In the period of one week, nearly 100 Bowen Islanders have completed a survey about a water taxi for commuters. Shirley Tan-Tompkins, Neil Tompkins and John Parker are the partners who are exploring the feasibility of a new service they are calling the Bowen Express. They are pleased with the fast response but they won't arrange for a boat just yet as they want to be sure that they have a solid business plan.
Parker said, "The fact that three companies have tried [a commuter run] before and have failed gives us pause. We have had the experience of being customers of all these companies and have some ideas of doing the business side better." Tan-Tompkins took the water taxi to Granville Island and Parker said he used "the silver sausage" to Coal Harbour. Tan-Tompkins said, "As commuters we know, and the research also shows, that reliability is a big issue. The customers need a commitment from the water taxi company to get them there and back every day." She added that consistency and safety are additional concerns.
Parker elaborated, "What we bring to the table is a focus on the customer, that is why we started with the survey." Parker is the CEO of Fresh Tracks Canada. He said, "I'm in the tourism business and I know something about marketing."
Tan-Tompkins agrees that a solid business plan is important. "Rather than trying to rush into it, we want to look at everything from operation cost to pricing to make sure the business is viable."
I am an accountant by trade and I guess, with my background, conservatism comes into play," she said.
Tan-Tompkins added that different people have different needs but the survey highlights similarities. She said, "Even though people need to get to different destinations, they say that arriving in Coal Harbour is a good option since it connects them to the Sky Train." Granville Island is another desired destination.
Tan-Tompkins also has marketing experience and sees a lot of potential for Bowen Island. She said, "I used to work as a promotion manager and have seen communities that are smaller than Bowen Island become thriving tourist destinations." Parker agrees and adds, "We are well positioned to access this potential."
Tan-Tompkins said, "We have the expertise to pursue the tourist angle but right now we want to find out if the commuters are going to be on board." Parker clarified, "The regular customers need to pay for the basics. If the commuter run operates at a loss, that doesn't work. The whole business needs to hold together to make sure it is viable. In this survey, we are asking the community if it is willing to support us and the response has been very positive."
Parker also plans to approach businesses and the municipality to see if there is any support for the water taxi. "We are not asking for hand-outs but there are other ways. We'd like to see what the Chamber of Commerce could do and what the municipality can do. We're open to ideas." An area where the water taxi would welcome help would be the heavy fees for parking the boat at the marina.
Tan-Tompkins explained that there are many options for mutual benefits. "If we do a proper marketing effort to bring in tourists, local businesses could grow." Tompkins said, "We've even had some interest from contractors who asked us whether we could bring their people and supplies to Bowen Island."
Parker said that when he moved to Bowen nearly three years ago, having a water taxi service was an important consideration. He said, "I knew that without it, it was too long a commute for me. And everyone missed it when the water taxi went out of service." He added that for many tourists who stay downtown and don't have a car, Bowen is not easily accessible.
But the price point is an important consideration. "BC Ferries gets people off the island for free but they are heavily subsidized by tax payers. It's impossible to compete with free," said Parker. "In the survey, we asked how much people are willing to pay and some responded by saying $7 for a return trip. But we have to be realistic, we need to stress that the reason to take the water taxi is not the price. The reason to take it is speed and convenience." That is why the group has suggested the name Bowen Express.
For Parker, it takes around two hours one way if he takes the ferry and drives to work downtown. Tan-Tompkins said, "For me, the commute takes three hours for both ways if I take the ferry. That includes lining up early to make sure I get on the ferry." To spend her waiting time more productively, Tan-Tompkins brings her IPad and works on spreadsheets. Tompkins added, "We moved here in June and now it has been over a month that Shirley [Tan-Tompkins] had to take the ferry. It really made a difference to her day."
Parker said, "If you consider professionals who work downtown and whose time is worth more than minimum wage, a price that is higher than $7 is acceptable." And Tan-Tompkins has crunched the numbers on the actual cost of commuting downtown by car. She said, "If you look at the lease of the car, insurance, gas, parking and maintenance, it costs an average of $29.65 a day for Honda civic. And if you add the $26.10 for the ferry, you come to $55.75."
Tan-Tompkins said that the other water taxi commuters are supportive but some are a bit "gun shy." Parker explained that in the past, water taxi runs have been canceled if there weren't enough riders or if the weather was bad. He said, "That is not a great way to run a business. We would do whatever it took to get [the commuters] home if the weather was bad." He suggested running taxis or a bus to the ferry so people wouldn't be stranded or have to find their own way.
For Tan-Tompkins, it is important that the business is viable and can offer certainty and continuity. She said, "There is a certain price point that we need to meet. Based on the 100 respondents to the survey, 30 per cent say they are willing to pay the price range we are looking at. If you provide a decent regular service, the word is going to spread in the community."
Parker, Tompkins and Tan-Tompkins have many ideas on how to promote the water taxi but first they want to make sure that there is a market and a need. If you are interested in participating in the survey, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.