Interview: Alison Nolan, GM, Boston Harbor Cruises

By Greg Trauthwein

Alison Nolan is General Manager and a fourth-generation owner of Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC), a company that moves more than 2.5 million passengers annually on its fleet of 60 vessels with more than 600 daily departures seven ports and more than 30 facilities. But the story of BHC and Alison Nolan transcends raw numbers; as the company and passenger vessel industry are in her DNA, more of a lifestyle than a career. She spoke with Maritime Reporter & Engineering News recently to address the rewards and challenges inherent in her position.

We understand your family has a long history operating passenger vessels in the Northeast U.S. Please give us a brief historical overview of the Boston Harbor Cruises.
In 1926, soon after becoming the youngest licensed captain in the history of the port of Boston, 16-year-old Matthew “Matty” Hughes founded Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC).  BHC’s first venture, with only two full-time employees, was a 30-minute Charles River cruise for 10¢ with a boat borrowed from a friend. This continued until 1942 when service was interrupted as Matty enlisted and served as a USN Seabee in World War II. 
After the war, Matty expanded operations to include vessels inside Boston Harbor – $2 sightseeing tours running three times a day.  It was during this era that BHC became a true family-run enterprise with Matty’s daughters, Rookie and Rita (second generation), coming on board, followed closely by their children.  Backed with the arsenal of experience and expertise he had built during his time in the Seabees, he grew the fleet by purchasing and refurbishing U.S. military surplus vessels. 
In the early 60s, the family switched its emphasis to deep sea fishing expeditions. Passengers would charter day and overnight trips to Stellwagen or Georges Bank for just $6 for a full day in search of cod, haddock, halibut, blue fish, tuna and more.
In the late 1970s, recognizing the opportunity that a new influx of visitors brought about by newly developed tourist attractions such as the New England Aquarium and Faneuil Hall Marketplace, BHC moved back into the sightseeing market.  But this time it would be Matty’s grandchildren, including current principals Rick and Chris Nolan (third generation) who would be at the helm.
In the 1980s, their leadership was instrumental in BHC securing a contract with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to provide water transportation services between downtown Boston and Charlestown, a heavily traveled commuter route. This transformed BHC from a seasonal business to a year-round venture for the very first time in our history.  Since then, the MBTA has awarded additional commuter ferry contracts to the company, the largest carrying 5,000 passengers per day.
Today, the company continues to grow with Partners Rick, Chris and myself, Matty’s great-granddaughter and Chris’ son Patrick. 
In addition to commuter runs, current service offerings include Whale Watches in partnership with the New England Aquarium, the Provincetown Fast Ferry, nine different Sightseeing Cruises including Brunch and Sunset Cruises, the Salem Fast Ferry, Ferries to the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, Private Events, Codzilla high speed thrill ride, an on-call Water Taxi Fleet, Star Gazing Cruises in partnership with the Museum of Science, Commuter Ferries and more.  BHC also launched a specialized Offshore Logistics Division which operates five OSV’s including a 240-ft. DP2 vessel in support of geophysical research and survey, UUV testing and recovery, LNG and Offshore Wind support and commercial dive services. 
How long have you been with BHC, how did you start and when did you first realize that your family business was indeed your destiny, too?
Since BHC is a family business with a 90-year history, I have quite literally been with the company all my life.  So, to say it’s in my blood would be an understatement.  As a young child, spending time with the family in season, meant spending time on Long Wharf at BHC.  They’d give me little jobs to keep me busy and out of everyone’s way like sweeping the docks or picking up trash.  I remember feeling a real connection to BHC and the waterfront even then and learned through my small jobs that to work at something was to make it better.  From then on, I worked my way through the ranks as a deckhand, galley attendant, ticket agent, cash management, IT, business development and more.  Gaining varied experience and an insider’s look every step of the way.  I developed a deep love of and respect for the company, our passengers, the city of Boston, the Harbor, our industry and so much more.  After college, I came to work at BHC full time.  In 2006, with my hands-on experience as a strong foundation, I earned ownership in the company and was named to my current position of Principal and General Manager.
What do you enjoy most and least about your job?
Most: Both at BHC and through my active participation on numerous Boards and committees, I feel that I can directly contribute to not just my company but to our community itself.  By activating and advocating for Boston Harbor, our National Marine Sanctuary, State and National Park Areas and for the expansion of and use of water transportation to mitigate growing population density, I am able to contribute in a way that is making my community a better place to live work and play.  BHC is only as successful as the health and vibrancy of the Massachusetts’ economy and tourism industry.  To work to improve our city and state has a direct impact on the future of BHC itself.   
Least: As BHC has grown, I am more removed from the day-to-day operations and core business.  With more time needed off site in meetings and behind the desk, I get to spend less and less time out on the boats and docks.  I don’t often get to see our guests enjoying their cruises and I find it harder to get to personally know our ever-expanding crew.  I understand that it’s a natural part of a growing business, but I do miss the days where I could be more closely involved in the core of our purpose – creating memories with family, friends and colleagues on Boston Harbor.  
Looking at the fleet of boats, how has it grown in recent years, do you have any vessels on order?
Our last new build vessel was in 2000, with the launch of our Provincetown Fast Ferry Salacia, a 600-passenger high speed catamaran at Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding.  Since that time, with the company’s growth and expansion of services, our fleet has also needed to expand - more than doubling to its current high of 60 vessels.  The fleet’s sizeable growth has been accomplished through the acquisition of other passenger vessel operations and assets, as well as the purchase of pre-owned passenger vessels from across the country.  Throughout this process, BHC has returned to our roots of when Matty converted U.S. military surplus vessel.  We have become an industry leader in recognizing the economic value and potential of available equipment and repowering and refurbishing these vessels in-house to bring them back to life.  
Today our diverse fleet of 60 vessels encompasses a 240-ft. DP2 OSV, a 40-knot, 600-passenger high speed catamaran and a small fleet of water taxi launches.  To give an idea of the scale the BHC fleet, it encompasses 326 pieces of major machinery representing over 13 major manufactures.  No other passenger vessel fleet in the country rivals the shear diversity of vessels and equipment seen here at BHC.
What is the biggest challenge to running an efficient and profitable fleet of tour boats?
First, since we are located in New England, our excursion offerings – and the resulting excursion revenue – are highly seasonal.  With excursion services making up about half of our overall operations, the seasonality can bring about challenges with fluctuating cash flow, changing staff requirements, maintenance planning and more. 
Second, operating and maintaining a large and vastly diverse fleet of passenger vessels is a significant responsibility and financial commitment.  A fleet like ours requires a substantial capital maintenance and machinery replacement program in order to ensure on time performance, passenger safety and the highest quality of service year after year. The BHC fleet requires scheduling 60 annual Coast Guard inspections and on average 30 out of water Hull inspections each calendar year.  
In addition to constant routine and preventative maintenance, you will always find a variety of capital projects underway at the BHC maintenance facility each winter.  Over the past five years, BHC has reinvested almost $10m into capital fleet retrofits and repowers.  This becomes even more impressive when you consider that these projects occur in our diminishing off season of November to April.
What regulation has had the greatest impact on your business … or promises to have the greatest impact on your business?
For nearly a century, The Jones Act has regulated the U.S. domestic passenger vessel industry.  As the world has become an increasingly global marketplace, Jones Act compliance has created its own set of special challenges for U.S. passenger vessel operators when sourcing new construction.  The increasing cost of domestic vessel construction has required privately held passenger vessel operators like BHC to think very carefully about new construction.  At BHC, for nearly two decades now, this has led us to grow our fleet exclusively through the purchase and refurbishment of previously owned vessels.  The contracts, services and routes available with conditions favorable for privately financing new construction vessels are few, particularly in seasonal areas like the Northeast.  
In addition, the passenger vessel industry and individual operators are subject to a variety of regulations from multiple agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, FTA, EPA, as well as Federal and State employment laws.  Keeping up with, and implementing new regulations in an efficient, timely and cost-effective manner can prove to be a challenge for operators big and small.  Today as an industry, we are watching with particular interest the implementation of Tier 4 and what it will mean for our small passenger vessel industry regarding repowers, new construction and available compliant machinery in the marketplace.
What technology do you consider to be the most transformational in terms of making your operations safer and more efficient?
At BHC we are excited about technological advancements and how we can use them to manage a safer and more efficient fleet.  Technology is at home here in every aspect of our business from human resources to websites, maintenance monitoring to insurance reporting and crew training.  As our company and fleet becomes larger and more diverse, BHC must increasingly rely on technology as a tool in managing and monitoring our business.   
Most recently we implemented Wheelhouse Technologies across our fleet, a preventative maintenance and compliance tracking program that provides alerts and reminders regarding vessel maintenance and compliance milestones.  In addition, the use of Wheelhouse allows for an informative data collection source that can be analyzed for future operations and planning.  As our fleet has grown larger with higher hour and higher horsepower vessels, tools like Wheelhouse Technologies are increasingly important to hitting our maintenance milestones, managing operations, interdepartmental communications and empowering our managers, Captains and crews.  Without technologies like Wheelhouse, managing a 60-vessel fleet like BHC’s which encompasses 326 pieces of major machinery representing over 13 major manufactures would be a monumental task.
What do you consider to be the greatest “lessons learned” about running the business from your family?
Over 90 years our family has learned the perspective of the long haul.  There will be good years and bad, but the key to success for any business is all about prioritizing and remaining focused on the people you serve.  Without sustainable ridership and revenue, you cannot accomplish any growth or improvements.  The single most important thing at BHC is to make sure our passengers are safe and happy, so our hard-earned reputation and repeat ridership endure.  Customer service has always been, and continues to be, our top priority.  And, we consistently strive to do everything we can to ensure that each person’s experience at BHC is the best it can be.  
To make great guest experiences a reality, you need to trust in and empower your staff and crew.  Most of our 2.5 million passengers will never meet or know a Nolan family member, but they will interact with many of our team members.  They are the face of the company to our passengers, so they’re the ones that make it happen each day.  BHC is fortunate to have a flourishing culture where employees are indeed like family.  Many employees spend their entire careers at the company.  As we’ve grown, BHC has held onto our long standing small family business values - the same values that empower our employees to feel comfortable and fulfilled while providing outstanding customer service.  
How is your management style most different from that of previous leaders of the company?
Because BHC is a longstanding family business, it has been run – and flourished – as a labor of love.  But, I feel that what makes my management style different is that I have looked at the company from a more traditional business and community perspective.  My father and uncle are great mariners and know their way around almost any engine room.  However, because the needs of the business took me off the boats before I gained those years of experience, that wasn’t me and for many years I harbored insecurity about not possessing those same qualities.  Eventually I realized that my particular style and talents were things that the business needed, and in fact our diversity in expertise and passion was a source of strength.  This was a game changer for me and the point at which I knew what I was going to contribute to the future of BHC.  
For example, early on I recognized the need for, developed and implemented a comprehensive, creative branding and marketing campaign aimed at not just filling seats but positioning BHC as a cornerstone organization within Boston.  
I knew we already were one, the problem was nobody else did.  This focused marketing approach was a major element in establishing top-of-mind brand awareness that had not previously been experienced in the company’s nearly-90-year history.  
I also saw the opportunity for BHC to be a voice and convening force for our waterfront and tourism communities.  We needed to be more connected to our tourism neighbors and the fabric of our waterfront community.  By forging new partnerships, growing our offerings for local recreation, establishing a philanthropic profile as well as personal involvement in many boards and committees, BHC became an undeniable part of the fabric of Boston.  
BHC is fortunate to have a flourishing corporate culture where employees are indeed like family.  Through my management style I aspire to be an example of determination, passion, business sense, partnership, community responsibility and innovative tactics.  But, as a leader, I also recognize the importance of delegation and trust in others to get the job done right. 
Most importantly, I do everything I can to nurture the company’s long-established reputation of doing business with integrity, experience, commitment and responsibility, while also safeguarding the company’s viability with sustainable business practices and a resourceful and ever evolving business plan.
The environment: Obviously maritime is under the microscope more than ever from an environmental regulatory standpoint. Give an overview, if you can, regarding the importance of environmental initiatives and compliance from when you started to today?
In addition to our external stewardship, we review our operations each winter and adopt changes large and small that can lessen our own environmental footprint.  From things like retrofit material selections, packaging at our galleys, environmentally friendly cleaning solutions, elimination of paper in the course of business and more BHC takes an annual look at our blue policies and what we can do to continually make improvements.  The Passenger Vessel Association’s Waters Best Green Practices Program has also been a valuable peer resource.    
We are also very proud of our programs inspiring blue stewardship though public information that raises awareness of the issues that confront our oceans.  Our Whale Watch and State and National Park ferry programs in particular give time and thought to our conservation messaging and how we can engage our passengers in a way that is informative and effective.  Our Whale Watch naturalists also compile and maintain a significant humpback whale database which we share freely with research organizations.  
Every business has its challenges … looking outside of the fleet of boats, what do you consider to be your biggest challenge to running and maintaining a successful passenger boat business today?
I think our biggest challenge is the increase in new competition for people’s leisure time.  With technology, new urban development, ease of travel and other factors, entertainment options are ever expanding and can often be immediately accessed on a phone or tablet.  Because of this, we must look ahead and seize new opportunities to keep BHC fresh.  We understand that business success is a marathon, not a sprint but most importantly you cannot stand still.  As long as we continue to evolve and change with our environment and understand the needs of our guests, BHC is firmly planted for the long haul and expects to continue to prosper through hard work and a dedication to the company’s core values. 
(As published in the January 2018 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News)
Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 16,  Jan 2018

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