LOWER TOWNSHIP — The boat ride convinced Delaware resident Bridget Blansfield to take her children to the Cape May County Zoo.
In the process, Blansfield contributed to the economies of two states, which ferry officials are crediting to a new marketing strategy in which the Cape May-Lewes Ferry provides transportation, over water and land, to tourist attractions in both Delaware and New Jersey.
It may be too early to tell, but so far the ferry’s new marketing strategy appears to be working. Despite the lingering poor economy, ferry ridership was up in May, June and July compared with last year.
The day last week when the Blansfield family came over on the ferry vessel MV Twin Capes there were 491 passengers.
“We’re usually in the 300s,” Director of Ferry Operations Heath Gehrke said.
“We’ve been up three straight months now, and that’s the first time that’s happened in five years,” said Michael Porch, the ferry’s manager of marketing.
The number of passengers and vehicles increased during the May-through-July period from 434,732 in 2009 to 447,724 this year, an increase of about 3 percent.
Blansfield, who lives in New Castle, said she never would have considered a trip to the Cape May County Zoo by car. That would have meant driving across the Delaware Memorial Bridge and spending about four hours in the car on a hot summer day. Blansfield said she would have gone to the Philadelphia Zoo or the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington before considering a trip to New Jersey.
Then she heard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry could get her to New Jersey, shuttle her to the zoo, and get her family back to the North Cape May terminal for the boat ride home later the same day.
That meant children Tim, 17, Jessica, 15, and Sam, 6, would get two Delaware Bay boat rides on a hot summer day and get to see a collection of wild animals at the zoo. The boats featured arcade games for the children, free Wi-Fi access during the trip, and fancy teak deck chairs for Blansfield to relax in.
“We figured we’d give it a try,” Blansfield said.
The marketing plan is to get tourists from places such as Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Delaware to visit New Jersey destinations including the zoo, Atlantic City casinos, Cape May’s historic homes, the Wildwood beaches and many other attractions.
The flip side is using the ferry to convince New Jersey residents to visit Delaware attractions such as NASCAR races at Dover Downs, no-sales-tax shopping at outlet stores in Rehoboth, and historic sites in Lewes. New Jersey riders can pick up a shuttle in Lewes to go as far as Ocean City, Md.
The ferry is also advertising specific events in the two states such as weekend festivals that may draw day-trippers to the other side of the bay. The goal this year is to promote 30 events on both sides of the bay. The ferry’s website links to events in both states.
Deals have even been set up with bike shops so ferry riders can rent a bike on the other side for a day of sightseeing on two wheels.
“We’re trying to create a region,” said Jim Salmon, a spokesman for the Delaware River & Bay Authority. Porch said it helps that the region being created is known for its fine dining, shops, beaches, and other attractions.
Ridership numbers have been declining in recent years, and DRBA Commissioner Neils Favre is not ready to say the answer has been found in partnering with the tourist industry. The three-month spike, Favre noted, could be due to other factors such as people vacationing closer to home during the recession. The ferries transported more than 1 million passengers in 2005, but that number declined to about 850,000 in 2009.
“I’m happy to see the trend. I’m not sure any of us know why,” said Favre, a Cape May resident.
“We’re partnering more with organizations on both sides of the bay and some of the traffic numbers give me hope. There are a lot of factors. People are staying closer to home. They’re not getting on planes,” Favre added.
Still, in a recession the goal is to retain market share. Not showing a decline can be a victory. While getting people moving between the two states helps sell ferry tickets, a secondary goal is to help local businesses. Economic development in Delaware and southern New Jersey is one of the mandates of the DRBA, which operates the ferry, the Delaware Memorial Bridge and several regional airports in the two states.
“The ferry is an important transportation link, but it’s also an economic development vehicle. Tourism is important to Cape May County and to Sussex County (Delaware),” Porch said.
Most ferry services lose money and have to be subsidized. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is no exception. It loses about $7 million a year and is subsidized by toll revenue from the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
In spite of the subsidy, Salmon said the ferry has to do everything it can to be competitive. The ferry has its two larger vessels, MV Twin Capes and MV Cape May, for sale right now. It plans to go to smaller vessels that require less fuel, less maintenance and fewer crew members.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” Salmon said.
The ferry’s marketing budget is $589,004 this year, which ferry officials hope will help reduce the operating deficit while boosting tourism in the two states.
The marketing is not just for events on land. There are also attempts to increase ridership for events just on the boats. Live music is featured on Rock the Boat crossings and the Family Fun Cruises are geared to family activities. There is also a marine naturalist program when riders learn about horseshoe crabs, terrapins and other marine life.
The ferry recently partnered with a Canadian-based online dating service, www.plentyoffish.com, to host a singles cruise and it was so popular, another one is set for later this month. The ferry boats are even being offered for weddings.
Part of the marketing strategy is to make the crossing more comfortable. Porch said teak deck chairs, WiFi access, flat-screen televisions, air conditioning and an improved food service are part of that strategy.
When the ferry was created in 1964, it was strictly for transportation from one side of the bay to another. There is a move to a more tourist-friendly ferry service, but Favre said a transit link is still the primary goal. The marketing plan is to make sure people know there are events nearby worth traveling to so the ferry is not just part of a coastal route linking the southern states with the Northeast.
Contact Richard Degener:
2009: 292,015 vehicles; 848,603 passengers
2008: 318,000 vehicles; 921,809 passengers
2007: 341,440 vehicles; 982,414 passengers
2006: 351,188 vehicles; 1,001,188 passengers
2005: 356,843 vehicles; 1,031,160 passengers