Ferry Service Targets Business Travelers

    MUSKEGON — Serving more than just tourists, the high-speed ferry service launching next spring will offer West Michigan business travelers a new way to go west.

    Touting the cross-lake ferry as a convenient way to avoid the notoriously congested Chicago freeways, and get work done while en route, Lake Express LLC will target business travelers going between West Michigan and Wisconsin. The vessel, which will make the 68.5-mile run between Muskegon and Milwaukee in 2 hours and 30 minutes dock to dock, will feature business class fares and a 50-seat section designated for business travelers that will include Internet connections and enough space to get work done.

    And, unlike flying on an airline, travelers will have the ability to use their wireless phones while on board.

    “At its very essence, what Lake Express is offering people is time — valuable time,” said Ken Szallai, director of the Port of Milwaukee that for years has sought to restore ferry service between Milwaukee and Muskegon.

    Szaillai, after spending five and a half hours on the road last week traveling to Muskegon, and then driving 283 miles back to Milwaukee, bills the high-speed ferry as “the last detour you’re ever going to take around Chicago traffic.”

    Szallai and representatives from Lake Express provided a briefing on the ferry service last week to a gathering of business and community leaders organized by the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.

    Market research shows that 15 percent to 20 percent of the freeway traffic passing through Chicago consists of business travelers. Szallai expects that business travelers can account for the same or a higher percentage of the “hundreds of thousands” of people projected to ride the Lake Express ferry across Lake Michigan annually.

    “That’s not an inconsequential number of people,” he said. “We think there’s a strong market for business travelers.”

    Lake Express plans to start high-speed ferry service across Lake Michigan on June 1, running three round trips daily. The first trip will depart from Milwaukee at 6 a.m. and the final crossing will leave Muskegon at 10:30 p.m., arriving in Milwaukee at midnight central time.

    The 192-foot vessel will have the capacity to carry 250 passengers and 46 cars.

    The Milwaukee-based Lake Express will offer business fares “at a slightly higher premium” than leisure fares, spokeswoman Robin Mindt said. The company will announce fares for the inaugural season after the first of the year.

    Given the amount of time saved by avoiding Chicago traffic, and the convenience and amenities the ferry can offer, the potential business travel market is one that Lake Express can’t ignore.

    “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people, but it’s a loyal traveler and we need to grow that market in the future,” Mindt said.

    The ferry that Lake Express will use for the cross-lake service is now under construction at a shipyard in Mobile, Ala. The vessel, when complete, will offer a “rather spacious” interior designed for comfortable travel, as well as on-board dining, Szallai said.

    Szallai projects the potential economic impact on Muskegon and the West Michigan area at $25 million to $30 million annually. The Wisconsin side of the lake should see a similar annual economic impact, he said.

    Among the ongoing preparations for the launching of ferry service is formulating a marketing campaign that, from the perspective of this side of the lake, will draw visitors from Wisconsin to West Michigan.

    The Muskegon County Visitors Bureau and Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce are working with Lake Express to draft a marketing plan. That effort includes collaborating with travel bureaus throughout the region and along the Lake Michigan shoreline whose communities can benefit from the ferry service.

    “One of the things we’ll be selling is the necklace of communities along the water that are near Muskegon,” Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen said.

    The marketing campaign will “cast a very wide net” in hopes that travelers coming into Muskegon from Milwaukee will spend time in the immediate area or visit another West Michigan destination before heading home on the ferry or by driving. Representatives from chambers of commerce in Grand Haven and White Lake were among the 100-plus attendees at last week’s briefing.

    “It’s going to be a very aggressive marketing program,” said Joanne Hatch, tourism development director for Muskegon County. “When people ride this ship from Milwaukee to Muskegon, they’re going to travel all up and down the lakeshore.”

    And the high-speed ferry service could generate considerably more business for the region’s tourism economy than from just the people who use it.

    The exposure Muskegon will get as a result of the high-speed service — which Szallai bills as unique in the nation — and the marketing campaign behind it will provide additional benefits, Larsen said.

    “The boat is going to bring us a lot of attention,” Larsen said. “We anticipate much, much more activity just by the sheer promotion of the boat.”           

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