Washington State Ferries launches $1 million marketing campaign

Washington State Ferries (WSF) plans to counter lagging ridership with a $1 million marketing campaign to attract tourists to destinations throughout Puget Sound, including Vashon.

David Moseley, who heads the ferry system, outlined the plan at a public meeting last week, noting the strategy could bolster revenue for the cash-strapped system.

“We’re trying to encourage tourism, to encourage people to visit Vashon,” Moseley told the approximately 30 Islanders who attended the meeting.

Moseley said the campaign, part of last year’s state budget, would not be focused on print advertising, but rather, on outreach to communities that are served by ferries, improving the WSF Web site and exploring ways to use social networking sites to encourage ferry use during off-peak times.

“A million dollars is not a lot of money for advertising,” said Marta Coursey, WSF’s director of communications, who said that although WSF is still working out the details of the marketing plan, it includes creating and hiring two new WSF positions.

One of the new hires will be tasked with what Coursey called “relationship building” with communities that are served by ferries, and the other will be someone who has expertise in Web-based communication.

Since 2007, WSF’s overall ridership has declined from 26 million riders to 23 million riders, said Coursey, who blamed the decrease on multiple factors, including the rough economy, rising fuel prices, bad weather and even an increase in the number of people who telecommute rather than travel to a workplace.

Promoting tourism, ac-cording to Coursey, might be one way to counter the downward trend in ridership and maintain the financial viability of the ferry system.

“In order to have reliable ferry service, we need a long-term sustainable funding system,” she said. “The more we grow our ridership, the better service we can provide.”

Lee Ockinga, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Chamber of Com-merce, attended the meeting on Wednesday when Moseley discussed WSF’s plans for the new marketing campaign and said she was “quite excited” by the news. The chamber recently crafted a plan to market and promote Vashon to people who live off-Island.

“When they said they wanted to encourage people to come to events in the off-season, I almost fell out of my chair,” Ockinga said. “I love it — that is the most sensible thing. I think we’ve been saying the same darned thing.”

Moseley said he expects that WSF’s new marketing efforts will have an online presence by November.

Wednesday’s meeting also covered a diverse range of other topics, including updates on construction of three new vessels, one of which is scheduled to replace the Rhododendron on the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route by the spring of 2012. The Rhododendron, built in 1947, is the oldest boat in WSF’s fleet.

He also listened to suggestions from Islanders about ways to improve WSF’s on-time performance and discussed the process by which fare increases — set to go into effect in October — will be determined.

Islander Kari Ulatoski, a ferry-service advocate, said she was grateful for the discussion and praised Moseley, who has been at the helm of WSF since 2008.

“With the change in leadership and David Moseley on board, Vashon has a closer relationship with WSF than we’ve ever had, and it’s important to recognize the amount of attention they’ve been giving us as a ferry-dependent community,” she said.

The 34-car Hiyu has replaced the 90-car Sealth on the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route for one week beginning May 10. The Hiyu will make an extra mid-day trip departing from Point Defiance at 12:35 p.m. and Tahlequah at 1 p.m. Vessel changes are also in store for the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route. The 124-car Issaquah is receiving 10 weeks of maintenance beginning May 10, and will be replaced by the Sealth for two weeks, then by the 87-car Tillikum.

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