I recently spent an evening on the river at Kingston-upon-Thames with the team behind the European rental boat operator, Le Boat, and their Managing Director, Cheryl Brown, and it was both interesting and surprising at the same time.
Surprising because even though it is currently up for sale, Le Boat is positively buoyant!
Interesting because this is an iceberg of a company; multi-faceted and much larger than it looks on the surface!
Le Boat specialises in self-drive river cruising. Those who know about boating on European rivers & waterways may recognise its 40-year heritage; it was formed in 2008 by parent company TUI merging three of its boating brands – Crown Blue, Connoisseur and Emerald Star (although Le Boat still uses the Emerald Star name in Northern Ireland).
The resulting behemoth operates 900+ boats from 39 bases in 8 countries (France, Italy, England, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, & Belgium), and it is selling its 200+ cruise itineraries to holidaymakers from all those countries and more, the latest being Russia. The bit of the iceberg that Brits see is quite small. We are the third largest customers accounting for 11% of Le Boat’s sales. The Germans are No.1 at 26%.
Despite being a large organisation, Le Boat under Cheryl Brown, is agile and innovative.
“I found myself talking recently to a potential customer, who said he’d love to go river cruising but was single”, she said. “I realised there was a large untapped market and got together with our sister company, solo traveller specialists, Intrepid, to create boating holidays for singles.”
When she realised many potential first timers are nervous about skippering their own boat, she created flotilla cruises so that they could travel together as a group with a flotilla skipper to chaperone and deal with any problems.
Le Boat has 36 different models of boats for couples, families and groups up to 12 people, but recently they’ve been using customer feedback to design the ‘perfect’ boat for couples & small families – something that Cheryl has been enthusiastically overseeing. The result is the new Horizon class, with panoramic windows, USB ports in the saloon & cabins, air-cooling, the largest bridge deck for a boat this size with sunbathing area, table, sink & BBQ, and joy-stick controls (Bow thrusters! Dontcha luv em!)
All three of these innovations came into play this year. Flotilla cruises are now available in Italy. The new Horizon class boats have been introduced in all of Le Boat’s most popular cruising areas, which include the Canal du Midi (THE most popular, accounting for 40% of Le Boat’s sales) and Burgundy Region in France, The River Thames in England, and other popular waterways in Italy, Holland, & Germany, and the new Singles Cruises are also available on the Canal du Midi.
The result of these improvements can be seen in a 30% increase in pre-sales for 2017, and they are not standing still. There are continuous updates to their app (yes, they have an app!) which enables skippers to plan their routes, look for interesting places to moor, restaurants, book excursions, etc. And they are extending their cruise area across the Atlantic. In 2018 they will be offering boating holidays on the 200km Rideau Canal in Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So it’s easy to see why they are so optimistically un-fazed by being one of the 50 brands in the Specialist Travel Group (newly renamed Travelopia), which TUI has just announced it is selling off.