MUSKEGON — The Lake Express high-speed ferry between Muskegon and Milwaukee is entering its second season, and President Ken Szallai is confident this year will be even better than last.
Szallai said bookings are strong and the firm expects to pass the 100,000 passengers served last year. The ferry has a capacity of 250 passengers and 46 vehicles and travels the 76 miles across Lake Michigan in two and a half hours.
“Our expectation is to do considerably more in ridership this year than last year,” he said.
The ferry’s ride control system has been tuned up and its premier class lounge has been revamped to include a warmer ambiance and a full-time steward to assist passengers with their drinks, food and free reading material. Premier class passengers have additional services such as complimentary beverages included with their tickets.
“It’s that little extra care that is what’s important,” Szallai said. “We’re trying to make that area much more comfortable for the premier class.”
Besides comfort, Szallai said the ride, whether in standard or premier class, also can be a time-saving measure by working on business during the commute.
“The business community is actually discovering Lake Express as an alternative to driving and flying,” he said. “They can use that time to work on the computer, to do that report, or plan that speech. Again, it’s a productivity gain to the business community and it’s certainly very cost effective to do it.”
Whether they are working or playing, passengers should find the ride to be smoother this year, after $450,000 was invested in adding T-foils to the hull for additional ride control. The addition looks like the tail of an airplane, Szallai said, and helps to control unwanted motion in the vessel.
“Our customers are just as excited,” he said. “We’re delighted.”
Szallai said the terminals also have been redecorated to present a calmer atmosphere to passengers.
“The terminals were a bit too manic for people,” he said of last year’s experience. “This year we’ve really worked hard on both sides of the lake to get people into a terminal that’s more relaxed.”
Ticket prices have stayed the same as last year, though a $1.25 fuel surcharge has been added to help with the cost of fuel.
Though there are no immediate plans for expansion, Szallai said Lake Express was not formed for the purpose of just one ferry. More could be added in the future.
“That’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” he said.
Whether or not Lake Express expands its business, it is already helping the surrounding area expand, said Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen.
“The Lake Express is not only bringing a lot of new people to our community, they’re also bringing new investment to our community,” she said. “There has been about six or seven new businesses that have located in that particular area. They’re offering new services, not just to the tourists but to the residents as well.”
Larsen said several new gift shops and art galleries have opened, as well as a deli, coffee house and upscale market.
With the passengers coming into Muskegon, Larsen said the new businesses and old are being utilized.
“Generally when we’re talking about 100,000 new people in a summer season. That automatically translates into hundreds of thousands of new retail and service dollars,” she said.
It also puts Muskegon’s best face forward for those arriving, Larsen said.
“When you arrive by water you see a whole different side of Muskegon,” she said. “You really see the recreation and the beautiful natural resources when you enter by boat.”
Larsen said she was also optimistic about this season.
“I think it’s going to be outstanding,” she said.
For more information on Lake Express, visit www.lake-express.com.