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Can the ferry create a wave of economic growth?

Mark Parker



The Cross Bay Ferry docked at St. Petersburg's North Yacht Basin. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Cross Bay Ferry officials hope to boost local commerce through a new initiative that connects downtown Tampa and St. Peterburg businesses with passengers.

Leadership with HMS Ferries, which operates the service, recently announced the launch of a Community Partner Program meant to spur economic activity around the ferry’s destinations. Jeff Philbin, director of business strategy for local marketing firm Schifino Lee, hosted an informational webinar Wednesday that explained the initiative’s benefits and opportunities.

Representatives from several area stakeholders, such as the Florida Aquarium and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), participated in the virtual meeting. He told attendees that the Community Partner Program follows the ferry’s most successful season, with over 62,000 passengers traversing the bay from October 2021 through May 2022.

“And they spent money,” said Philbin. “They’re spending more than $40 per trip in their destination city.”

For the last six years, Schifino Lee has handled marketing, advertising and public relations for the Cross Bay Ferry. Philbin called the service a unique public-private partnership between the Cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County, the Florida Department of Transportation and HMS Ferries.

The ship docks in St. Petersburg’s North Yacht Basin, adjacent to The Vinoy resort. Its other landing site is just behind the Tampa Convention Center, and Philbin said the centralized locations are critical to how passengers interact with the respective communities.

He explained that the new platform would showcase discounted and complimentary merchandise, services and entry to local businesses and institutions. Participating organizations upload their logo and promotion to the Cross Bay website, and passengers redeem the offer by showing proof of a ferry ticket purchase through their phones or by printing an emailed receipt.

Philbin said the program is a free service and believes it will benefit everyone involved.

“It is a rising tide effect,” he said. “We want to be able to drive traffic into those incredible merchants, and by doing so, it allows us to increase ridership.”

A graphic showing why passengers utilized the ferry service between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Screengrab.

A pilot program launched earlier this year and attracted over 15 community partners. The Hunger Thirst Group, which operates six local restaurants, offered a buy-one-get-one drink promotion to riders. The St. Petersburg Museum of History advertised 50% off adult tickets.

A 2022 survey showed 13.3% of respondents took the ferry to sporting events, as the region is home to professional football, baseball, hockey and soccer franchises. Amalie Arena, home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, is only about a half-mile away from where the ferry docks in Tampa.

Philbin said ferry officials already extend service hours when the Lightning play at home. He also relayed his excitement for new opportunities emanating from discussions with the team and “others inside the sporting category.”

“We believe the ferry can be a mechanism for some great teams that are in this community,” said Philbin. “And certainly, as that pertains to some of the excitement that should be coming soon with some announcements, for just those reasons.”

The latest survey shows that about 60% of ferry passengers traveled to Tampa, while 40% visited St. Petersburg. The vast majority were residents, while about 10% were tourists staying in local lodging. Philbin said the latter category continues growing.

Most people walked to places upon arrival, although 19.4% took a bus, trolley or streetcar. Philbin noted that PSTA’s SunRunner, the region’s first bus rapid transit service, can now transport ferry riders directly to St. Pete Beach.

The survey also showed that 75.4% of passengers utilized the service for dining, 27% visited cultural attractions and 13.3% attended sporting events. Once reaching their destination, nearly 69% of riders spent over $40, while another 11.4% spent more than $25.

“What we want to do, is make sure that this is a means for economic activity,” said Philbin. “That spurs excitement and creates wealth for these respective communities.”

He explained that the Cross Bay Ferry website and social media channels would begin promoting participating organizations early next year. Email subscribers will also receive updates.

The vessel does not currently feature onboard screens for advertising, but Philbin reiterated that the program is in its infancy and said, “those conversations are ongoing.”


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