“Groups now make up 10% of the annual four million people we carry on board our 17 vessels.”

Gary Beckwith

Chairman, City Cruises

Gary Beckwith & Clare Newman, City Cruises

City Cruises offers many ways of enjoying a cruise on the Thames, and operates a modern fleet of boats designed especially with the sightseer in mind. With a regular service all year round, City Cruises can facilitate groups of all sizes. All boats feature large, open-air decks which is the best way to see London, even on the days that the sun doesn’t shine. In addition to sightseeing tours, the company offer specialist cruises that include lunches, afternoon tea, and evening cruises with live entertainment.

How have you seen the river cruise market for groups develop?

Gary Beckwith: Our business on the Thames has expanded enormously in the past 32 years, both for groups and other customers. Groups now make up around 10% of the annual four million people we carry on board our 17 vessels.

Initially, we ran just one boat, calling at three piers between Westminster and Hampton Court, and now we serve four pick-up points on the popular route from Westminster to Greenwich with many different options for the length and content of cruises – from a 20-minute single to a full day cruising on the river with our hop-on hop-off tickets.

City Cruises developed the first tourism brand on the River Thames with our red fleet, and we are now the largest operator. Our original vessels were small, second-hand, open boats, but we recognised that our customers needed larger all-weather boats as our market expanded. In 1996, we launched the first purpose-built sightseeing boat for 25 years and developed the first GPS-driven multilingual commentary system, followed by a multi-million pound investment in craft over the next 20 years.

Our largest addition to the fleet, Millennium Diamond, was built in 2012 and has the highest passenger-carrying capacity on the river at 600 passengers and in 2016 we launched the re-built City Alpha, with 400 passengers.

Many groups like to enjoy the lunch, tea and dinner cruises, which are now a major part of our business. The cream tea cruise is particularly popular. We’re just trialling a craft beer evening cruise. Our London Showboat brand, provides an evening dinner, cabaret and dance cruise from Westminster Pier throughout the year. Our historic Restaurant Ship, Hispaniola, is permanently moored alongside Victoria Embankment.

We’ve also worked increasingly closely with other destinations along the river, so our group customers can use the river trip to link together places like the London Eye and Tate Modern with the Tower of London and the Greenwich World Heritage Site.

As well as the Thames, we have developed a cruise operation in Poole Harbour that we took over in 2014 and is very popular for groups, offering harbour cruises round Brownsea Island and cruises to Swanage, with time to explore. And this year we purchased York Boats who have five large passenger boats and 14 self-drive ones on the River Ouse in that city, so our groups have a wide choice of destinations.

What further changes are you expecting to see?

Gary Beckwith: Technology is changing our business a lot now and we are investing in systems that allow direct links with our re-sellers in the travel trade and our major group buyers to smooth the booking and fulfilment process. We still put a pride in our personalised customer service though, as Clare points out in her answers.

Our market continues to evolve with the huge growth in overseas visitors to London, and in catering for a younger audience who have new expectations of how they can find out about and book their tourism and travel.

Customers are much more knowledgeable about the offer they want and how to choose between alternatives, and to find the special facilities and benefits from particular suppliers. We have to continue to innovate. That applies to our vessels as well, which are becoming more sophisticated, energy-efficient and manoeuvrable. Fortunately, we are generally now able to buy them from UK-based suppliers who know all the latest possibilities.

What is your role and your insights into the group travel market?

Clare Newman: In the four years in the role as Sales and Marketing Director of City Cruises Plc, it has been essential to develop new relationships with enthusiasm, developing both new and existing client bases in a variety of markets including GTOs. More recently the focus has been on achieving continuous improvements in both customer service delivery, product innovation and the offering of capacity to our trade partners backed up by commercial agreements that support our trade partners growth intentions. We continue to use the latest technological developments to further enhance our offerings.

Regular product training for our staff plus hosted familiarisation trips for GTO staff and their clients are a huge help when selling into the group travel market, and we ensure we attend many trade shows for the groups market to meet face-to-face. Literature is a must have. Our brochures are provided for all products (London, Poole & York) available in numerous languages (both printed and digital).

We also extend a trade booking portal to all trade partners – this provides the ability to check availability and make bookings instantly using the trade booking site. Bookings can be made 24/7 meaning direct confirmation for agents anywhere in the world. E-tickets can then be simply forwarded onto the customer or group leader.

Equally, we offer a variety of ticket types to suit various trade partner needs, whether that’s in a voucher format, e-tickets, the pre-purchase of undated tickets etc.

What is most important to remember when handling group relationships?

Clare Newman: It is essential to provide an experienced trade team who understand the group travel market, their business and their customers. Our trade team regularly travel both domestically and overseas to maintain relationships, keep them updated on products or training and to keep them well informed with industry trends. We have excellent industry contacts in London, Poole and York and a knowledgeable team who can assist is planning itineraries in all three locations.

We know that it is advantageous to circulate our trade rates 18 months in advance to allow for itinerary planning in line with the group travel organisers’ timescales. We also always make sure our GTOs are able to contact us to discuss any special requirements, or ask questions and take pride in our personalised customer service.

This article was originally published in issue 276 (November / December 2017) of GTO magazine.