Passenger Vessel Operators Looking Forward

By Colleen Stephens

As we take a breath and collectively step into 2021, I’m choosing to be optimistic and focus on the opportunities ahead. Trust me, that’s not easy to say. Even as we are still experiencing a global pandemic which has devastated both the health and financial safety of our families, friends, employees, businesses, and communities. We may be down, but I say don’t lose hope.

Stronger together
As President of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) and President of my family’s business, Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises, I have been encouraged by my fellow PVA members, as they weather the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. I am proud to say that over the past year I have seen the PVA network come together and support each other like never before. PVA members have always been innovative and stalwart leaders and 2020 proved no different. In the spring, PVA’s committees jumped into action, meeting regularly online to discuss challenges and develop best practices. To ensure that companies could resume operations while protecting the health and safety of passengers and employees, PVA produced Reopening Guidelines: Getting the Domestic Passenger Vessel Industry Back Underway. When government emergency funding became available, the PVA team created webinars and tools to help members figure out how to apply and distribute this money to their employees. In April of 2020, I wrote a letter to members encouraging them to utilize the association as a part of their team as they navigate this crisis. I am happy to report that PVA members have embodied that call to action; we are truly “Stronger Together.”

The current state of our industry
The reality of the situation is that the passenger vessel industry has been devastated by COVID-19 and our businesses are doing everything possible to survive. Nationwide, vessel operators are constantly adapting to ever-changing state and local requirements as well as unpredictable customer behavior. We have been forced to reevaluate and make business decisions accordingly. PVA members have reported severe disruption to their businesses. Many companies have lost the entirety of their 2020 operating season. If they are operating at all, most companies have experienced reductions in revenue by as much as 90% and have laid off or furloughed as much as 80% of their employees.

My own business, Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises, has also felt the impact of COVID-19. My father started the company in 1971, offering day cruises to the Meares and Columbia glaciers near Valdez, Alaska; an operation I grew up in. This year we made the difficult business decision not to operate for the season at all. This decision also had an impact on our local community and the people we employ. But stories like this are unfortunately not limited to just my company or my town.

Even ferry operations that are considered essential are struggling. Island communities throughout the U.S. rely on dependable ferry service, particularly during a pandemic when necessary supplies are limited.

Those operators that have been open, and offering service at a dramatically limited capacity, are faced with the extraordinary challenge of balancing the need to continue to provide services to their communities while also managing the unprecedented health and safety risks.

(Photo: Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises)

Financial relief: PVA advocacy efforts pay off
PVA has always been the voice of the passenger vessel industry in Washington D.C. This year, PVA has worked tirelessly to seek needed federal emergency stimulus funding for the industry and its efforts have paid off.

In addition to fighting for emergency stimulus funding and loans for the passenger vessel industry early in the pandemic, PVA continued to urge Congress to provide additional emergency funding throughout the year. This effort, and that of other organizations, culminated in recently enacted economic relief legislation. This legislation provides another round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses; funded at $284 billion. These forgivable loans from the Small Business Administration will assist many PVA members, and the agency should be able to accept applications almost immediately.

The legislation contains a set-aside of $14 billion for public transit systems. PVA members that operate publicly owned ferries will be able to access this fund, as they did in the previous round of aid last spring.

Also included in the bill is the CERTS (Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services) Act; funded at $2 billion. This would be a new program of grants through the Department of the Treasury to most U.S.-flagged passenger vessel operators.

My company was fortunate to receive first-round PPP funds and used up all of it on the seasonal employees we had on the payroll for the short time that we had a staff. This additional funding throws a lifeline to our company and others like ours.

For businesses, like mine, that have been forced to pause operations, it may seem like time is standing still. Yet inside the D.C. beltway deadlines, hearings, rule changes, and legislation that impact our businesses still continue. The PVA team is speaking out for us, because when we do reopen, we will also face these new proposed rules and policy changes. PVA keeps our voice in the conversation.

NTSB and the M/V Conception
Also looming over our industry is the collective soul searching and regulatory aftermath following the tragic fire onboard the M/V Conception, which occurred in September of 2019. We take seriously the findings and recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) related to this incident. We at PVA are committed to safety and have been since our inception. The actions of the MV Conception are far from typical of our industry. PVA is working with NTSB and has met with NTSB Board Member Michael Graham to raise awareness about PVA members commitment to safety including fire safety on board our member’s vessels. PVA is also working talking with PVA member fire safety equipment vendors to discuss the availability of products as we encourage the voluntary installation of interconnected smoke and fire detectors. PVA brings years of experience working with Coast Guard on fire safety policies and its long-standing fire safety training program for crew. The NTSB also reiterated the need for our industry to implement a Safety Management Systems (SMS). Fortunately, PVA proactively created such a program for PVA members several years ago. PVA’s “Flagship” SMS has been recognized by the Coast Guard as meeting the functional requirements of a SMS and is scalable within the small passenger vessel fleet. PVA is poised to support companies as they continuously improve the safety of their operation.

(Photo: Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises)

PVA virtual convention at MariTrends 2021
Our association also remains agile during this time by pivoting to a virtual MariTrends 2021 convention. Scheduled February 16-18, 2021, PVA will bring its member network together virtually for educational seminars, roundtable discussions, and product demonstrations with the goal of finding new business solutions. The PVA Virtual Convention at MariTrends 2021 Convention allows us to connect with our fellow vessel operators and our vendors and suppliers as we consider our challenges and brainstorm new approaches to business. Registration is open now and the initial agenda is posted here.

New PVA digital marketing program
I am also thrilled to announce that PVA will soon launch a new digital marketing program to assist PVA members cope with the effects of COVID 19 and get the word out to the travelling public that the passenger vessels are safe, and most importantly, offer fun experiences. This newest association benefit will help bring customers back to our businesses just in time for the spring season.

I am looking forward to seeing the passenger vessel industry move into a new season of recovery and rebuilding. PVA will be there to provide the support and tools to help us get there.

Marine News Magazine, page 20,  Jan 2021

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