‘Excited,’ was the word of the day. When volunteers for the Tall Ships Challenge attended training meetings a week in advance of the event, we all looked puzzled when Volunteer Coordinator Kenda Williams gave a short and informative PowerPoint presentation on dealing with difficult customers.
‘Really, why would anyone be difficult?’ We all thought this must be in rare and extreme cases, but it didn’t take long Friday, the first day of the event, to realize the fortuity of that training.
The day started out wonderfully, but problems started to arise immediately and were quickly addressed by the top notch volunteer team.
The volunteers had been told that tickets would cost $20 per adult and $10 for children 5 – 16. This proved to be inaccurate. The cost was actually $25 per adult and $12 for children, though most people were not that upset by the extra few dollars.
Those that were upset were locals who wanted to look at the vendors wares, stroll along their river front to look at the ships without going in and buy a hot dog or funnel cake, but were not allowed in unless they paid the $25.
It was nice that the regular gang of street performers, palm rose makers, etc. were kept at bay, but it was difficult turning down an elderly ex-sailor and his son because they did not have the funds to enter the festival.
The event was not really handicap or stroller friendly either, due to the fact that the Tall Ships steep ramps and narrow stair cases were a challenge even for those with full mobility to navigate them, though many with walkers managed to tour the upper decks without incident.
The Picton Castle had dangerously steep and narrow stair cases and at low tide, the ramp leading down to the dock was so steep that many people were winded and struggled to make it back up to street level, but these things were all minor and no one really seemed to mind. For many it just added to the authenticity of the event.
Many Old Town Trolley tourists were upset because they had traveled all the way to Savannah to tour the river front and only had an hour or two to spend and did not want to pay $25 just to walk on one ship and view the vendors, but others were thrilled to have stumbled upon the event and gladly spent the money, exiting with smiles and thanks.
A shop owner was upset that his customers could not buy a beer and go sit on the park benches by the water and asked if it would be open at night, saying it was hurting his business, though if anything, we noticed most shops on River Street seemed to be full to overflowing and the event drew an estimated 50,000 visitors to the city who otherwise might not have come.
Hotels and motels were almost filled, especially since many graduations were taking place and the whole city was buzzing and busy.
While there was initially some miscommunication within the volunteer ranks, team leaders tried to address them immediately and though they were unable to find a working solution to let people have access to the vendors but not the ships if they did not pay, they were able to open up the children’s section with Theodore the Tug Boat, games and educational events on Saturday, when the only way to get in Friday was by paying full admission.
The Eagle, a US Coast Guard Ship also allowed people to take tours without having to pay an entry fee since they were a government ship and were located far to the west of the main event.
The series of blockades, check points and barriers, as well as the long winding crowds to get to the boats and a number of confusing layouts of barrier mazes that lead to dead ends and more barriers might have been a little less confusing, but with limited area there wasn’t much choice and volunteers corrected, again for this by standing someone on a small wall with a sign reading – NO EXIT and warning people that the opening led to entry on the Bounty and they would have to take the long route around and go back out on the street and re-enter at another check point.
Perhaps the biggest concern, after having to have a ticket to enter the vendor area, was the amazingly long lines for the free ferry across the river where most everyone had parked and where the other five ships were docked at the Westin.
The event originally started out with two ferrys which held about 100 people apiece. When volunteers were unable to board the ferrys to get to their assignments, the event organizers called in buses to shuttle them back and forth across the river for Saturday, though few event goers knew that they could take the shuttle as well.
Even when a third larger ferry was called in, lines were still long, with one group waiting nearly two hours to get back across the river.
The lines for the ferry boat also prevented many people from getting onboard the paddle boats for paid tours and some thought the ferry boat line was the paddle boat line and nearly missed their tour.
Still, the event was exciting and something relatively new for Savannah, so some glitches were to be expected and the event coordinators did a wonderful job of trying to address the issues as they arose and the volunteers did their best to remain kind and sympathetic but firm, even when one man tried to pay the gate guard $20 to let him and his wife in just to look at the vendors and when a woman from Germany started wagging her finger in their faces and telling them she would never come back here again and felt insulted that she was kept out of the event while others were being allowed in, even though those others had purchased tickets.
Everyone who toured the ships was glad they did and no one felt the cost to get in was not worth it. Even though most of the entertainment was inside the barriers, many of the pirates, jugglers and even the Indonesian Naval Cadets Band worked their way around River Street for everyone to enjoy.
There were more positives than negatives and even the crew members onboard the ships said they planned to come back to Savannah when they had more time to spare. One crew member was even thinking about moving back here to live, she liked the city so much.
As the ships prepare to set sail up the coast, the city of Savannah’s waving girl monument will not be the only one waving goodbye and wishing them all a safe journey in their race up the coast to Nova Scotia. Hopefully the event will return in years to come and by then, the event coordinators should have any problems smoothed out so that everyone can enjoy the event without feeling left out because they couldn’t afford the money.