Creating Memories for Hundreds of Thousands of People Every Year with Chris Shepler from Shepler’s Ferry

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people create wonderful, lasting memories of Mackinac Island.  And each year, Shepler’s Ferry’s transports those people to this beautiful island.  For over 40 years, the Shepler family has worked hard to ensure that people have a pleasant experience.  Chris Shepler, President and CEO, shares with us the history of his family’s business as well as their plans to keep people safe with Covid-19.

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Transcript

Cliff Duvernois: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Call of Leadership podcast, where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership, we’ll hear their powerful story is get their advice so that we can be better leaders for ourselves, our family, and in our community. I am your host Cliff Duvernois, and today’s guest comes from a family who has impacted literally.

Millions of people ever since his grandfather started their family based business. Back in the 1940s, all kinds of memories are created by families as this business serves as a transport from people from the mainland all the way over to Mackinac Island, as well as numerous lighthouses, nighttime cruises, 4th of July cruises.

The list goes on and on and on ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show. The president and CEO of Shepler ferries. Chris Shepler. Chris, how are you?

Chris Shepler: I’m great Cliff, how are you?

Cliff Duvernois: I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you grew up or where you’re from.

Chris Shepler: Yeah. I grew up right here in Northern Michigan and I actually, I bought the house. My parents built from my parents 20 years ago and they moved out to Goodheart just North of here along the Lake Michigan shore. And I was born in Petoskey it at the hospital there in Petoskey and lived in Mackinaw city through a. About seven years of age. And then we moved to Harbor Springs and, and I, I, I still, I still live here after a little hiatus and I will get into that a little later, but, I came back to my roots and absolutely loved Northern Michigan.

Cliff Duvernois:  And speaking of hiatus, let’s explore that a little bit more. So you wound up in Ohio. How did you get down there?

Chris Shepler: Yeah, don’t hate me for this Ohio thing, right? I mean, it’s a, it’s not Ohio state, but it was Ohio Wesleyan university where I, I started my schooling, down there. And, and from there I, spent three years or actually two and a third years at Ohio Wesleyan where I played basketball and football down there, a little small division three school, and then, took a little bit of a break for  the rest of that year. And, and I, I lived in Vail, Colorado that winter. I was a ski bum and I worked at a Chuck Mear restaurant, another, Michigan iconic name, and, worked for him at a restaurant in, in lion’s head there at Vail. And. And then after that, winter was over, I came back and, and work for my family business and transferred schools out to the university of Rhode Island.

And that was due to a dear friend of mine who did the same. And, he kinda talked me into Rhode Island. So there I went

Cliff Duvernois: now, is this the same friend that convinced you to potentially go out and crew for the America’s cup team?

Chris Shepler: Well, this friend is a gentleman by the name of Brad DiMio from Rhode Island and, and he and I were roommates in college fraternity brothers, and he was a big sailor. He was the captain of the Ohio Wesleyan sailing team. And I did a bunch of stuff, more big boat stuff with that sailing team, just cause I was a  bigger guy, and you certainly didn’t need a 215 pound guy on a little dinghy racing around a Harbor. So I did some of their big boat stuff and, and, he and I sailed a bunch together. And, I wouldn’t say that he was the one that talked me into getting into the America’s cup, but he was one that certainly, helped pave the way.

Because of his knowledge of sailing and he, and I sailed a bunch together back in the mid eighties, early to mid eighties. So I guess you could say he was a, he was a conduit to that for sure.

 Cliff Duvernois: How did the opportunity  to crew for the America’s cup come about?

Chris Shepler: I was in the right place Cliff at the right time. And it was no more or no less than that. I Buddy Melges , who’s a two time Olympic gold medal winner and he’s won several world championships. And the star class of which some say is the hardest sailboat to sail. and yachtsman of the year and, and everyone in the sailing community knows Buddy Melges  from Zenda, Wisconsin.

And so his daughter, lived in Harbor Springs and married a good friend of mine, by the name of Steve Arbaugh they’re, divorced since then. But, at the time, and I believe she was an all American at the University of Wisconsin.  So she was doing some little Tuesday and weekend stuff around Northern Michigan.

And I ran the bow for her on a J 35. And I remember this one regatta. It was towards the end of the summer, 1985, I believe. And, she said, great job. You know, you did really well in the bow today. I’m going to give my name, your name to my dad. And I was like, That’s great. And I’ve had 

just a big dream of racing these 12 meters.

Now that the class of boats have changed since then. But back then in 87, it was the 12 meter was the class of boat. And I had ever since high school, I had an, had a, a dream to race. In this race at some point in my life. And, and so, you know, after she said that I was like, that’s great, Laura, but, you know, where’s the, where’s the beer garden, right.

We’re just finished a race. And, and where is it? So, about two weeks after that, I did get a call and this was a, a, a syndicate out of Chicago, the Chicago yacht club. And. I got a call from them and they said, we’d like you to come down for tryout. And I said, I think that would be great. I would too. And, and I ended up jumping in my, my, Volkswagen rabbit at the time, diesel and driving down and getting down there late at night, spent the night at a hotel and showed up the next morning.

Nervous as I. Just the, a kid on a first date, walking down the dock and seeing the boat and the guys working on it. And, you know, God, this is really happening. So I, I was with that group for a week and I had to go home. I didn’t have any money in my pocket. I had no clean clothes and, and, I needed to go home.

So I was reluctant to ask them if I could go home because I didn’t think they’d invite me back. I thought this was it. And, but I had to go back and, and, I left and I remember. Well, that was an experience of one of which I will always remember, sailing with the likes of, Charlie Scott, who just won a huge race down in, in Florida, the SORC on a J 41 that was almost impossibility and he wanted it.

And Gary Johnson, who was the announcer for ESPN, after he was finished with us and, you know, buddy, and all these guys that. That you grew up idolizing and hearing about and listening to, and, and their philosophies on sailing and, and, and now you’re sailing with them. So I ended up scooting home and, the next morning I got a phone call from the syndicate that said that they wanted me back.

And, and for me to get back down there and your plane ticket is at the Pellston airport. So I went back and kind of the rest is history. Without a lot of trials and tribulations along the way of trying to make a team and what that all entailed. But, it was, I ended up making the team and, and I’m headed to Australia.

Cliff Duvernois:  And how many years did you do this?

Chris Shepler: Well, I was with the America’s Cup for, with the Heart of America for about a year and a half. And, and that was a lot of training, a lot of, we’re building a new boat, new port, Rhode Island, and a lot of, getting that boat ready. And then of course the, the, Australia, trip. So that was about a year and a half.

And then I continued sailing. For another four to five years on, I sailed on a boat called Matador, which was a maxi boat and 85 foot Freire’s that, took me all around the world. And, and I sailed for a gentleman by the name of bill Coke. And, and then I, we were talking about it the next America’s cup and I wanted to, you know, I wanted to continue to work for my, my father’s business and, and doing another America’s cup was not in the cards for me.

I, I remember coming back from, in, in 87, back from that America’s cup with $12 and 50 cents in my pocket. And I’m 29 years old and it’s like, golly, I think I should be further ahead than I am now, but I’m, I’m not so. I needed to, I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I wanted a house, I wanted a car. I wanted, you know, a bank account and all of those things that a 30 year old should have, but I didn’t.

But the book of memories that I had had established at the time and kind of who I am today is because of those, all the things that I did over the last, you know, two years of my life, It really helped me in the business world to become a good leader, as well as a, become a good businessman. And, and, and, so I, I said, no, and, and here I am today.

Cliff Duvernois: Speaking of getting into the family business, why don’t you share a little bit about how Shepler ferry even got started?

Chris Shepler: yeah, my grandfather, Who has now passed away, but he started with a six passenger speed boat and he, was always in the philosophy that if you give them a quality service ride, which is still today, our go to, if you give them a quality ride, a clean ride, fast ride. You’ve succeeded. And so it was a six passenger boat and people would leave Chicago and want to get to the Grand Hotel at two in the morning and he would wake up and start the boat and take them over and all kinds of weather.

And then when my dad got his license, when he was 16, they built another one that was called the Miss Penny and the, the Fiji. And, they ran, you know, pretty much, not all day long, but under a charter situation where they didn’t have a schedule, but when someone came up and wanted to take, you wanted to go, they’d take them.

And then that kind of grew. And then they built another one, a 24 passenger called the Miss Margie, and then they built a 36 passenger called the Billy Dick. And from there, we started to get into the service of taking people to Mackinaw Island. Didn’t have a dock on the Island. We were using our competitor’s dock and, you know, it was a, it was a real true story of, you know, How are we going to get this?

How are we gonna, how are we gonna make this happen? And through trials and tribulations in a, in a will and, you know, too dumb to quit type attitude, we, bought some property and then we started to grow. We built a boat called the mind Cappy tan, which was a disaster in terms of speed and stability.

It was a, it was not the boat that we wanted sold that had built another boat in 69. And I think that’s right when we started to take off to put us kind of where we are today in 1969, we bought or built a boat down in Louisiana from cam craft. Who’s now no longer existence, but they were a boat builder.

And. JB Hargrave was the designer and got us a boat that went through the water at 28 miles an hour. And that really revolutionized how people would get to Mackinaw Island. And, and we grew considerably over the next 10 years of our, of our existence to, to build, you know, four new boats in that period of time.

And, and then 1986, I believe was the last boat  that we built and, and, we hadn’t done anything until 2015, so we kind of went into a plateau. and then since, you know, roughly five years ago, we’d been in  a growth spurt since then that we’ve been trying to keep ourselves in front of the, in front of that, that curve, if you will.

Cliff Duvernois: Certainly. And I know you said before that your, your grandfather actually started the business. Business is doing well, your father got his license and he’s starting to ferry people over to the Island as well. And at some point in time, your father took over the family business. And when he did that was this about the time when you were starting to get bigger, faster boats to carry more people.

Chris Shepler: Yeah, that whole transition between my grandfather and my dad was, was one of those of which it was very easy. My grandfather  he loved everyone in the, in the community of Mackinaw, the village of Mackinaw. And so he’d go to coffee and , my dad was the real pusher of the company  back in the, in the seventies, really, he, he developed uniforms you back when uniforms weren’t, you know, weren’t.

Anything there nobody had them and then came name tags, and then came a manual and then came to this training that he developed from a, from a Disney kind of platform. And, and so my dad really took it to the next level. And, and in that transition between my dad and my grandfather was very easy decision.

It was more like, okay, bill, you got it? Yep. Got it. Okay. I’m going to coffee. And that was about it. The transition from my dad to a us kids. And I have a brother and a sister who are very much a part of what we do too. my brothers, our fleet captain and my sister is our, is our bookkeeper. And so, yeah.

That next transition was, was very difficult for my, for my dad and, something that, that he had done all his life. And then now for him to , kind of step back was, was very, was very tough for him and, and our family, because this was really, this is. This was Bill Shepler, the Sheplers Makinaw Island ferry service.

Someone has been making decisions and making calls for 40 years of his life. and that’s now starting to change and, and it started about six years ago.

Cliff Duvernois:  It sounded like your father really was instrumental in turning everything into a series of. Systems and processes that could be duplicated. Would you, would you say that’s a fair assessment?

Chris Shepler: that is, that is a very fair assessment. That’s exactly what, what, what went on. And I guess that was one of my, not my struggles, but my thought processes. I always thought that, you know, I was running the st. Agnes operation and, and kinda had a pretty handled, carried 30% of the total portfolio of Sheplers.

You know, and we had a freight service up there, so I kind of did both and yeah, I got this, no problem. And then when I moved to Mackinaw city to sit in his chair, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake and it couldn’t have been. Anything farther from the truth, how my dad kept everything that he had going on, organized and moving forward was, was phenomenal.

I had a beautiful playbook in front of me that, that, had us all going and we’ve changed. Considerably since then with technology and computers and how we sell a ticket and online ticket sales and insurance, and, you know, all the, these business things that we do have, those have all changed, but the, the playbook that he established was.

It couldn’t have been any easier, but the magnitude, the scope of what was going on around us and the decisions that everyone coming to you to ask you about this asked you about that. It wasn’t about, Oh, you know, the ferry boats, it was about other things that, that, businesses are all built upon in, in those decisions, were overwhelming for the first two years of my life, trying to keep in front of that eight ball.

And I, I knew I was in trouble when, when my, my inbox would just , I’d have a thousand messages. They’re not daily, but that I had to go through where I’m sending this, I had five or six and just that in the time that it takes to answer all those was, was incredible.

Cliff Duvernois: Oh, I bet.  I did want to ask what it was like taking the reins of , the family business. And it sounds like, especially at the beginning that it was. fairly daunting. How do you make that transition into making such huge decisions?

I mean, you’re talking, you know, with the boats, the maintenance, the, you know, I’m making a payroll, the number of people that you transport, how do you go about getting yourself comfortable and making big decisions like that?

Chris Shepler: Well, I don’t think you’re ever comfortable. I’m at least I’m not. And I think that what drives you or what you’re is constantly on my mind is the fear of failure. And the fear of failure gets me out of bed every morning. And I know that sounds really cliche, but I’d tell you, I do not want to fail and it’s not because I don’t want to fail Chris Shepler.

I don’t want to fail. But I don’t want to fail the 200 cast members that we have working for us and, and of those, the 50, that workforce year round, that I’m responsible for their livelihood and they’re putting food on their table for their families. So I know that sounds maybe a little dramatic, but it is the truth.

And in every decision that we make along the way, has a bearing on that. And so I think that, that, that was the toughest part, the fear of failure. And, and even now that that still is, especially in these times that we’re in right now are, are, every decision is, is, is so very important to getting it right and being able to move on and, and, and keep, you know, the, the money flowing.

So you can pay your, your employees and have a successful business. So. I think that was, was the big thing for me and, and, and our employees to make sure that we’re, we’re doing it right. It’s become easier. let me say that as well, because you know, before I’d make one decision on a, on a purchase of an engine or that the desire or the need to build a new boat.

you know, it’s a $4.5 million decision.  And with that, we grew, considerably over, this was three years ago when Arnold transit. Sold to our competitor star line. And with that sell, we increased business, you know, you eliminate a competitor and it’s not a marketing plan that you developed that you get all these people.

It wasn’t that it was simply, you know, a competitor was gone and we grew,   we were in double digit growth for three years in a row until this year. and, and with that, The infrastructure of how we were doing things needed to be changed and we had a year to do it. And if we didn’t get that done, who knows if anyone would come back to us.

So the systems that we put in place, were I put those together and it was mostly. Just knowledge of how my dad would have done it. And, for instance, a day parking lot, we were now parking our cars off site because we have more room, but we also got to get them from where they parked back to our dock.

So we developed two trams kind of Disney tram ish type. Units that, will transport 70 people every 10 minutes from our daylight to our dock. And then once we did that, we, we were, and this is a, just a quick example is that we were now carrying as many people over land is we were over water. So this parking lot had to have a service drive.

We could not take things that we were transporting people from that parking lot to our main deck. We couldn’t run that tram right down the middle of the parking lot, kids running out from cars and in, in, in, in racks off of big trucks for their bikes. You may or may not see and, and, and all those things.

So we, we put a service drive in yet. We, we lost some parking spaces doing that and, and this would allow people to get on and off in a safe manner. And then we, while we need bus stops, so we put three bus stops or tram stops over there. And that was, that was a huge. plus for us, because now we had plenty of parking.

We were transporting people in a safe manner and, and it was happening quite quickly. So, but then came, you know, the, the, the training of our drivers and in the, in, in the inspection, by the, the state government, you know, the state police to make sure all of our vehicles correct the purchasing of buses.

So. It was, I think just that in a nutshell, and there’s other stories on how we’ve grown, that, the infrastructure that we built. To provide a quality experience for our guests when they go to Mackinaw Island is there’s five or six of those other stories that the,  trying to ramp up and make that experience instead of parking on gravel let’s park in a, in an asphalt parking lot with lines and bumpers and, Oh, there’s the tram stop.

I go there. I get on the tram, you know, et cetera, et cetera.

Cliff Duvernois:  You made a very interesting comment. I’d like to explore this just a little bit. When you said that you’re transporting people over land, as much as you transport people over water, about how many people a year do you have using your service?

Chris Shepler: We’re at about 600,000 people for six months. So the may and the June’s, you know, they’re busy, but not real. You know, it’s the July, August and September, and September has become what may use to be for us back long ago. but September is golly. September is almost equal to August these days. It’s, it’s, it’s so strong with people traveling, getting away for weekends, even coming up on the weekdays.

So, yeah, it’s about 600,000 people in, in the majority of that is all happening within three months.

Cliff Duvernois:  And just to think about the fact that you’ve got 600,000 people a year coming through and you’re right. They need someplace to park their cars. And if they’re having to park a half a mile, a mile away wherever the parking lot is, they’re going to need transportation to, to be able to get to the terminals.

 it’s quite a feat that you guys have to think about. It’s not just our boats and  can we get over there to the Island, within one hour or two hours, whatever it takes versus having to spend all this time thinking about all of that infrastructure, just to get the people from their cars.

To your terminal.

Chris Shepler: Yeah. And then you have the systems in place to do that in a safe manner. And then if you, if you go 180 degrees, then it’s, how the heck do you pay for it? All? We, we, you know, we invested, roughly, you know, you’re looking at $13 million over a three year period of time just in an, in, in infrastructure builds.

And, You know, that was, that, that was daunting to me. But at the time it’s like, no, we gotta have it. We got it. Cause if we don’t have it, someone’s gonna get hurt. You know, someone’s, we’re not going to be able to provide this, this quality service that has built our business, in, in, unless we provide that type of platform, whatever that platform is, whether it’s a parking lot, whether it’s a tram, whether it’s a clean bus to get them from wherever to the dock , parking overnight, parking.

quick story about valet parking. We had valet parking for many, many, many, many years, and we’d now do not valet. Parked cars. And, and that’s been two years now since we’ve done that. And, and it was not because we wanted to take a service away from our guests. We felt the service was in getting those people to Mackinaw Island as quickly as possible.

So when you’re parking 600 cars a day, In a valet situation, you can imagine the amount of people it takes to valet park, 600 cars a day.  That’s 300 over to the lot and 300 back for those that are coming off the Island. So you’re, you’re getting in six to 800 cars. So that was, that was a pinch point where people were either waiting for their cars when they came off the Island, or we didn’t have enough stalls to get rid of the cars, to go park them.

and have another car come in to unload for overnight. So we had a pinch point at the gateway where you entered, because we didn’t have enough room because we didn’t have enough drivers to get the cars out of there. So you had a pinch point there. You had a pinch point at the, at the ticket office.

Excuse me, sir. What kind of car do you have? What color? What’s the license? I don’t can’t remember the license number. Well, okay, so now that window was tied up until the guests went and found their license plate number came back, gave it to us, and then we could end the transaction. So all of those pinch points were really making it difficult for our guests to get to Mackinaw Island.

Yeah. We had a service of valet. Which they loved, but it was a, it was, it was an hour and a half, worth of time when we had valet service. Now we don’t have valet service, but we also have 304 stalls of onsite parking where you can park on site for overnight. Which is very convenient. And we have an overnight lot that we bus people back from that lot, much like a rental car situation at an airport.

And that hour and a half quickly went down to within a half an hour of the time that the guests would arrive until they would. Be leaving for Mackinaw Island. So that was probably the toughest decision as a leader that I’ve ever had to make was, do we take away this service that people have gotten so used to, and now I look back three years later and it was probably one of the smartest moves we’ve ever made by, by that, because we took a look at that guest.

And what do they want? They want to get to Mackinaw Island. Yeah, valets kind of a nice thing to have, but they want to get to Mackinaw Island. So let’s not hold them up anymore. Let’s find a way to, to lack of a better word here, process that car, that guest, to get them on the boat and get to their destination as quickly as possible.

Cliff Duvernois: Speaking of getting people to their destination as quickly as possible. You’re set to launch a new boat this year, correct.

Chris Shepler: Yes, we are. We’re yeah, it’s very close to being, being ready.

Cliff Duvernois: Sweet. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Chris Shepler: Yeah, this was a, a boat that we, and I won’t get into any of the details really, in terms of the power plant, but we’ve got a little different power plant to the vessel. She’s a jet driven. So, we’re prop guys, you know, a shaft coming out the bottom of the boat, propeller on the end of the boat and you put it in gear that propeller turns and, and, and grabs water.

And in a way we go. With speed being so important and vital to our business right now. the Miss Margie that we built in 2015, 6,000 horsepower, great big propellers, and that boat would, you know, that bow is a monster. And, but what we’re finding is that it’s tough to put a boat through the water of that size.

That is a high split speed planning haul. What that means is that boat actually rises not out of the water, like a hydro foil, but it rises and rides on it’s just like any kind of speed boat, but it w getting clear water to the propellers. So they perform at their, at the highest of levels was very tough to do at that speed.

And there was a lot going on underneath the, the hall of that boat. meaning speed, meaning three propellors, not two fairly close together, close to the bottom of the boat. We had tunnel halls. Et cetera, et cetera. I could go on, but I won’t bore you with all of that. So with this new boat, we were, let’s try, let’s try pushing it through the water with  water itself.

And see what happens. So we, we, got together with Hamilton jets, state-of-the-art, jet propulsion company out of Auckland, New Zealand. And, they they’ve been great and we’re really anxious to see what that boat will do. In regards to maneuverability when, when we get her in the water. So we’ve got a different power plant as well.

We’ve got 804 horse, engines. We’ve got four of those in the vessel. And they’re driving for, four jet drives and it, I go down and look at that boat and I just, I shake my head going, this, this thing’s gonna just fly and it’s supposed to, but the, you also find that with the prop drive, when you load that boat with as much weight.

As you know, 285 passengers and 10 cartloads of luggage in a prop drive situation that boat doesn’t lose efficiencies. It’s not going to go down in speed too much. but what you’re going to find is that, that, in a, in a jet drive situation, you’re, you’re gonna lose efficiencies fully loaded, but you gain those efficiencies back when she’s empty.

So she might go 45 miles an hour when she’s empty, but she’ll only go 35 when she’s full. So we’re, we’re kind of waiting to see how all those numbers work out for us, but we’re excited. It’s only going to hold 210 passengers and that was, we wanted to make the back deck as big as we possibly could. mom and dad don’t travel the Mackinaw Island like they did 20 years ago.

Cause you know, there’s bikes now. There’s Burley’s there’s tandem bikes instead of a. You know, two pieces of luggage for a family of four there’s, six pieces of luggage for a family of four. So it, that has all grown and the need for the back deck and less people on board is, is very important.

Cliff Duvernois:  When you talk about having a jet as a potential motor, is that something where like you, you suck the water in the front of the boat and then shoot it out the back of the boat.

Chris Shepler: Yeah, not in front of the boat. All these vents are, in the, on the bottom of the boat and they’re all in the, in the back AFT of the boat, where the, the jet. So it’s not a jet engine, it’s a regular diesel engine that turns a shaft. Like it would, if it was running a prop drive, but that shaft is engaged to a pump.

Which which, compresses the water and shoots it out the back of the boat, that that component is a jet drive. The engine is a regular diesel engine. Like we have in all of our boats, it’s just running instead of running a propeller in circles, it’s running impellers inside this jet drive to compress the water, to shoot it out the back of the boat, at a high rate of speed.

Cliff Duvernois: That’s totally awesome. I love that.

Chris Shepler: Yeah, it’s it’s, they’re very cool. They’re cool to look at, out of the water and, I can’t wait till we get a chance to see, what she, what she does in the water, but there’s so many really cool how you steer the boat is, is you have this toggle and this toggle is, looks like a boat sitting on your dash.

That’s maybe three inches long by two and a half inches wide. And, and you just. Push that boat or the toggle, if you will, where you want the boat to go and it’ll go there, whether it’s sideways, backwards, forwards, and the computer. Tells it, how to do that, tells the jet drives what to do to get the boat, to go in that direction.

And then if it’s not going in that direction, you just take the, the throttles and you give it a little more juice and the boat will end up going in that direction. So it’s, it’s something totally new to our captains and they’re chomping at the bit to get on board, to, to play around with that, with that video game, if you will.

Cliff Duvernois: Sounds totally cool. Even I’m going to screw around with it.

Chris Shepler: yeah, you and me both.

Cliff Duvernois: Sweet. So I know, and I do want to spend a little bit of time talking about this because you have the recording where we’re at a few weeks away from hopefully getting this, shelter and home. Stay home, stay safe. Order is going to be lifted. People are going to be starting to, you know, come out. And obviously they’re going to be thinking about potentially vacations.

And I know that from a business standpoint, especially transporting so many people, what are, what are some of the things that you’re, you’re thinking about as. This potentially is drawing to a close and people start traveling. What are you, what are you thinking about for a business standpoint too, to help keep these people safe?

Chris Shepler: it might be three things in there and maybe a fourth, but the first one are they going to travel? And, and that caveats with, if they’re going to travel, what do we got to do to make them travel? And then once they do travel, what do we got to do to make sure that they had an experience that, that they’re good with?

So the new norm for us. Is in what we’re focused on right now as a company is, is obviously not to spend any money unless we absolutely have to. And I’m not a fan of that. philosophy on, on, on running a business. But, right now it’s, it’s absolutely necessary. But what w what we’re focused on is the safety aspect of, of, and I’m not talking about driving a boat in a, in a 16 foot sea, and being safe that way.

Absolutely. Is that on the top of our mind, always has been, always, will be. However, the safety factor of, of making sure that we keep our environment as clean as possible. Not only for our cast members, but our guests making sure that they feel comfortable cause they don’t feel comfortable. They’re not going to travel.

So we have to do the best. and not only letting those folks know what we’re doing. But those systems need to be in place and need to be absolutely accurate and done every time, not every third time, but every time. And, and, you know, providing mask, providing the hand sanitizers we’ve, we’ve taken on, for a backpack.

Battery operated backpacks that will allow this, this disinfectant to be a very fine mist that we spray. So when the boat comes in and we’re meeting this week with our team to go over some of these procedures, because they’ve been floating around in everyone’s heads on how we’re going to do it, and now we’re going to put it all together.

So not only do we have to put that together, what that looks like, but also how are we going to communicate. Is it through signage? Is it through social media? Is it through marketing in, in, in to make sure that our guests feel comfortable when they, when they arrive us, but, that boat comes in. We unload it every one way.

So when it gets to Mackinaw Island, we unload that and we spend 10 minutes, making sure that that boat is disinfected and  is a safe environment for everyone to come. So social distancing is part of that equation, you know, are we going to do 50% occupancy in the cabin? 60% occupancy on the top deck.

We’re getting no direction from the United States coast guard, the federal government who governs us. And I’m not saying they should. And that wasn’t meant to be derogatory. It was just a fact that that we’re really not getting a, a, a sense of where they want us to go. They just want social distancing. So I think we’re going to take it upon ourselves without any ruling or governing by the government.

To, to enact those type  of policies where instead of the boat Holland 285 passengers to Makinaw Island, which is a very cost efficient way of travel for us. At least now that boat maybe only holds 150. And what does that look like? And now our schedules, every half hour, you’re not going to keep a half hour schedule by disinfecting for 10 minutes, every one way.

You’re not going to do it. So what does that look like? And I think it’s important for our guests to see us disinfect the boat. Yeah. We might tell them, but if they can see it, then I think that that is, is a much more powerful statement than us putting something, you know, on a, on our website decides yes, we clean the boats.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah, that’s absolutely true.  how many times do your ferries go back and forth on any given day?

Chris Shepler: Well, and that’s another really good question for the new norm. I don’t know what that looks like for the 2020 season in the 2000 and night’s 19 season, which was our best season ever coming off the best season ever. We had in 2018, we were leaving the dock from, you know, the 1st of July through the 20th of August, we were leaving for a four hour period of time.

We were leaving every 15 minutes. So we had six boats running for four hours of the day. Like I like, you know, it just coming and going, coming and going and, and, and that was effective for us. We carried people and we, it seemed like the more busy we would get the, the more efficient and the easier it was for us.

To, to perform, you know, at a very high level. So, when, when it was slow or rainy or cold or whatever it, not that it bogged down the system, but it just seemed like it was not as easy when you had people walking around and being there ready to get on board. And, and, you know, the, the, the, the machine was running.

So, yeah, it’s, I don’t know what it looks like. We have not developed a schedule and here we are going to start in two weeks, two weeks from Thursday on the 28th of May. It just, we don’t know again what that’s going to look like right now.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah. Cause the one thing I was just thinking about is, you know, you think about it. A ferry comes in and lands on the mainland and the people get off. Then your crew has to spend 10 minutes disinfecting it, making sure that it’s safe, people climb onto the boat. They go over to Mackinaw Island. Your crew has to disinfect once again.

So that’s adding 10 minutes here on the mainland. 10 minutes over there on Mackinaw each, each way. That’s like almost like adding 20 minutes into your schedule.

Chris Shepler: Yeah. And then, you know, that’s one aspect of it. And then how do you pay for it? You know, you’ve got a whole separate crew you’re hiring, you know, eight or nine more people in the maintenance department to do that. And do you station them on the mainland and on the Island? So when the boat comes in, they get on board and do their stuff, or do they stay with the boat or how does that, how does that whole thing work?

So, yeah, we, we have, you know, I’m, I’m, I love it. I love the, the change and the ability to, to figure out change. because change is going to happen. No matter if it’s COVID-19 season or if it’s not, you’re going to have change and you got to continue to evolve or you’re going to die one of the two. So, that’s the exciting part is that change and how do you do it and how do you do it to the best of your ability?

Cliff Duvernois: exactly man, Chris, I, I get this, I get the feeling. This could be one of those conversations, like could just last all day.

Chris Shepler: Well, I certainly enjoy talking about it. It’s, it’s what I live and breathe every day. And, and, so to have this outlet right now with you, Cliff is the best day I’ve had in four weeks. So thank you.

Cliff Duvernois: You’re making me blush. If anybody in our audience wants to, follow what you’re doing, you know, connect with Sheplers ferry online, what’s, what’s the best way for them to do that.

Chris Shepler: online. It’s Sheplersferry.com. That’s S H E P L E R S F E R R Y. Dot com. you can also, socially on Facebook at shufflers ferry. we’re, we’re very active on our social media page as well as Twitter. And, and, we have a whole team that, that, constantly monitors that and, or is posting and letting people know what we’re, what we’re doing.

You’ve been kinda quiet, over the last five weeks. And it’s not something we’re proud of because we do enjoy, chatting with our guests and even our cast members. But. You know, as I mentioned at the beginning, and I can’t remember if it was on the podcast itself or if it was you and I chatting, but you know, we’ve, every day seems there’s a different, there’s, there’s a different direction that we’re headed one day, it’s this, and the next day note, we’re not starting that day.

We’re going to start this day. And then, so we’ve been really reluctant to, To, to tell anyone what we’re doing, because that could change now, you know, with the governor’s orders to, to still stay home, stay safe through the 28th of May. I think we’re, we’re getting our arms around now a possible start date for us, and we hope to start on that date and get up and get moving and, and, The, be that company that you want to go to when you’re, when you taking a vacation or getting away from, you know, all that’s been going on.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah, I bet. And I think between the federal government and the state government, you know, who’s issuing orders today, is the CDC involved, you know, as the health department involved, is it, you know, any number of agencies that are popping up every single day? So I can, I can completely understand why it seems like every single day you get up and it’s just, it’s almost like you’re playing a different game.

Chris Shepler: Yeah, I call it a rabbit hole. You know, I get up, I go to bed at night and I got, you know, a parameter of which I’m going to travel the next day and I’ll jump down one rabbit hole. The next thing you know, I’m, I’m not even viewing that rabbit hole anymore. I’m going to go over to this rabbit hole over, over here, which, can be, you know, frustrating at times.

But you know what? I I’m confident that we’re the United States and the world. Is going to come out of this thing and we’re going to be, I can just speak for ourselves. I mean, our company is we’re going to be a better company, at the end of this rainbow than we were at the beginning of the rainbow, and we’re going to figure it out and we’re going to provide the best darn experience that we possibly can to those that wish to put Makinac Island on their radar for the 2020 or 2021 season.

Cliff Duvernois: Awesome. And there’s no doubt in my mind that, that you will do that. And for the links that you mentioned before for our audience members, we will have those in the show notes down below Chris. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast today. Thank you very much.

Chris Shepler: Cliff. This has been my pleasure. Thank you for breaking up my day. And, and, we hope to see on Mac and I’ll come on up. We’ll make you a captain for a day.

Cliff Duvernois: You know what, the way you described that little, that joystick, that video game thing who knows? I could have a new career. You never know.

Chris Shepler: There you go.

Cliff Duvernois: Awesome. Thanks Chris.

Chris Shepler: Thank you, Cliff.

About The Host

About The Host

Cliff Duvernois

Cliff is the host of “The Call of Leadership” podcast.  He has published over 500 short stories over Facebook, Medium and LinkedIn.  He is a passionate lifelong learner, marketer and philanthropist.  He currently lives in Reese, Michigan with his fiancé Sherry and her two children.

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