Skippers of Birmingham’s waterways are hoping to stay afloat during the recession with a raft of business innovations.
The directors of the city’s canal boat businesses admit the credit crunch is beginning to bite, but are confident their companies can weather the financial storms.
Earle Wightman, managing director of Sherborne Wharf Heritage Narrow Boats, said that although the demand for corporate entertaining was down, the company was compensating in other areas.
“We do normally have quite a lot of corporate business, with evening boat trips, karaoke, discos and dining," he said. "At the moment bookings are down 40 per cent compared to last year.
“But actually there has been a rise in bookings for our canal boat holidays. Bookings for that are way ahead, and we already have a large number of reservations for next summer. So we are fairly confident.”
Mr Wightman, 65, has been running his business for 15 years, hosting celebrations on his fleet of canal boats based at the historic wharf.
With boats carrying a maximum of 50 passengers, revellers could be provided with a buffet or drinks reception as they cruised the city’s canals, taking in the city sights from the water.
And although industrial use of the canals went into decline in the mid 1900s, Mr Wightman is confident the revitalised canal system will continue to be a successful source of business and entertainment throughout the current economic downturn.
“Obviously it is a concern,” he admitted. “We are a little business, so of course we are looking at costs. We are trying to encourage business by offering incentives to book Christmas parties, such as a discount if you confirm your reservation within 24 hours of making the initial inquiry.
“But we do think we are well-placed to survive. Our holiday market is actually booming, as people have evidently decided not to go abroad next summer and are holidaying in the UK. That’s good for business.
“Actually we were talking only last week about investing in a new boat. We think people should go out and enjoy themselves – while they still have jobs!”
Mr Wightman’s business partner Mike Dowse, who runs the holiday side of the company from their base in Cheshire, agrees that the economic conditions are actually boosting certain aspects of the business.
“The early signs are that 2009 is looking very positive,” he said. “Our bookings for next summer are already about 15 per cent up.
“And it’s interesting that bookings are coming from people in Great Britain and abroad, because with the current weakness of the pound more tourists are thinking about coming to the UK. We have had a lot of interest from Americans, who are keen to come to the UK owing to the exchange rate.”
And the team from Sherborne Wharf are not the only ones relatively untroubled by the swirling economic waters.
The director of Party Boats Birmingham, Sam Waller, is philosophical about the downturn.
“We’ve survived previous recessions, and I am sure we will survive this one,” he said. “We’ve been in the business for 40 years, and it all balances out in the long run.”
Mr Waller, 66, is also finding that one area of his business is booming, while another slows to a trickle.
“We don’t rely on passenger trips entirely,” he explained. “Our broad-based business gives us stronger foundations to weather the recession.
“We also run basic holidays for school kids and scouts, who are looking for an alternative to camping – we’ve been doing that since 1973.
“And a large part of our business nowadays is hiring out working boats for canal maintenance, to private companies. It’s not a predictable source of revenue, but it keeps us going.
“I wouldn’t say we were complacent, but we’ve not got the jitters yet.”
Clifford Jones, of Away4awhile, is equally relaxed about business prospects.
“It’s not been devastating,” he said. “We are noticing that the corporate business is slowing, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Like the other boat businessmen, Mr Jones has a broad fleet to keep him afloat. The company runs evening events through Away2Dine, with their restaurant canal boats based in Brindleyplace.
“They also organise canal boat holidays with Away4awhile, and B&B breaks with Away2Stay.
“The appalling weather of the past two summers has slowed business, so I don’t necessarily think that the fluctuations of business are entirely a reaction to the credit crunch.
“We have trimmed our Christmas plans, cutting back on mid-week trips, but that isn’t a reaction to the recession – it’s just about sensible business. And we haven’t put our prices up this year, which we normally would.
“But we are confident in our business. Our boats are really lovely inside – everyone expects them to be cold and cramped, and are quite surprised when they enter. We have a modern, innovative business and believe we’re well positioned in the market.”
Indeed, the market itself seems relatively buoyant. British Waterways reported earlier this year that there were more vessels on the canals than during its Victorian heyday, and 11 million people a year visit the canals, rivers and docks of the UK. Properties near the water, once derelict, command a 20 per cent premium in price.
Ed Fox, spokesman for British Waterways, said: “This has been nothing short of a revolution. They have been rediscovered as a leisure resource.