George Clode visits Cherry Garden Pier in Bermondsey to speak to the chairman and chief executive of tour boat operator City Cruises.
How did you start?
Gary: In 1976, I had a barge outside county hall selling diesel to pleasure boats. I then sold other boat supplies, beer, drinks and cocktail cherries.
In 1985, I bought a boat from a customer and suddenly I was in the business.
Within three years we’d bought four boats as part of a consortium.
The other members weren’t looking to invest more, so they let me buy them out.
In 1992, the Port of London Authority introduced 10-year licences, meaning we could invest and borrow money.
We bought out competitors and started building boats – one was launched in 1996 by the Queen, who spent a lot of time with us on the day.
Four years later, we won a major competition and built a fleet for the Millennium exhibition in 2000.
From a small, sleepy company turning over £3 million, we’d jumped to £7 million overnight.
How did you know the travel trade was important for you?
Rita: We didn’t know the industry, so we joined everything we could. We went on weekends with them, networked, and it’s been the most important part of our journey.
We’ve always listened to the trade and built products to suit their needs.
We forged those relationships because that’s what we wanted to do – there was no commercial driver at first. That’s why the travel industry is so wonderful.
Gary: If we’ve got 100 seats to sell, I don’t want one night, I want seven nights, 365 days a year. You can’t do that unless you have lots of friends in the travel trade. We need FITs coming in, so we deal with hotel concierges selling tickets through someone like Evan Evans, Golden Tours or Premium Tours, and hall porters, coach companies, tour operators. We’re always looking for new partners.
We’ve always been group friendly and employ someone especially for groups; we’ve got a travel trade desk and a travel trade experience.
Rita, how did you get involved?
He needed someone to do the paperwork. That’s much more my forte than Gary’s. With my ability to deal with tax and wages, and Gary’s entrepreneurial thinking, we grew the business. I’ve enjoyed every minute.
How have you stayed ahead of the game?
Gary: People’s expectations have grown massively. Our boats are very expensive and when you board, you feel like you’re on a cruise liner. When I started, I never imagined that passenger boats would get that luxurious. Quality is something we will always focus on: rebuilding, revamping, acquiring companies that may have forgotten what’s important to customers. In future, I see us opening in different cities, and maybe the next generation will take the business overseas.
Rita: Part of our journey was when we realised we’d done all we could ourselves. That’s when we brought in managing director Kyle Haughton and built a team of professionals.
We’ve concentrated on innovation – for instance, this year we had Movies on the River with Timeout which was the first screening ever on the Thames.
How are the new products in Poole and York performing?
Gary: This is our third summer in Poole and we’ve just bought York. We’ve written ambitious budgets for both, and we’ve hit budget.
Rita: Poole had two boats that needed a lot of work. They’re now doing exceedingly well, and look very smart. The brand carries well – it can be a city cruise anywhere. Same in York – we enhance and make better.
How has technology played a role?
Gary: At first, you’d stand with tickets on a sunny day and people would give you money. With the trade, people would phone and say there are 50 people coming, and you’d open an account.
Nowadays, people buy online and arrive with phones to scan.
We have a two-year technology development programme which we’ll review at the end to make sure we’re still at the forefront, and then on we go again.
Has your target market changed over the years?
Gary: We have always been about families. We’re not a stag-do operation. The good thing about boats and sightseeing is you don’t have to explain; you just tell them where the boat is.
Rita: We’ve won awards which gave us the stamp of approval. We believe very highly in customer service and aim to be a world-class attraction.
Do you plan any new acquisitions?
Gary: “We believe we now have a business model that can easily be transferred to other regions and abroad and continue to explore opportunities whilst expanding the number of boats in London and our regional businesses.
With the considerable investment in our IT infrastructure we intend to increase our total passenger carryings from 4m to 6 million by 2020.”