At this time of year people start thinking about booking their canal boating holidays, so it's my busiest time! I'm the Managing Director of ABC Leisure Group which is the biggest operator on the UK canal network.
The business has 50 years' experience building and operating canal boats, and I took over in 1993. At that time we already had three hireboat start locations, but I thought I might be able to grow the business. I think I just spotted an opportunity and started following it to see how far I could take it. I'd set up other businesses in the past, but knew that leisure was the way forward and it's been a journey of interesting growth and expansion ever since!
We now have 16 hireboat start bases and around 200 hire boats. We also operate over 100 boats on behalf of a number of companies and syndicates. We own ten marinas and sell over 100 boats a year. I don't know if there have been any specific high moments for me in this business, I think it's just been all good and almost every time we move forward it's an achievement.
Probably the simplest key to success in business is talking to people and using common sense. Our team here talk and explore what options we can see in the growth of our business. We didn't start big, and I think anyone can do what we achieved with a strong business model. The message I try to send out to customers is that we are big enough to trust, and small enough to care.
Our customers rely on Canal & River Trust to keep navigation routes safe and enjoyable, so I'm happy to give up some of my time to help the Trust. I sit on the South Wales and Severn Waterways Partnership meetings, and pass on comments from our customers' real experiences navigating the waterways. Talking about this research can help the Trust when they're making their decisions about spending and planning maintenance works.
As well as being able to give feedback on navigation issues to Canal & River Trust from our customers' comments, we've learned as a business from people who have booked with us too. We try to make it easy for feedback and it's one of the reasons we get a lot of repeat business.
Over my years of operating hire boats, I've seen changes in what holidaymakers want – people expect more. Life moves forward and we've introduced Wi-Fi. Teenagers want it, and they're watching TV on their tablets too now. And it's not just that customers expect more, they're also getting bigger and so we've increased the size of the showers and have bed extenders to offer to anyone wanting extra space. If I go back 18 years to when I first started looking at the hireboat business, a lot of companies didn't even supply bedding or towels. These days, people don't want to take wet towels home, and if our boats have two couples on board they expect two en-suite bathrooms. After all, no one shares a bathroom in a land B&B these days!
When my children were younger we used to go away as a family on the canals. My daughter works in Brazil now she's grown up, and my son is a musician and spends his life trawling around places. They were both home for Christmas with their partners and they said "We want to go on a canal boat again!" That's their happy memory of their childhood. For me, boats are always here every day in my life, yet I don't get out on the water very often! I live on the canalside and cycle to work along the canal, but I only seem to go out in a boat when I'm taking the Tourist Board or Canal & River Trust. Whenever I do, I feel instantly relaxed and always think, 'Why don't I go boating more?'
Edward, Worcester, Worcester & Birmingham Canal