As more than 300 bus tour operators prepare for a national trade show next week in Nashville, Tenn., they may find it difficult to get the detailed information needed to book package tours featuring the Nova Star ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which is scheduled to launch May 1.
There is not much time left to win the business of motor coach operators for the 2014 season, even though that business is critical to the Nova Star’s long-term prospects. Tour companies from Maine and Nova Scotia are still waiting for the ferry service to release wholesale rates for passage, cabin fees, motor coach fees, meal fees and luggage service. They also need photographs showing what the cabins look like, said Donna Hanson, vice president of The Maine Tour Connection in South Portland, which specializes in tours of New England and eastern Canada.
“We are still in limbo,” she said. “It’s difficult to answer any questions or describe what the experience will be like. We haven’t seen the ship. We haven’t seen the pricing.”
Ferry operator Nova Star Cruises Ltd. plans to start selling tickets to the public in mid-January. Individual passenger fares were listed on the company’s website, www.novastarcruises.com, but that information was removed from the site shortly before Christmas.
The company had previously advertised individual fares: $129 per person for a one-way passage during the peak of the summer season. Those fares will remain in effect, said Mark Amundsen, president of Nova Star Cruises. He declined to explain why fare information was removed from the company site, but said the problem will be corrected soon.
The Nova Scotia government has awarded Nova Star Cruises a contract that will give the operator $21 million over seven years to subsidize ferry service.
The company is on schedule to begin operations May 1, but has experienced some internal delays because it didn’t receive its first distribution of cash from the Nova Scotia government until last week, said Dennis Bailey, a Nova Star spokesman.
Bailey said tour operators will be given information they need as soon as possible.
“We are frustrated too,” he said. “We are not deliberately holding anything back from people. We are working the best we can.”
The Nova Scotia government last month released its first payment – $2 million – after Quest Navigation Inc. of Eliot and Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd. finalized their joint-venture agreement to operate the ferry service, which is doing business as Nova Star Cruises. That agreement was the government’s last requirement before it would release any funds.
Singapore Technologies Engineering, which built the ship, will have a 10 percent stake in Nova Star Cruises, and Quest Navigation will own the remaining stake, according to a Dec. 30 announcement by the Singapore shipbuilder.
The agreement gives Nova Star Cruises a three-year charter to operate the vessel, with options to extend up to seven years.
Although Nova Star officials won’t be at the trade show in Nashville, Bailey said, an official from the Maine Office of Tourism is attending the show and has agreed to distribute the company’s sales and marketing materials. Nova Star is also providing a prize drawing for free round-trip passage on the ferry as a promotion at the Maine Office of Tourism booth and at the reception.
The company is optimistic that it can still add tours for the 2014 season, and its motor coach business will grow in future years, John Owen, vice president of sales and marketing for Nova Star Cruises, said in an email.
If Nova Star Cruises doesn’t provide pricing options in time for the Nashville trade show, local companies will still be able to market the ferry service and follow up with potential customers with more details after the show is over, said Scott Riccio, owner of Northeast Charter & Tour Motorcoach and Transportation in Lewiston.
“This is an opportunity to sell an idea,” he said. “The price is important, but not needed at this point.”
The Nova Star ferry has 163 cabins and capacity for 1,215 passengers. It can carry 336 cars and 38 commercial vehicles. At 528 feet, the Nova Star is 43 feet longer than the Scotia Prince, the once-familiar ferry that operated between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004.
Many of the passengers on the Scotia Prince were customers on bus tours that operated largely out of states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. They were able to drive to Portland in one day, arriving in the evening to board the ferry.
Don Haggett, sales director for Lafayette Hotels, which owns 22 hotels in Maine, said the ferry will be a “huge boon” for the tourism industry in both Nova Scotia and Maine. When the Scotia Prince was operating, he said, 20 to 30 people would disembark from the ferry every day and check into the Merry Manor Inn in South Portland, where he works, in addition to guests arriving on tour buses that had traveled on the ferry.
Haggett, who will attend the Nashville trade show, said Nova Star Cruises recently hired some well-respected staff who have assured him that the pricing information will be ready in time for the trade show.
Meanwhile, the ferry operator is putting together its own tour packages. It has hired Danny Morton, a former general manager of White Point Beach Resort, a year-round resort on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, to create tour packages in Nova Scotia that include ferry passage.
In addition, the company last week hired Julie Walters, general manager of the Yarmouth & Acadian Shores Tourism Association, to work with Morton to develop tour packages.
Most bus tour companies – particularly large ones – put together their tour offerings as much as a year in advance, said Richard Arnold, president of Atlantic Tours Limited, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Arnold, who will be attending the trade show in Nashville, said the 2014 season is “already put to bed” for most operators, and that he will pitch the ferry primarily for the 2015 season.
He expressed concern that Nova Scotia residents’ expectations for the 2014 season may be too high, and that disappointment may cause them to lose faith in the service, which he thinks will be popular in the long run.
“We are hoping that nobody is expecting a miracle overnight,” he said. “It takes a while to market it.”
Nova Star Cruises has another obstacle, he said: bad memories from the Scotia Prince.
The Scotia Prince abruptly canceled its ferry service before the start of the 2005 season, upending the schedule of bus tour operators. Because of the feelings of “disenchantment” with their Scotia Prince experience, he said, many tour groups will want to see the Nova Star operate for a season without significant mechanical glitches or schedule changes.
“It’s important the first season be done correctly,” he said. “People are sitting back and waiting to see how it will play out before they make major commitments.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: