Archive for January, 2014

Poor man’s lobster: Nova Scotia offers a laid-back east coast destination

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

ImageThis week is City Pages’ annual “Get Outta Town” issue. Since they don’t post their content online, here’s my feature on Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

My first trip to Nova Scotia came by a roundabout way, since I drove from Montreal. It’s a pretty route through Quebec City, up the St. Lawrence Seaway, across a slice of French Canada and down through New Brunswick to Halifax. It’s about the same distance as driving from Wausau to the Black Hills and one of those excursions where unlimited mileage is an important aspect of your car rental.  Of course, you still have to pay Canadian prices for your gasoline and it’s something I notice when I’m in the true north strong and free.  I didn’t care as much 15 years ago, when a U.S. dollar would buy $1.50 Canadian, but those days are gone.

Also gone are those wonderful zone fare coupons with Northwest Airlines that would fly you into Halifax for $300 or less. It’s never a cheap ticket and any time you can get it for $500, you should probably consider it a steal, since the mid-$700 range is more typical these days.

But there are still award tickets, for the persistent – and once you’re there, life is pretty reasonable; really no more expensive than back home in Wausau, with some unusually luxurious extras thrown into the mix. I reflected on this fact as we dined on whole lobsters in the Caledonia Curling Club; something they do as a fundraiser during the Pictou Lobster Carnival. Back home, we might have spaghetti, chili or pancakes at a fundraiser. Here, $20 gets you a lobster dinner and they’ll toss in an extra lobster for $10, if that’s what you’d like. It’s something that we didn’t have room for after the standard dinner, which was topped off with homemade strawberry shortcake made with peak season local berries. It wasn’t crowded at all because it was 1:40 p.m. – a bit late for lunch for the locals, but just right for us, since the Atlantic Time Zone is two hours ahead of the Central Time Zone.

“How many of these dinners do you sell,” I asked one of the volunteers staffing the event.  “We get about 120 people for lunch and 240 for supper each day over four days or until we sell out,” he said. Not bad for a community of less than 3,500 that’s well off the beaten track on the shores of the Northumberland Straight between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, (or P.E.I., as everyone calls it here.) But they do their lobster carnival up right with bed races, a parade, bands, a princess and more.

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We walk a little of our lunch off on the streets of this quaint harbor town filled with buildings from the 1800s before heading back to Halifax for a tattoo. Normally, I’m not much for collecting body art, but this tattoo is something entirely different.

The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is billed as the world’s largest annual indoor show and it is hard to imagine how they could make it any bigger. More than two hours of bagpipes, bands, dancers, singers, Mounties, military units, drums, drama, lights and acrobats from a half dozen countries and Canada stage the spectacle during the first week of July, after opening with a parade on Canada Day, July 1. It’s fast-moving, with each act running from three to six minutes. Now in its 35th year, it’s part historical pageant, part variety show, part drama and a signature event in a city that is long on international heritage, as the Ellis Island of Canada. Tickets cost from $24.50 to $80, depending on location and they pack the 11,000 seat house for eight performances of the tattoo during its annual run.

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After catching the evening performance of the tattoo at Metro Center, which is located just below the crest of Citadel Hill, we walk down through historic Halifax toward the harbor through the downtown, which it teeming with nightlife in this bustling provincial capital city of around 300,000. Our destination is the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse, a wonderful pub that features a funky menu with everything from burgers to lamb and fresh seafood, along with live music every night of the week. We’ve heard some wonderful Celtic music here in several visits over the years and the place has played host to names as big in the business as the Irish Rovers, Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac.

The Maritimes have never lost their immigrant roots and their love of traditional music. Fiddles, pipes and step-dancing never went out of style here and while it may be interesting to see in a concert hall, it’s that much better in a front of an appreciative, participative audience in an Irish pub with glasses of beer to lubricate the experience and drive off any inhibitions about getting into the music. There is a reason this place is “New Scotland” and it harkens to the old, with its connection to the sea and the culture of Europe.

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The Loyalists fled to Canada as part of the fallout of the American Revolution and the country was part of the British Empire for many decades following, when it was known as the Dominion of Canada. It is an independent nation today, but Canada still has a governor general from the United Kingdom to perform official and ceremonial duties of the British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth is still on the country’s money and British spellings for words like colour and neighbour are retained. In addition to its strong connection to the English, Canada has another nod to Europe in that it retains French as its other official language and there are pockets in the Maritime Provinces where French is still the primary language of the residents. 

Leaving the Old Triangle, we walk down to the harbor, which is lined with boats on the pier side and offers a wide variety of restaurants, shops, buskers, food vendors and the Casino Nova Scotia. The Halifax waterfront is a bustle of activity all day long and late into the evening, with people walking the miles of wooden piers, shopping at the Halifax Seaport Market, jogging, biking, taking tall ship and whale watching excursions, catching bagpipe solos from kilted virtuosos and enjoying the broad views.

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Halifax Harbor is North America’s northernmost ice-free port and it’s a busy shipping center for eastern Canada, as well as being the port of entry during the waves of European immigration that took place in the 19th and 20th Centuries. There are dozens of shipwrecks in the inner and outer harbors, include some that were sunk by German U boats near the beginning of World War II. You could take a tour boat, but our preference is simply to take the ferry back and forth from Dartmouth, directly across the harbor from Halifax, where our hotel is located with our room’s balcony overlooking the entire scene – even including Canada Day fireworks over the harbor. As part of the municipal transit system, it’s cheap and you can also take a transfer for a ride on the bus. The other way across the harbor is via one of two large suspension bridges, the McKay and the MacDonald, spanning the narrows in the harbor.

In the morning, we take a drive up the eastern shore on the Atlantic side in search of one of those mom & pop seafood shacks, where you can get fresh scallops, fish, crab and lobster to enjoy on picnic tables on a deck with an umbrella for shade a cold beer to wash it all down with.  Within 30 miles or so of driving the rugged coastline past the occasional piles of lobster traps and the workhorse boats that set them in season, we hit pay dirt; a little red building with a dirt parking lot in Musquodoboit Harbour with a big deck. We turn in and in a few minutes, we’re enjoying lobster rolls, scallops, cool salads, French fries and cold beers. This is living and in addition to being fabulously fresh and delicious, it’s cheap. But for dinner, I had something different in mind. After an afternoon back in the city and a failed attempt to spot some whales, we set out for the Bay of Fundy side.

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The Bay of Fundy, which separates Nova Scotia from New Brunswick and Maine, has the highest tides in the world. After consulting a tide schedule, I figured we could hit what looked like nice, but campy lobster restaurant in Hall’s Harbour, a tiny fishing village on the bay. As we drive through the last hairpin turn to the lobster pound, we see the boats grounded along the empty inlet. It is definitely low tide.

Like a lot of the other seafood places along the bay, the process is pretty simple. You go into the gift shop, pick out a lobster from the tank, drop it in a plastic tub and take it to the cash register, where it is weighed. Then you march your lobster to a window in the back, where a fellow in charge of cooking it takes it off your hands and you carry a number back to your picnic table. You order a salad, a side and a beverage and in a short while, your lobster arrives, hot and fresh.  Big view, beer and great food – it just doesn’t get any better. 

I don’t know if a person can get tired of fresh seafood, but it has never happened to me. Just to make sure that we were really in heaven, we stopped by the Masstown Seafood Market near Truro the next day.  It was $8.99 for 5 lbs. of mussels, $10.99 for 5 lbs. of clams, $7.99 per pound for live lobsters (or giant scallops, if you preferred them.) Yes, we were definitely there.

While everyone likes to think of Canada as being “up north,” Halifax is essentially directly east of us and it enjoys a maritime climate that is moderated by its proximity to the sea. The people are friendly, the atmosphere is casual, the history is rich – and then there’s always the lobster. 

JR

Are the Green Bay Packers really puzzled about their playoff ticket sales problem?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

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The Green Bay Packers are surveying their season ticket holders to try to figure out why they had 40,000 tickets left to sell and were flirting with a television blackout, just days before they dropped a 23-20 game to the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau in the first round of the NFC playoffs. What is surprising to me is not so much that it was a struggle to sell out – (and actually, they didn’t, in a traditional sense. Some white knights bought blocks of tickets after the NFL extended the deadline) – but that they don’t clearly understand why that happened. We’re not talking about rocket science here. We’re talking about economics and customer value.

First, the Packers sent out their invoices for the tickets at a time when it didn’t look like the team had a snowball’s chance in hell of hosting a game.  It seemed very likely that the Pack would probably finish third in the NFC North and it was only thanks to a late season collapse by the Detroit Lions and a 2-4 finish by the Chicago Bears that Green Bay ended up as a division champion with an 8-7-1 record. What was pretty clear was that in the unlikely event that a game would be hosted by Green Bay, the visiting team would be the one to bet on. The NFC North stunk this year, but somebody still had to win it.

The Packers didn’t have much choice about the timing of playoff ticket invoices, but then there was a cavalier little change they made in their playoff ticket purchase policy: If you bought these tickets for games that would probably not be played, you would pay immediately and there would be no refund. The payment could only be applied to next year’s season ticket invoice. This is the kind of stuff that sounds fine at the country club, but can go over poorly elsewhere, as it did:

Remaining Credit Balance *** REVISED THIS YEAR*** 

  • In the event one or both games are not played at Lambeau Field, and/or the Wild Card game is played instead of the Divisional Playoff game, your remaining credit balance (less the $3 handling fee) will be automatically applied to your 2014 season invoice, to be sent in early February. This change is being implemented in an effort to simplify the refunding process, to be consistent with other NFL teams, and because there is minimal time between the end of the playoffs and the onset of invoicing for the next season.

Actually, the change was being implemented as yet another manner in which the Packers would like to use their fans’ money for free, which is something they are pretty good at doing already. The Packers said they didn’t think this was a big deal, since half of their season ticketholders did that anyway. (What about the OTHER half, one might ask? Well, that apparently didn’t occur to the organization, since the policy change was made to benefit the PACKERS – not their customers.)

Contrast the Green Bay Packers’ policy with that of the Seattle Seahawks – the team that is going to the Super Bowl to represent the NFC:

“Season ticket holders have first right of refusal to purchase their same season ticket location for all potential playoff games. Our “Pay as we Play” plan allows you to reserve your seats without making a payment until each Playoff game is confirmed. Simply go to My Account Manager, select your Playoff tickets and enter the credit card you would like to use.”

That is a CUSTOMER-FOCUSED policy and it comes from a team with a far stronger record this year in a much more populous metro with an annual household income that is almost $18,000 higher, with private team ownership.

Now, I will be the first one to tell you that you couldn’t have paid me $115 to cart myself over to Green Bay and freeze my butt off watching the Packers end their mediocre season in a playoff game that never should have happened – and that is without the distraction of having to pre-pay for next year’s season. But let’s keep in mind that the weather was not as much of a factor when the season ticket holders balked on a December 4 purchase deadline.

I don’t have season tickets to the Packers and I’m not on the waiting list, either. But I did hold season tickets to the Minnesota Vikings for more than a decade and so I’ve purchased hundreds of NFL tickets over the years, including some for the Packers on an individual game basis in Green Bay and others as part of the Minnesota Vikings season ticket package. And I’ve also heard all of the snarky comments about the Vikings never winning a Super Bowl and how if the team isn’t winning, there will be empty seats in Minnesota, both of which are absolutely true. Because unlike the situation in Green Bay, the deal in Minnesota — and for a lot of other professional sports franchises — is that it is a performance-based system. There is a real cost for a team not performing well and really, there are worse things than that.

While most of Wisconsin glories in the fact that the Green Bay Packers are practically a religion, what has finally happened in Packerland is that the team may have to figure out that it truly can go too far in taking their crazed fan base for granted.  After years of jacking up their ticket prices, charging seat licensing fees that that essentially amount to an interest-free loan to the team, flogging worthless stock upon which a profit can never be made, a state income tax check-off for donations, vanity license plates and assuming that they can blow off any inconvenience to their many blue collar fans who know that having season tickets makes them some of the chosen few, they’ve finally found the tipping point. It’s not cold weather, it’s not the ticket price and it’s not even having the weakest playoff team in the field.

It’s the resale value, stupid.

For many Packer fans, their willingness to cough up thousands of dollars every year for season tickets – because they are bought in groups of tickets, not single tickets for single games — is based on the knowledge that even if it’s pretty pricey entertainment for a modest household budget, buyers can invariably recover and even profit by turning some of their tickets. Those holding the 7-game or 3-game packages could generally count on getting face for pre-season and a decent margin for regular season games. Sell off a game or several at a profit and you’re a long way toward going to a few games for free every season or at the very least, making the cost a whole lot more manageable.  But combine 40,000 tickets for a playoff game coming on the market with a week to move them to anyone who will buy, a miserable weather forecast, a likely loss — and the chances for hedging the bet with a resale opportunity being lower than the icy temperatures — and it’s an entirely different matter.  All of the sudden, the ticket selling function isn’t the occupational equivalent of working as a tree surgeon in Death Valley. You’re back to a classic market that moves on fear and greed.

“In announcing the sellout on Jan. 3, Packers president Mark Murphy spoke of the team’s intent to follow up with a survey to determine why fans stayed away from Lambeau Field.

As for why fans didn’t go to the game, the survey gave choices of cost of tickets, playoff fatigue, quality of TV broadcast and the weather forecast. Kickoff temperature for the game was 5 degrees.”

My take is that the Packers can survey their fans all they want, but the 800 pound gorilla in this year’s rebuff of playoff tickets by the club’s most ardent fans starts and ends with people understanding that the secondary market is critical to the success of the primary market. There were already storm clouds gathering with falling ticket resale prices after Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone Nov. 4 – a full month before the deadline for the Pack’s season ticket holders to pay up for playoff games, which the team led up to with three more losses and a tie. The secondary market for playoff tickets was essentially gone a month before the game. The Green Bay Packers knew it and even more importantly, their fans knew it. The Packers also knew weeks earlier that they would have a ton of playoff tickets to sell into an unrestricted market if they ended up hosting a game. That would have given other potentially interested fans a chance to plan for the possibility of a game, but why make a big deal out of the soft sales to season ticket holders when there was a very good chance it could end up being a moot point?

Adopting a fan-friendly policy would mean not holding up fans a few weeks before Christmas to pay early for next year’s games and it would have gone a long way toward preventing the need to sell 40,000 tickets to a poor matchup on a lousy day under the threat of a television blackout. And if they want to go even further, they could cut the price of pre-season games and spread the cost of the discount over the eight regular season games to make it revenue neutral, but a far more honest pricing model. (The Badgers already did this in 2013 with $45, $55 and $65 tickets for the very same seats at games, with the price varying based on the quality of the opponent.)

When I was in the utility business, I tried to advocate for customer policies that presumed customers had a choice, even though they may not realistically have had one. The Green Bay Packers would do well to consider the same, since it is just about the time you begin thinking you’re invincible that you tend to find out you’re not.

JR

Semi-related: Ticket prices to the cold weather Super Bowl are dropping:

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/super-bowl-ticket-seekers-snow-article-1.1593428