TUI Travel's self-drive boating division, Inland Waterways, is getting a makeover of sorts. Last month, TUI launched Le Boat, the new name for the umbrella brand that now encapsulates Crown Blue Line, Connoisseur and Emerald Star -- self-drive boating brands that TUI owns and operates under its Inland Waterways division.
Crown Blue Line, Connoisseur and Emerald Star have all been in service for more than 35 years, but they are now being marketed and sold in Europe and North America under the Le Boat name and at LeBoat.com. All three brands also have individual Web sites.
The main point of differentiation between the three brands is regional. Emerald Star focuses on the self-drive boating business in Ireland. Crown Blue Line and Connoisseur boats sail in Ireland as well as in France, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
For 2008, the Connoisseur brand is adding 15 new boats to its fleet. The boats will all be classified under the new Royal Mystique Elite class of boats.
The Royal Mystique collection will launch on March 14 with three boats that will sail on the Camargue, Canal du Midi and Aquitaine canals in France. All 15 will be completed by the end of 2008 and will sail throughout the Aquitaine, Brittany, Burgundy, Camargue, Loire, Nivernais, Lot and Midi regions of France.
According to Debbie Petermann, sales manager for Le Boat in the company's U.S. office in Annapolis, Md., the Royal Mystique collection was designed based largely on customer feedback. For example, she said, "With Americans, the focus is your kitchens and your bathrooms."
Keeping that in mind, the Royal Mystique boats will all be 43 feet in length, will have two cabins and can carry up to six passengers.
The boats will also feature ensuite toilets and showers. In many older models, the toilets rest within the showers, which was a common complaint among past self-drive boaters.
Salons will have flat-screen TVs, CD and DVD players and an MP3 connection as well as a large couch that converts into a double bed.
The Royal Mystique boats will also have kitchens with stainless-steel appliances. A sundeck will have a second steering position, a fitted barbecue, a portable cooler and outdoor lighting.
As for what the expansion means for the self-drive boating industry in Europe, Petermann said, "I've seen [self-drive European boating] definitely come in a wonderful direction. It's still taking its baby steps. I've sold hundreds of bookings in my lifetime. And we have not yet skimmed the surface."
Le Boat's history
Le Boat was founded in 1979 by Petermann's mother, Evelyn Gresser.
In 2005, Petermann, who had taken over the business by then, sold the name to First Choice Holidays, which merged with TUI's tour division to form TUI Travel earlier this year.
Two years after buying the Le Boat name, TUI is finally resurrecting it, using it as an umbrella brand to distinguish its self-drive boating division.
"Le Boat was known worldwide, so they figured, 'Why not use it?' " said Petermann.
But back when Petermann and Gresser were running the operation, Le Boat didn't actually own any boats. It was purely a brokerage, selling self-drive yacht and charter boat itineraries, including for the brands Le Boat now encompasses.
"The company was started to be a yacht charter brokerage," said Petermann. "But I fell in love with the canal boat section of it. When [my mom] retired, she said, 'What do you want to do with the sailboat section?' And I realized that the easiest things to sell are those that you love."
So Petermann dissolved the yacht charter business and focused solely on canal boating.
Like much of the travel industry, Le Boat experienced its first financial hiccup after 9/11. And then it took its second hit in 2003, when strained U.S.-France relations saw a marked decrease in U.S. travelers to France.
"I had some people say, 'I hate the French,' " recalled Petermann. "I just believe that once you're there, you don't have the same view. If you want to take it as an example, when 9/11 happened, all [our American clients sailing in France at the time] were taken in by the French to watch their TVs. And for people to say, 'I hate the French,' they just don't know."
Nevertheless, Le Boat took a sizeable hit, and the business became more difficult to sustain. Petermann was at a crossroads and wasn't sure she could keep Le Boat up and running, while still supporting herself and her family. First Choice's offer, she said, came just in the nick of time.
After buying the company, First Choice hired Petermann to be the sales manager for North America. Now her main challenge and goal is to make the Le Boat name resonate on this side of the Atlantic.
"There are far more European customers than American," said Petermann.
Location alone makes it much easier for Europeans to book self-drive boat vacations. They are also more likely to book last-minute trips.
"Most of the European market will ask for a date and a boat. It doesn't matter to them what the itinerary is," said Petermann. "The Americans are getting out, seeing the sites, seeing what the cultural availability is, if there is a museum nearby."
And while the North American market can be a challenge, especially with the unfavorable currency exchange rate for Americans, Petermann is hoping that one major factor will help buoy the Le Boat business in 2008: Le Boat offers U.S. clients dollar-based rates, not rates based in euros or pounds, even though LeBoat is based in Portsmouth, England,
Evolution of self-drive boating
The growing popularity of river cruising and travel along Europe's scenic waterways has slowly spilled over into more niche forms of sailing, including canal barging and the self-drive boating business.
According to TUI, the self-drive boating division has seen year-over-year growth, and it is hoping to increase sales by at least 6% in 2008 over 2007. TUI declined to release any more precise sales or booking figures.
Nevertheless, the company has been steadily growing the Le Boat fleet. Le Boat vessels are all built from the ground up.
TUI did not reveal how much it was spending to build the new Royal Mystique boats. However, a spokeswoman for the company did say that the "Mystique is more popular than expected and is almost fully booked for the 2008 season."
With the 15 new Royal Mystique boats, the total number of boats in the Le Boat fleet will reach 1,100.
So, who is booking these self-drive canal boating trips?
"We have a tremendous amount of seniors that go, a lot of people who have just retired," said Petermann. "I would love to see a lot more families go. It's an ideal family vacation, for families to get back to that family unit."
Regardless of who is going, with the suggested cruising speed for canal boats between 3.5 and 4.5 mph, a driving license is not required for boating in France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, England or Scotland.
Le Boat does provide some instruction to its clients and distinguishes regions that are easier to navigate from those that require more experience in boating. For example, there is a lot of boat traffic in Venice, making the waters there particularly difficult to navigate.
Also, travelers should consider the number of locks on their route. Some locks must be manually operated, while others are manned by a lock keeper, are electrically operated or are automatic.
Le Boat suggests that if travelers want to avoid locks, they should sail the Camargue region in the south of France as well as the Norfolk Broads in Britain.
Following training, customers are given a temporary permit for the duration of their holiday.
In Germany, a permit is required in certain areas for boats more than 42 feet in length.
France, with its numerous canals, is among the most popular destinations. According to Petermann, the diverse French countryside also lends itself to canal boating. "Comparing the south to the north, it's two totally different itineraries," said Petermann.
Ireland is popular for its countryside views and wide canals.
Self-drive boating, however, is not yet seeing an aggressive expansion eastward, as with river cruising. The reason, according to Petermann, is that navigating large rivers like the popular Danube is simply not feasible for small vessels driven by clients.
Le Boat features three classification of boats: Elite, the most modern of its boats; Vogue, updated boats; and Traditional, the older, more time-honored boats. The boats range in size from two-person vessels at 29 feet in length to 10-person boats up to 48 feet in length.
Le Boat does work with travel agents and pays 10% commission on bookings. Itineraries vary tremendously, but as an example, the Grand Classique, an Elite boat that sleeps 10 passengers, sells for around $5,300 for seven days during the high season. A two-person boat for the same duration is around $2,000.
All itineraries include only the use of the vessel, but Le Boat does provide details on getting to and from the vessels.
Base managers and a cleaning staff are on hand at base docking stations, where passengers can receive assistance with obtaining provisions and making restaurant reservations.
For an additional $25, Le Boat offers its guests a cruising guide, complete with a captain's handbook.
"We just don't take their deposit and say, 'OK, you're on your own,' " said Petermann. "I think we do full service for [the boating section] of the itinerary."
As for the future of Le Boat, Petermann is convinced that when people go for the first time, they will want to go again.
"I can't tell you to go," she said. "But you will want to go again. I have people who will come back and say, 'OK, now where to?' "
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].