Boat Line Hears Worries on SSA Marketing Effort

By ALEXIS TONTI

In a lively discussion about the Steamship Authority's new marketing program, Islanders advocated shelving plans for a glossy magazine and cautioned SSA executives not to ignore Island businesses in favor of courting national retailers with big budgets.

The two-hour debate at the regular meeting of the Dukes County Commission Wednesday night focused on the SSA plan to generate new revenues through marketing and advertising. About 50 people attended, including Islanders who work in the business community and a contingent of authority employees.

Members of the county commission and business leaders said the SSA needed to be careful not to overstep its bounds and compete with merchants on the Island and in other port communities; they also said that the SSA needs to be deliberate about wooing local retailers to advertise with the authority.

SSA executives stressed the importance of pursuing advertising as a revenue source but also noted the need to refine some of their original proposals, which included selling display advertising space on ferries and in boat line terminals and the development of an "in-float" magazine.

At the meeting, Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel backed off the magazine plan, saying, "It's too big a bite to take right now."

Afterward she said flatly she wants to put the magazine project on hold.

"I am going to propose that we shelve the idea for a magazine and just start out by renting rack space on the boats to the existing free publications," the Vineyard boat line governor said.

Ms. Roessel said she is working on a list of recommendations for the entire scope of boat line advertising that she intends to discuss at the monthly SSA meeting on the Vineyard next week.

The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

"The SSA is not in trouble, but we must act prudently to make sure it stays in good financial shape," SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin told the county meeting. "The fact is ticket prices are too high, and any additional revenue means lower prices or lower increases. The money we can make from advertising is not an insignificant amount."

Last year the boat line signed a contract with Carroll Advertising in Boston to manage an array of advertising ventures. The three-year contract calls for the firm to pay the boat line 55 per cent of its monthly gross billings. Carroll Advertising has agreed to offer advertising to businesses in port communities at a 15 per cent discount.

County commissioner Roger Wey asked for a time line for the advertising plan and for projections about how much revenue each venture will generate.

Mr. Raskin could not answer, saying only that advertising over time could bring in around $500,000 a year.

County commissioners Robert Sawyer and Nelson Smith both spoke about merchandising opportunities that would be mutually beneficial to the SSA and Vineyard businesses.

"The Islander is such a valuable brand, particularly if we get into cooperative agreements with local merchants," said Mr. Smith. "You keep production on the Island, jobs on the Island and a certain percentage of sales could come back to local businesses."

"It's a win-win with revenue for both parties," said Mr. Sawyer.

Commissioner Sawyer and chairman John Alley both criticized the magazine idea. "You should not do anything that is outside your sphere and competes with Island business," said Mr. Sawyer.

John Budris, editor of Vineyard Style magazine, held up a copy of this year's new pocket ferry schedules, which will feature advertising by the Black Dog and Compass Bank. Both have purchased space on the schedule for a year. The schedules have never carried advertising before; this idea was proposed by Carroll Advertising.

"The Black Dog had to pull their advertising with us for several months [last fall, saying they needed] to concentrate elsewhere. I didn't think much about it at the time, but here it is," Mr. Budris said. "This is the kind of ripple effect to watch out for."

Concerns about the inability of Island businesses to compete with the advertising budgets of national advertisers took two tacks.

"Fifteen per cent is a grossly inadequate discount to local advertisers, who are trying to keep dollars here," said Geoff Rose, who operates an on-line gift certificate service. Mr. Rose suggested a three-tier system that sets rates for local, regional and national advertisers.

"What is more important is that we aren't discriminated against the other way," said Frank Pellegrino, an Edgartown businessman. "Carroll Advertising is not going to put effort in with us that they do with a national advertiser like J. Crew. They don't derive as much benefit from my dollar."

Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Valerie Richards said bluntly: "We are not as attractive an advertiser."

SSA director of marketing Paula Peters said Carroll Advertising has developed a data base of advertisers on both islands and gone door to door to meet with business owners, but her comments were met with skepticism by many in the room.

Considering alternative ways to increase revenue, Oak Bluffs Association president Renee Balter suggested a cooperative venture to develop tourism packages.

"There is tremendous potential here. I think the inns and bed and breakfasts would gladly support a program that would give discount rooms to people who travel on the Steamship to be here," Ms. Balter said.

At the end of the discussion a few people sounded a cautionary note: "We have worked a lot on the Vineyard to preserve a certain style and atmosphere, and flashing lights would be offensive," said Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, in reference to an advertising display screen proposed for the Woods Hole terminal.

"People get Coca-Cola and Nike ads on the T in Boston. They come here for a different experience, and there is danger in this that we move a step closer to making the Vineyard the same as everywhere else," said Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

Updated plans for the new Islander were also presented at the Wednesday meeting. Although concerns were raised about the lift decks for cars and the safety of the design, further discussion was postponed until the boat line meeting next week.