Season two of ferry service in Pensacola Bay is wrapping up, with a much better result than season one.
Gulf Coast Maritime Service, the original operator, lost a reported $300,000 in 2018 during a six-month season. After they dropped out, Hornblower Maritime Services resurfaced as a candidate, after attempting to win the National Park Service contract at the outset.
“We were not selected, but we kept our chin up,” said HMS general manager Joe Asebedo. “We thought, ‘let’s see how this plays out,’ to sit back and see what happens. The first year just didn’t work out for the previous contractor; National Park Service came to us and said, ‘hey are you still interested?’ And we jumped at the chance.”
Speaking aboard one of the ferries, “Turtle Runner,” Asebedo said it appeared that Gulf Coast Maritime simply got too late of a start to make a go of it. What benefitted Hornblower’s operation, he says, were the hours of service.
“When we looked at what we could provide the first year, I think, was adequate,” Asebedo said. “Looking at the numbers, I think we probably provided too much service, too many opportunities. So next year, we’ll probably scale down the availability. But all this needs to be run through the National Park Service.”
Hornblower Maritime signed a 10-year contract with the NPS to operate “Turtle Runner” and “Pelican Perch,” the two 150-passenger ferries. Asebedo was asked if the decision for the long-term deal was based on potential, or a leap of faith.
“Both,” said a laughing Asebedo. “There was definitely a leap of faith on our part by our president, Matt Miller; but the potential. We see the potential here; there’s not really another product like that here in the port of Pensacola. So we feel that we’re going to jump on it.”
In 2019 the ferry service sold roughly 16,000 tickets, which Asebedo says was a little bit below their projection.
“[I] don’t know how we could have changed things, and I think we did enough advertising,” said Asebedo. “I think we’ve done enough of the groundwork – guerrilla marketing, so to speak – we’re out hitting the streets, going to hotels, passing out rate cards and brochures and social media. That’s a huge undertaking.”
One noticeable change by the new company was the cost of tickets – $2 less than Gulf Coast’s $20 charge this year. But, that could change next year.
“There’s some feeling out there that $20 is the magic number,” Asebedo said. “We’d like to stay under $20, and so for the first year – based on our research, based on our other sites that we operate throughout the states – we felt that was a very competitive rate and we wanted to get our foot in the door so to speak, and start off on the right foot.”
The two ferries are carrying passengers around the public route — downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens — until the end of October. And Asebedo says “specialty cruises” are also available.
“We’ve got the Blue Angels homecoming show that’s fast approaching,” said Asebedo. “What that entails is that we’ll leave from our downtown landing; we’ll go out and watch the Blue Angels practice for the hour, and then come back.”
The show, says Asebedo, is an example of the amount of latitude they’re getting from the National Park Service in the off-season.
“We’ve also got sunsets through November on Fridays, Saturdays, and maybe even Sundays,” said Asebedo. “We’re contemplating continuing those all the way throughout the year; I think there is a market for that. “So we’ll evaluate the numbers and see how ridership goes.”
No substantial changes in service are on tap for 2020, Asebedo says – but they are looking at growing their charter service using the ferries.
“Rent the boat; if you time it right you can see a great sunset, especially for Christmas,” he said. “Company parties, anything during the day. All that stuff’s available and we’re trying to build that side of the business during the off-season.”
More information on the Pensacola ferry service is at www.cruisepb.com.