Ferry's First Year Is Smooth Sailing

November 24, 2004
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MUSKEGON — After sailing past expectations during the inaugural season, operators of the Lake Express high-speed ferry across Lake Michigan are weighing upgrades for 2005 and, in the long term, an expansion of the service.

In planning for the 2005 season, Lake Express plans to look at service upgrades that President Ken Szallai describes as "customer service things" and "atmosphere things," which include enhancing the ferry's business class cabin and giving the vessel and terminals on either side of the lake a more upscale feel.

Making upgrades to the ferry after a successful first year on Lake Michigan is part of a push by Lake Express to constantly offer "a high class of service to our customers," Szallai said.

"They will see next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, continuous improvement in the service we will give them," he said.

Judging by the response Lake Express received during its inaugural season, the service is already pretty good.

Lake Express, a venture launched by Milwaukee-based Lubar & Co., beat expectations for the inaugural season.

While the company declines to release specific passenger volumes, Szallai said the ferry sold out most trips during the summer, was profitable and easily surpassed a target of carrying 100,000 passengers between Milwaukee and Muskegon.

"We were easily able to do that, so take it from there. We beat the ridership projections, there's no doubt about it," he said. "The kernel of a very successful business is there. The seeds have been planted."

And those seeds could sprout into a larger fleet of vessels crossing Lake Michigan in the years ahead.

Szallai, the former director of the Port of Milwaukee who for years spearheaded efforts to restore cross-lake ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee, was hired in September by Lake Express to build and expand the business. Possibilities for the future are the launch of a second vessel between Muskegon and Milwaukee, now served by a single vessel that runs three daily round-trip crossings, and extending high-speed ferry service to other ports.

"The business model calls for us to diversify into other markets and we certainly want to do that. We did not get into this just to have one ship crossing Lake Michigan," said Szallai, who could not offer a timeframe for expansion. "As time goes on, we'll evaluate other markets and we'll consider those. We will go where the market tells us to go."

Cruising at speeds of up to 40 mph, the 192-foot ferry crosses Lake Michigan in two and a half hours. The ferry, with a capacity to carry 250 passengers and 46 cars, made the 78-mile trip across Lake Michigan six times daily, or three round-trips.

With the 2004 season completed, Lake Express is now reviewing the first year's performance and planning for the 2005 season, which will launch April 30.

The ferry ended the 2004 season several weeks early with its final run Oct. 31. Lake Express wanted to operate the ferry later into the year but was unable to maintain strong ridership through the fall, Szallai said. Better promotion of the fall schedule is one area for improvement in 2005 for the ferry, which the company promotes as a convenient transportation link across the lake between Michigan and Wisconsin that enables leisure and business travelers to avoid Chicago traffic.

"Quite frankly, we didn't do a very good job getting the word out that the vessel would be open after the first of October, so the sales just didn't materialize," Szallai said.

Overall, the 2004 season went "pretty much as expected," Szallai said, with the ferry's crew steadily improving turn-around times between crossings from 40 minutes following the June maiden voyage to 15 to 20 minutes by the season's end.

While Lake Express expected a solid first year in terms of ridership, Szallai was surprised to see the business get off to a strong start immediately in June. He expected passenger volumes would ramp up steadily during the first month before reaching capacity.

"Essentially, on day one, everybody showed up at the party," Szallai said. "And that was a very pleasant surprise."           

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