“I’ll never forget doing my first Italian experience: we were cruising up onto the Venetian lagoon with St. Mark’s Square in front of us. It was just…that was a pinch-me moment! I was brought up in South Wales and every now and again when I have just an unbelievable experience like that, I’ll text my mum and thank her for giving birth to me.”
Cheryl Brown, managing director of Le Boat, loves travel. This point cannot be underscored enough. Growing up, she couldn’t wait to get in the air and jet off to the next exotic locale. That is, until she actually started doing all the taking off and landing. Nausea convinced her being a flight attendant was not the route for her. Feet planted firmly on the ground, the travel bug would just not be satisfied. She started working for a travel agency and over the years rose through the ranks.
“When I joined TUI Marine 12 years ago,” she says, “I was the first managing director ever on the sailing side of the business. Moving to marine was just completely different for me; what was really exciting was it was a global business. When travel is in your blood, you never stop doing it. I’ve still got loads of energy and passion, and if I had my choice I’d leave somewhere on a Monday and return home on Friday.”
TUI, the largest tourism company in the world, recognized then that customers were looking for more adventure and excitement, and unique experiences were the ticket. They branched out from a standard flight-hotel-itinerary model to customizable and off-the-beaten-path options by acquiring more tour-based companies who chartered yachts, conducted river cruises, etc. Cheryl, with her insatiable thirst for travel and eye for customer experience, was the perfect fit. She has headed up the Le Boat branch of TUI and saw the transition to the new owner KKR.
“I do remember someone asking me when I joined the Marine team: ‘Are you going to have the credibility going into this job?’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! The marine business I was taking on was losing money at the time. I replied: ‘Hang on. Are you looking for a sailor to run the business that’s never going to make money, but he loves sailing? Or are you looking for someone who is going to come in, make some fundamental changes, turn it around, and make money so loads of people can enjoy sailing?’”
Cheryl turned that business around and has grown Le Boat into the European powerhouse it is today. Her philosophy about teamwork is a core component of that success. She understands her need to know the product and be able to talk about it credibly, with passion.
“If I’m ever in a situation at a press conference making a big announcement or at a boat show,” Cheryl laughs, “I am clearly going to be standing there with the best sailor I’ve got in this business. I am also going to surround myself with passionate sailors, so if I ever do decide to walk up the wrong path they can tell me: ‘No, Cheryl, you can’t do that because of these sailing-related reasons.’”
Even now, Cheryl admits she will have the most stupid questions and simply removes her ego from the equation. Her team knows that no matter how many times you have to ask it, they can find an answer to it.
“I’m a bit of a team-y boss,” Cheryl admits reluctantly. “In fact, some people would say I do too much by teams. You’ve got to get your team buy-in, maybe especially for women in male-dominated industries. You’ve got to earn that respect. It doesn’t come naturally.”
In the last two years, Cheryl has ostensibly taken two of the biggest risks of her career and they have both paid off in spades. So while respect is earned with hard work and hustle, the reward is definitely worth it.
The Boat In Le Boat
“Le Boat is a boating product where no experience is needed,” Cheryl states emphatically, “so anybody can do it. Which means you’ve got a huge marketing opportunity. Our biggest challenge is spreading the word, making sure that everybody out there knows they can hire one of our boats without any experience.”
With 18,000 departures and 110,000 people traveling on Le Boat vacations yearly, it’s safe to assume Cheryl has built a business that’s going to last. Before opening up a new destination, Cheryl’s team looks at every location to ensure a great, seven-day cruise is possible. To guarantee that top-quality experience Cheryl demands, though, Le Boat can’t just use any boat.
“We got to a stage where I thought we needed just a floating condo. People who have no boating experience get on a boat and they expect all the amenities found in a hotel room, like en suite facilities and a kitchen like they’d have in their condo at home. They just want it to float!”
The Horizon Range project started in 2014 and the aim was to build the most innovative small boat for inland waterways. Le Boat has taken away as many ropes as possible, and have bow and stern thrusters so these boats are as maneuverable as possible. They even have fenders all the way around the boat, so if you do run into something you’ll bounce right off.
“We’re really proud of it because we believe it was a boat built by our customers for our business. The only issue with that was, they will tell you want they want today but you’re building a boat for the future. You’ve got to think ahead – what is this boat going to look like in 5, 10, 15 years?”
Beginning with the one-cabin boat in 2016, Cheryl has on-boarded a full range, including two-, three-, four-, and now a five-cabin boat, each complete with en suite facilities, separate showers, and a flybridge that is the envy of every other boat owner on the water.
The Canadian Contingent
“Once we got the business case signed off and thought we could make the financials work, I’ll never forget arriving at the Toronto airport,” recalls Cheryl. “I’d just made the ‘Okay, let’s do it’ decision and sat down with the biggest glass of red wine you’ve probably ever seen. Then it hit me: this is real now. Where do we start?”
January 2015, Cheryl found herself at the New York Times Travel Show. She and her team had just restructured the business end of Le Boat, preparing it for new growth. The time had come and she was on the hunt for the next top destination. As fate would have it, Noreen Cartwright of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport was also at that show, looking for a growth opportunity.
“Timing was perfect!” Cheryl exclaimed. “I was looking for new growth, but hadn’t considered anything outside Europe. We were also approached by the New York State Canal Corporation. I got the two of them together and said, ‘I’ll give you up to ten days of my time. If you two can work together to put together an itinerary, I’ll bring my operations director and you get one chance to blow me away.’”
A few months later, Cheryl landed in Ottawa and was blown away by the fourth-largest city in Canada. With a metropolitan population of 1.3 million and nearly 200 years of history, Ottawa had exactly what Le Boat customers in Europe would expect from a holiday destination.
“I landed in Ottawa. And honestly, I didn’t even know what to expect. If I’m being really honest, I didn’t think this would be an opportunity but I went to see it anyway. I’ll never forget landing,” Cheryl remembers, “and you know how it is. You’ve just come off a long-haul flight and you get in a cab, head down, catching up on emails. And before I knew it, I was entering the city. I popped my head up and just thought, ‘Wow!’”
The following day Cheryl met up with the Parks Canada team and launched the ideal seven-day itinerary in the Rideau River. Taking major stops in Merrickville and Smith Falls, Le Boat’s current Canadian headquarters, the group sailed smoothly through locks and canals that mirror the French waterways Le Boat is comfortable operating in. Coming upon the Great Rideau canal, arguably the gem of Ottawa, Cheryl was having a pinch-me moment.
“I remember saying to my operations director at the time, ‘Wait, what’s wrong here? What are we missing? Is there a Loch Ness monster?’ This whole thing was almost too good to be true. I told him, ‘Let’s not get too excited, I don’t want them to know how we’re feeling!’”
That was the moment Cheryl wanted to do this. Her business mind clicked away at the opportunities for Le Boat while trying to contain that travel-bug giddiness at being their first destination outside Europe. Admittedly, this is where it gets tricky. Cheryl knew that to open a new base, she needed at least 16 boats and to be able to quickly scale up to 32 before it would make real business sense in the longer term. The seven-day itinerary Cheryl asked for continued, but she was already sold.
“For me,” Cheryl sums up, “Canada was the combination of two excitements – to build a new boat and to venture outside of Europe. So when the Canada opportunity became available and we made it happen, it was such an emotionally rewarding experience. It’s been a dream-come-true! We all work on projects we don’t finish or that don’t turn out exactly how we want them to, or they’re a bit like pushing water uphill. This has been a dream-come-true from day one. We’ve worked with so many positive people who helped bring it all together. There’ve been lots of mixed emotions, but at the end of the day the result is: it’s been a real success for our business and for all the partners involved.”
Beyond The Horizon
“We’re investigating next steps in the Rideau at the moment,” she reports. “In my dream, I’d love to accelerate the current plan by moving Year Five up to Year Three. The good news is we're up 20 percent year-on-year, so we’re off to a great start for 2019. We’re currently looking at other waterways in North America, from Trent-Severn to Florida, for some winter cruising opportunities for us.”
She invites all Great Lakes Boating readers to come give Le Boat a try. Especially those, she says, who are getting to a point in life when sailing becomes a bit too much hard work. She admits the Trans-Atlantic flights are getting to be a bit much for her, but she’s not stopping yet! That spirit is what she sees in the Great Lakes and wants to encourage for generations to come.
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