Aggressive Tour Ticket Sellers Disrupt Free Shuttle Bus at The Battery

Police say most tour ticket sellers for The Queen of Hearts, docked in New Jersey, are not licensed by the city as required. Right: A Downtown Connection bus bypasses stops on Battery Place. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 15, 2018

The Downtown Connection shuttle bus began skipping five stops at The Battery on Aug. 9, an action taken to avoid confrontations with aggressive tour ticket sellers.

Jessica Lappin, president of the Downtown Alliance, which provides the free service between Downtown’s west and east sides, said troubles with the sellers had been building over the summer as they would herd tourists onto the buses “as a way to get them out of there before they ask too many questions” about the tickets they had just bought.  

Finally, Lappin said, “I had had enough.”

Enough, she said, of the vendors flagging down buses where they weren’t supposed to stop, or trying to hold the buses while they loaded up to a dozen or more of the ticket buyers onto the free shuttle or, worse, tangling with Alliance personnel.

“Our supervisors were starting to get into it more with them, which is not a situation I like,” she said.

The last straw, Lappin said, was an incident with the Alliance’s executive vice president of operations, Ron Wolfgang, who regularly checks on the area and was overheard by a vendor speaking to tourists about the shady operation. That led to words back and forth.

“He tried to get in my face,” Wolfgang said in a phone interview, adding, “It dawned on me that this guy is trying to intimidate me.”

(One man, working with the vendors as apparent “muscle” for his crew, took a Trib reporter’s photo within about a foot of his face. A few minutes later he returned to tell the reporter he had been followed for 30 minutes and seen taking pictures of the vendors. “We’re following you walking around, man,” he said, standing menacingly close. “I’m going to make a call. I’m going to give you five minutes, brother!”)

Intimidation, Wolfgang and police say, is a known tactic of some vendors. “These guys are chasing the bus down, banging on the glass, trying to put their people on,” Wolfgang said, [telling drivers] ‘I’m stopping and putting them on. You got a problem with that?’ That’s what really got us. Interrupting the flow of the free service.”

As they have for years, third-party ticket sellers swarm tourists on the park’s perimeter, hawking tours around the Statue of Liberty or past other Lower Manhattan sights. Often they fail to mention that the boat they will be taking leaves from Weehawken, NJ. (Most recently, customers have been trekked up Greenwich Street to waiting buses north of Morris Street.)

“They would just put them on the Connection bus but not caring where the bus was even taking them,” said Sgt. Daniel Feldman, the NYPD’s officer in charge of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and the area around it. “Their bus probably wasn’t available and they just wanted to make a sale. They’ll tell people anything.”

Feldman said that one day recently he got 40 tourists refunds within half an hour. “I asked them if they were aware where the bus is taking them and an entire bus load of people came right off the bus and I got their money back.”

“But then,” he added, “as we were walking to get their money there were other families that weren’t on the bus and that were complaining also. It’s really bad. Really bad.”

Two years ago, the city required the vendors to be licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs after a tourist was punched in the face by a seller, the victim’s skull fractured when his head struck the pavement. Police ramped up enforcement further last year following a shooting that injured a bystander. A push by the 1st Precinct’s then-commanding officer, Dep. Inspector Mark Iocco, led to the eviction from two city piers of two tour companies using third-party sellers. One of them, the Queen of Hearts, was tossed off of Pier 36, only to wind up this summer in New Jersey’s Liberty Harbor Marina.

“That has been a complete and utter mess with that boat,” Feldman said, noting that other tour operators in the area have been abiding by the rules. But the vast majority of the sellers, multiple crews wearing yellow, light blue, lime green and white t-shirts, still vend tickets to the Queen of Hearts, he said. That’s what the issue is with them. I don’t have an issue with any of the other boats.”

“I’ve done everything by the books,” Queen of Hearts owner Peter Vuli told the Trib in a brief phone interview, calling the charges “a complete fabrication.”

“I’m the victim here,” he added. “I’ve always been the victim here. I’ve been victimized by the City of New York and I’ll leave it at that.”

Feldman said his cops have made multiple arrests and issued summonses. “The guys don’t care if you give them summonses,” he said. “They tell you right to your face that this is going to get thrown out anyway.”

“Dealing with the individual ticket vendors is not the right course of action,” Feldman said. “It’s basically going after the boats.” But because the boat is in another state, he added, “all I can do is try to shoo the vendors away and get back as many of the families’ money as I can.”

The Downtown Connection is expected to again make all stops by the end of September, Lappin said.