Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Clipper Vacations: Building International Relations for 25 Years

It’s 71 miles by water from Seattle, up Puget Sound and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to Victoria, British Columbia on Vancouver Island.

Victoria was founded in 1843, and became the provincial capital when British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871. For most of the nineteenth century, Victoria remained the largest city in British Columbia. Although Vancouver, on the mainland, now holds that distinction, Victoria has retained much of the charm of the 19th and early 20th century, and remains a popular tourist destination.

In June of 1986 a new high-speed aluminum catamaran from Norway was delivered, via the deck of a heavylift ship, to a newly formed Seattle company. That delivery marked the beginning of a company that redefined the interaction between Seattle and Victoria BC, and opened the Victoria tourism market to tens of thousands of visitors each year.

On July 1st, 1986, the 300-passenger Victoria Clipper made her maiden voyage from Seattle to Victoria, BC, offering a fast, comfortable cruise through Puget Sound. The 127-foot vessel was built by Fjellstrand A/S in Omstrand, Norway, for Clipper Navigation, Inc. The boat was powered by waterjets driven by MTU 16V 396 TB 83 diesel engines, each producing 2,010 bhp at 1,940 rpm, propelling the boat to a cruising speed of more than 30 knots.

“We were pretty busy that first year,” says Clipper President and CEO Darrell Bryan. “We ran the boat every day.” Bryan says the company had committed to year-round service. “We kept that commitment,” he says, “even on the days when we had more crew than passengers.”

That commitment paid off. Less than year later, in June of 1987, the company was celebrating its 100,000th passenger.

The company now transports approximately 300,000 passengers a year, with 3 daily round trips during the summer and 1-2 round trips a day during the off-season.

Clipper Navigation was the brainchild of Merideth Tall and Phil Lepley, two entrepreneurs who believed there was a market for a boat to run between Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver, BC competing with the Princess Marguerite, which was a 373-foot, 23-knot passenger/vehicle ferry built in 1949. Although having been “refreshed” in 1975 and again in 1981, Marguerite, operated by the BC Steamship Company, was still almost 40 years old, and the crossing was four and a half hours each way, making a day trip from Seattle less than desirable.

In the ‘80s, Tall was working in the travel industry, and had ridden the high-speed watercraft that plied the waters of Hong Kong. The pair decided on a high-speed aluminum catamaran, feeling the design offered the speed and passenger comfort they were looking for while at the same time offering mechanical simplicity and a robust equipment package that couldn’t be duplicated by other high tech craft.

At the time, BC Steamship was operating the Princess Marguerite, a private Canadian company operated a jetfoil, leased from Boeing, during the summer months of 1985. The Island Jetfoil offered service from Vancouver to Victoria and on to Seattle. The boat only ran for six months before it was deemed too expensive to operate and was returned to Boeing when the business closed.

The pair chose the Norwegian boat design after having eliminated other builders. Norway’s sea conditions mimicked the waters of Puget Sound, and the pair felt that the twin hulls of the new boat with water jet propulsion would be up to the challenge of crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a daily basis. The builder also fortuitously offered to finance the construction of the vessel, unaware that Tall and Lepley’s financing had fallen through just hours before the partners left for Norway to sign the contract. The Norwegian yard had already substantially completed cutting the aluminum for the boat when the partners’ plane landed. Clipper Navigation took delivery of the new vessel in mid June, and started service on July 1st.

Along with a boat, in 1986 Clipper Navigation acquired a general manager. Tall and Lepley preferred to remain in the background, and Darrell Bryan was hired to run the new company. Bryan had already had a successful career in the railroad industry, coming to Clipper with 13 years of experience with the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), holding a variety of high-level management positions in various cities. Bryan had advanced to the position of Senior Director of Station Operations, in Washington DC, where he was responsible for 504 manned and unmanned stations nationwide. He had worked in cities all over the country, but he and his wife wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest. Darrell moved his family to Seattle and accepted the position with Clipper.
“It was a good fit for me,” he says. “I didn’t know much about the marine side of the business, but I knew a lot about passenger reservations, ticketing and operations, and it proved to be a very good move.”

All wasn’t smooth sailing for the young company. The Victoria Clipper had to compete for passengers with BC Steamship and the Princess Marguerite. We didn’t have a very inviting terminal location in Seattle,” Bryan says of the ferry company’s first location. “There had been a failed fast ferry in the same location,” Bryan says, “and a lot of our suppliers had to be convinced that we were not affiliated with the previous tenant before they would deliver to us.”

The company also had problems at the other end of the route. “The first Victoria facility we had was really inadequate,” Bryan says. “It was outside the harbor and buffeted by weather.”

The company succeeded in spite of the challenges, and largely because of the good working relationships the principals had with their employees, clients and especially the officials that held the keys to success. “We developed personal relationships with the government officials we had to work with on a daily basis,” says Bryan. These relationships helped when problems inevitably cropped up, allowing the company to secure a slip in Victoria’s Inner Harbour and establish procedures with US Customs and Border Protection and Duty Free. “We couldn’t do it today,” Bryan says.

Even the US Coast Guard was willing to work with the new company. “The local Coast Guard wasn’t very familiar with the catamaran model,” says Bryan, “And frankly, neither were we.” Bryan notes that aluminum catamaran builders Nichols Bros., of Freeland, Washington, were the local experts. They had been building high-speed aluminum catamarans for several years by the time the Victoria Clipper was delivered.

“Matt Nichols was the expert,” says Bryan. “When there was a question about a Coast Guard regulation, even the Coast Guard referred to Nichols.”

The Seattle terminal was soon improved with a better facility at the Port of Seattle’s Pier 69, and the company succeeded in having its Canadian terminal permanently relocated to Victoria’s Inner Harbour, protected from the winter winds and within walking distance to the city’s grandest buildings.

Shortly after starting the service in 1986, Clipper began including accommodation packages, tours, and other transportation links connecting Seattle and Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler BC. In 1988 the company acquired a second high speed catamaran, Victoria Clipper II, this one built by Nichols Bros. in Washington State and therefore a Jones-Act boat, capable of operating between US destinations, to provide seasonal service and whale watching tours to the San Juan Islands direct from downtown Seattle.

In 1990 the company added the Victoria Clipper III, also a Jones-Act boat, built by Gladding-Hearn in Somerset, Massachusetts.

In 1993, another Norwegian boat was delivered to the rapidly growing company. The newest vessel, Victoria Clipper IV, is the flagship of the fleet. Clipper IV, although built by the same yard as the first boat, benefitted from 7 years of design and technological improvements. Seven feet longer and capable of carrying 30 more paying customers, the Clipper IV was delivered with diesel engines, but in 1996 the boat was fitted with a pair of Allied Signal gas turbines, doubling the vessel’s horsepower to 10,000 which was supposed to cut 45 minutes off the 2.5-hour trip between Seattle and Victoria.
Clipper revived the Princess Marguerite name in 1997, acquiring a 650-passenger, 192-vehicle ferry from BC Ferries for $120,000 per year in a lease-purchase agreement. The vessel operated between Seattle and Victoria until 1999, when Clipper Navigation closed down the operation and returned the Princess Marguerite III to BC Ferries.

The turbine-powered Clipper IV operated for ten years with the new engines, but in 2006 the company had them replaced with a pair of conventional MTU 16v 396 74L diesel powerplants. “We couldn’t justify the amount of fuel we were burning with the turbines,” Bryan says, noting that rising fuel prices meant raising ticket prices or reducing consumption. “Overall it has been a pretty smooth transition,” he says. “It didn’t hurt the schedule, and the passengers haven’t minded.” Travel time is about 2 hours and 45 minutes between the downtowns of Seattle and Victoria.

The vessels continue to operate every day, except for two weeks in January, when the company stops its vessel operations to drydock its vessels and perform improvements, updates and a deep cleaning of the terminals. The company has a longstanding contract with Seattle’s Pacific Fishermen Shipyard to perform hull cleaning, painting, scheduled engine overhauls, replacement and other general maintenance.

Along the way, Merideth Tall bought out her partner, and Darrell Bryan purchased 25 percent of the company from Ms. Tall, who now owns 65 percent. The remaining 10 percent is split between two minority partners. The company, renamed and rebranded Clipper Vacations in 2009, is a major wholesaler of hotels and tours in the Pacific Northwest offering everything from pre and post Alaska Cruise packages to escorted single day wine tasting tours.

While the vessels still play an important role in the company, Clipper Vacations is busy developing its hotel and tour business, growing to become one of the largest providers of hotel packages in the Pacific Northwest, and Amtrak’s biggest customer in terms of bookings. The company keeps 130 full time employees busy, with that number increasing to 170 during the peak summer season. Many of the company’s “summer help” employees come from local commercial maritime families, and seek out Clipper to be on the water and work for a good company while earning money for college. Both of Darrell Bryan’s sons worked for him. “My boys started working here when they were 14,” he says. You can’t do that anymore.

Many of his “summer staff” have stayed on and taken full time, year round positions, and there are a number of employees who have been with the company for more than 20 years.

“It’s a good place to work,” he says.

Bryan says business is good. “Year-to-date, we’re up significantly,” he says, noting that 2001 was shaping up to be the company’s best year before the attacks of 9/11. “We still have a ways to go before we get back to pre-9/11 levels.”

With the variety vacation packages, lodging and transportation offered by the company, along with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest that continues to draw visitors from all over the world, those pre-9/11 levels aren’t far off.