Holding the line is not a plan
When Steamship Authority members meet here next week, 2008 schedules and budgets will be on the agenda. The word is that Vineyard travelers will not see fare increases, but Nantucketers will, to the tune of $700,000 in the aggregate. We don't know how the pain will be distributed among passengers, vehicles, and freight.
The impulse is to say, good for us, too bad for them, but in 2009, it may be too bad for us, how'd they get to be so lucky. Not so cheery. The year after that, it could be, we're both in the same price-hiking boat. How disturbing will that be.
For Vineyarders - for Nantucketers too, truth be told, but we won't presume to speak for them - the transportation future should not be a kind of Foxwoods experience: Hooray, we're up; oh no, we're busted. It shouldn't be, but without meaningful intervention by the Steamship Authority's members, it will be.
This is not to suggest that the members and their professional managers have done nothing to change the way they conduct our business. At the member level, SSA leadership has forged a smoothly functioning, goal-setting, non-micromanaging, practical, decision making leadership team. Management has implemented member priorities, which have included spending discipline and hardheaded approaches to labor negotiations, which will yield important restraints on the growth of labor expense in the years ahead and more operating freedom as well. Leadership and management have also worked together to improve customer service and communication between the line and its travelers, and they've stepped up technologically to streamline many customer-SSA interactions. Bravo.
What's left to be done? Plenty, in our view, although the members and their experienced and capable management team cannot do it by themselves. Seventy million dollar businesses like the Steamship Authority need to look ahead more than a year. They need to examine and reexamine the configuration of their fleet, their schedules, their ports, their governance structure, even their ownership structure, their finances, their competition, their markets, and their obligations. This is intense, multi-discipline work. It will challenge current assumptions and ultimately demand changes in familiar operating patterns. It will also require new, quicker adaptation response times by the boatline to financial, operational, and market changes.
It might even require that a new $32 million vessel, designed and built with lift decks that increase its capacity by 16 vehicles, use them. Marc Hanover will approach the subject with his fellow members next week, looking for support enough to overcome management's inexplicable resistance.
Anyhow, there are top-flight outfits, with bright, imaginative investigators that can help approach these complicated issues and suggest strategies to prepare the boatline to deal with them. Such consultants do not genuflect to the ways things are. They bring a refreshing willingness to see the world anew, and all its possibilities.
The Steamship Authority and, more importantly, we need such help. The boatline's strategic plan cannot be merely to try to hold the line on rate hikes, or failing that, to steer them first to this Island's service and then to the other one's.
Everyone can agree with the Steamship Authority general manager, when he says about anticipated new revenue, "every little bit helps when you are trying to avoid the need for any rate increase." But it's not a strategic plan.