As Ad Plan Is Rejected, Chief Gives Fare Warning

By ALEXIS TONTI

After months spent sparring over the Steamship Authority's controversial new marketing program, the boat line board of governors yesterday effectively scrapped it.

At the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole, board members first rejected a modest advertising policy developed by Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel, then dismantled a second set of recommendations put forth by management.

"The patient's dead," declared SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin.

Mr. Raskin did not hesitate to tell the board that its decision to abandon the program came with consequences.

"Do not complain about your fares. These [policies] were intended not to offend your eyes. What you are saying is it will be business as usual; just roll it into ticket prices," said Mr. Raskin.

With Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman clearly opposed to management's advertising policy, Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel refused to break ranks and vote for the management version.

"I will not jam anything down Nantucket's throat. I don't think this is a big enough deal revenue-wise to take that line with our sister island," said Ms. Roessel.

The marketing program has been a source of contention almost from its inception last October, when the boat line signed a three-year contract with Carroll Advertising in Boston.

In November Nantucket residents blasted a plan for J. Crew to distribute catalogs, and since then criticism from the public sector has steadily grown.

At last month's boat line meeting, under pressure from Island officials to articulate guidelines for the marketing program, Mr. Raskin turned to the board of governors for advice about how to reinvigorate the advertising campaign.

The proposal yesterday by Ms. Roessel called for selling magazine rack space, crafting a merchandising program and developing comprehensive advertising guidelines that are acceptable to all of the port communities.

But reservations about this proposal quickly became clear, prompting Mr. Raskin to reiterate the reasons why management first launched the marketing program.

"Either we are looking at higher fares or looking at advertising. It may not make a big difference, but it makes one," he said. "How are we going to run this place? Just keep jacking up fares? If that's okay with you, it's okay with us."

"We are losing customers. To me, that is the most important thing - to get back our audience," said Mrs. Grossman. "Make it cheaper and everyone will come back. But you have to treat them right.

"Month after month we talk, but we do not address the problem. We represent Islanders. That is why the Steamship Authority was started, and that's something that has been forgotten."

Only Ms. Roessel and New Bedford representative David Oliveira voted for the first proposal.

Mr. Raskin then introduced a policy that had been developed by senior management. This version included a list of acceptable advertising space; among the places named were SSA shuttle buses, the boat line Web site and ferry freight decks.

The policy also contained a caveat that advertising anywhere else would be subject to the approval of the board and port council members.

"These are all placements that should not offend aesthetic sensibilities. They're nowhere where people at rest will be disturbed by an ad peering over their shoulder," said Mr. Raskin, adding: "If you reduce this list, there will not be much to sell."

But board members nevertheless began to pick at the policy, asking for clarification and raising concerns about individual items.

"We have restrictions as far as signs and posters. And as far as [putting ads] in the lot or bus shelter I know the island would object," Mrs. Grossman said as she read the sheet of proposals.

She added: "We're told you want people to get out of the freight deck, so who's going to look at it?"

"Advertising can add to a sense of place. It doesn't have to be something that detracts from a way of life," said Ms. Roessel.

Several port council members spoke to the issue, with Nantucket member Flint Ranney suggesting the program might be more palatable if advertising were limited to Island businesses. But SSA general counsel Steven Sayers noted that any kind of favoritism would violate commerce laws.

Clearly frustrated that the discussion was straying from the policy at hand, Mr. Raskin broke in with a reference to a famous baseball double-play defense: "Tinkers to Evers to Chance will not work in placing these ads. [The policy] is intended to set up clear, dark lines."

Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien called for a vote.

Board members proceeded to go through the policy line by line and voted whether to approve each item individually.

Ms. Roessel said again that she was unwilling to adopt a policy unacceptable to Nantucket, and on each question turned to Mrs. Grossman in an open appeal for guidance.

The Nantucket governor said no to the majority of the items on the list, and Ms. Roessel abstained from almost every vote.

In the end board members approved only two minor initiatives - to allow advertising on published schedules and brochures, and on any authority ticket kiosk. Advertising panels appeared on the pocket ferry schedules for the first time this spring.

"This vote sends a clear message that additional revenue is not a significant enough issue to take a significant amount of the board's time," said Falmouth representative Robert Marshall, who voted for the entire set of policies.

Mr. Raskin said management would contact Carroll Advertising to discuss how the decision will affect its contract with the authority. After the meeting, Mr. Sayers said the decision will not expose the authority to damage claims by the advertising firm.

Discussion at the meeting also included a plan to move to a ticketless reservation policy, which Mr. Raskin said would save money, enhance security and be more convenient for passengers.

The proposed policy would require passengers to present a reservation confirmation number - received over the phone or on the authority Web site - at the terminal on the day of sailing in order to receive their ticket. Tickets would not be mailed to passengers at home.

"A ticketless policy where people then have to stand in line to get their ticket is the worst thing. I think a lot of problems could arise from this," said Ms. Roessel.

"But a substantial proportion of people do come into the terminal for one thing or another," countered Mr. Raskin.

The plan had been scheduled to take effect in May, but Mr. Raskin said management has now decided to postpone any change until the fall to ensure a smooth transition.