Variable ferry pricing to become a permanent fixture next year

Ongoing promotions helping BC Ferries determine which discounts will work best on which routes in time for 2017 launch

A ferry pulls into Nanaimo's Departure Bay terminal. Discounts on low-use runs such as the 30 per cent fare discount being offered by BC Ferries in March will become standard practice for the ferry corporation in 2017.

When you choose to ride a B.C. ferry will have a direct relationship to how much money you have left in your wallet as soon as next year.

The ferry corporation has been calling a recent series of discounts offered to off-peak users “promotions.”

But it would be just as accurate to call them “research,” and come 2017 you will also be able to call them standard practice.

The details have yet to be worked out, but that is coming over the next few months, and variable pricing on ferry fares is expected be in place as soon as the computer system can be upgraded to handle it.

“We are going to be introducing fare flexibility,” BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said. “In 2017, we are going to roll out a variable policy.”

What that means is ferry users can expect fares to reflect the laws of supply and demand. The cheapest fares will be attached to a particular route’s least popular sailings, the most expensive to the most popular.

One goal of the new system is to redistribute ferry use patterns: attracting more passengers to the emptiest boats, while reducing the space crunch during the times of greatest demand. BC Ferries is hopeful this will result in better cost efficiencies.

“If we can shift traffic to the off-peak times, we may not have to schedule an extra trip,” Marshall said.

Another goal is to give people an incentive to take a trip they may not have previously made.

A 30 per cent reduction in off-peak hours recently announced for March is the third in a series of promotions designed to give BC Ferries brass an idea of what might work. The previous two — with different benefits and criteria — ran in the late summer/early fall, and in the weeks prior to Christmas.

According to Marshall, those promotions were effective in increasing the number of people using under-utilized routes, but it has yet to be determined how cost-effective the shift was.

“We have a lot of number-crunching to do,” she said.

BC Ferries’ President and CEO Mike Corrigan said last fall the new model will be designed to match other models common in the travel and transportation industries.

The changes are expected to be implemented fleet-wide.