SALEM — They are called "mystery shoppers" and they are the reason the Salem Ferry slashed ticket prices for the 2010 season, which gets under way tomorrow and runs through Halloween.
Boston's Best Cruises, operators of the 149-passenger catamaran between Salem and Boston, cut prices by as much as 20 percent after hearing from about a dozen so-called "mystery shoppers" who were hired to ride the ferry last season and report back on the experience.
"They felt it was an expensive boat ride," said Missy Walker, the company's director of sales and marketing. "... They didn't feel like it was a great value."
After meetings following the 2009 season, the Salem Ferry operator reduced the round-trip adult fare from $24 to $19. The company said it tried to make the fare competitive, or even cheaper than the cost for two people to drive from the North Shore and park in Boston.
The round-trip fare for seniors (65 and older) went from $20 to $17, and children (ages 3-11) from $18 to $17.
The commuter fare, $54 for a 10-ride package, is staying the same.
The ferry operators are lowering prices and, at the same time, raising expectations.
"We certainly have some goals we really want to meet," said Bill Walker, a principal of Boston's Best Cruises, which also operates the New England Aquarium whale watch, the Boston Harbor Island service and the Quincy Ferry.
"We want to get up over 100,000 ridership," he said. "We really need that for the amount of operation time we run the ferry."
In other words, the company has slashed prices to try to boost riders and make the Salem Ferry a more profitable venture.
Last year had its bumps.
The ferry had about 80,000 riders, which was a significant drop from the previous year. Much of the decline was attributed to June rain and threatening winds in August.
"With the combination of the weather and the economy, it definitely was a challenging year," Missy Walker said. "We had a pretty good year given those factors."
The operators of the high-speed ferry between the Blaney Street landing and Long Wharf (North), Boston, which is across from Quincy Market, are also trying to improve the experience by having a crew member provide commentary during the ride about the history of the Boston Harbor islands and the North Shore.
Technically, the ferry made its first run of the season Tuesday when it carried more than 40 hotel concierges and tour officials from Boston to Salem for a day of sight-seeing, lunch at the Peabody Essex Museum catered by local restaurants, and a boat ride home with readings by Salem psychics.
"We want to show everybody what we have" in Salem, said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city's tourism office. "It's also a way to thank (the concierges) because they send so many people to us."
On a negative note, the ferry dock is not wheelchair accessible because repairs are not complete on the Blaney Street landing, which suffered heavy storm damage this winter. The city is still waiting for a part that was ordered months ago, according to the Building Department. The city expects the work to be done by June 15.
The city and MBTA are in talks about combination commuter rail and ferry passes, but no deal has been reached yet for this season.
Fares and schedules are available at www.salemferry.com.
Salem Ferry ridership
* Season started in July
Source: Boston's Best Cruises