want this ship to be,” said Susan Schrempf, OSTC president- CEO. “And (riders) didn’t want it to be just a way to get back and forth; they wanted the experience.”
In operation from April to October, the ferry has transitioned over the last four decades from its original purpose, shuttling vehicles between South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island and Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula, to a key component of the tourism industry in both communities, which flourishes during the summer months.
Upgrades began last year with new washrooms and continued this year with a reconfiguration and cosmetic changes to the ship’s dining area. In March, it was completely gutted and almost everything was replaced, Schrempf said.
The fluorescent lights were changed out for LED pot lights, and seven “lighting zones” added for a more intimate ambiance.
“It reduced our energy draw and, especially during the evening dinner cruises, the fluorescent lights were just too bright,” Schrempf said.
The ship’s new colour scheme and theme — borrowed heavily from Indigenous artwork — is integrated throughout the dining area, whose footprint has been entirely reconfigured.
A “scatter” format allows customers to enter for hot food, grab-and-go meals, or alcoholic beverages.
New tables for two line the windows, while nearby tables for four can be expanded to accommodate additional guests during special events.
Central to the area is a round settee divided into four sections, each with a table and glass partitions to delineate between the casual and fine dining areas, Schrempf said.
The port-side bar, used on ship’s dining cruises, is getting an upgrade, too, with a new focus on serving local craft beers.
The cost for the renovations totalled about $2.4 million, but that includes the replacement of ticket booths at both ports and an upgrade to the Manitoulin passenger ramp.
“Because it overhangs the water, if you ever need to paint this thing, it’s quite a big project because you have to protect the water,” Schrempf said.
This winter, while the ship undergoes its five-year drydocking, a vinyl wrap featuring the ship’s theme will be added to its bow. It will join the vinyl wrap and the ship’s motto, ‘Travel in Good Spirits,’ that were added in 2015.
The forward lounge will feature a permanent performance area and the upstairs bar will be revamped.
In 2018, the rear lounge will be upgraded with an art gallery, children’s area and more event space.
All the cosmetic changes will complement the attractions that have been added over the last few years. Most popular are the stargazing cruises.
“We have a night sky interpreter on board six nights a week in the month of August when the stargazing is at its best, and that particular market is growing quite well,” Schrempf said.
The ship also hosts dinner and entertainment cruises that feature an evening of musical performance of mostly Canadian artists.
“Those are going over really well, to the point where we’re now having performing groups come to us, larger names that we never would have dreamt would have wanted to play the ferry, saying they would like to play the ferry because it’s just a really nice night,” Schrempf said.
Manitoulin interpretive guide Falcon Migwans is returning as well to host a Native drumming workshop, which Schrempf said gives visitors an authentic Indigenous drumming and storytelling experience.
There remain challenges for the Chi-Cheemaun. In 2013, low water levels delayed the sailing season by two weeks, while late spring ice in 2014 and 2015 meant more schedule adjustments.
But in 2015, the ferry’s vehicular and passenger traffic actually increased by 8 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively. In the first few sailing months of 2016, vehicular traffic was up 11 per cent.
“The customer is looking at ‘What kind of service am I getting on board,’” Schrempf said. “After the safety and regulatory compliance, let’s make this the best experience they can possibly have in that hour and 45 minutes that they’re with us.”