The owners of Le Boat didn’t just pivot during COVID-19; they managed a full pirouette.
The luxury canal houseboat purveyor, one of the largest in Europe, responded to the pandemic in a way that not only preserved but also expanded its market while much of the travel and tourism industry floundered.
A global company based in France, Le Boat launched its Canadian operations in 2018 out of Smiths Falls, offering a variety of cruises on the Rideau Canal where travellers rent a houseboat and captain it themselves.
Because its operations in Europe were affected by the global pandemic before COVID reached North American shores, Le Boat had already experienced the disruptions and knew that the product was ideally suited to pandemic restrictions.
“We did a lot to try to drive awareness that Le Boat is in your own backyard and that this is a very safe type of holiday where you could literally explore Ontario’s great outdoors from a luxury perspective,” explains Lisa Mclean, marketing manager with Le Boat.
“That was one of the keys for our type of product. We’re not a group tour, we’re not at a campground with other people, you’re floating on your own cottage and in your own social bubble.”
So, just as the pandemic reached Canadian shores, Le Boat was already soliciting coverage from mainstream media outlets that could reach a high-end market of Canadian consumers wishing to explore different aspects of the Rideau Canal.
“Le Boat is a great example of a business that pivoted their marketing efforts to capture a new demographic of customers during COVID,” says Julia Crowder, manager of economic development in Smiths Falls. “I also believe that by offering shorter vacations — three days instead of their usual seven days — it put the vacation into a price point and timeframe which was more appealing to the domestic market.”
Le Boat targeted its marketing geographically in Canada, McLean explains. “When I plotted where our customers came from, I could see that the clusters were all around (Hwy.) 401, so we really targeted our marketing to people living along the 401 corridor, all the way from Windsor to Quebec and within anywhere from a one- to five-hour drive time.”
Given the turbulence caused by the pandemic, the company doubled-down on efforts to build confidence in the Le Boat brand in both customers and staff, including a full refund policy during the pandemic and now a flight cancellation guarantee.
“So, if your flight is delayed by two days, we’ll hold your boat for you and we’ll only bill you for the days you’re on the boat or give you a refund,” says Mclean. “One of the things I’m proud of is that Le Boat didn’t lay off staff. They did everything possible to make sure all our staff still had jobs. They were even quick to refinance to keep the money flowing through the travel industry. I was probably one of 10 of my friends that still had a job during COVID.”
As a marketing strategy, it was a complete about face for Le Boat, which, when it first set up shop in Smiths Falls in 2018, had focused its marketing almost exclusively on its existing 18,000 customers from Europe, the U.S., Australia and South Africa.
The company, which marked 50 years in business in 2019, can be traced back to English entrepreneur Michael Streat, who in 1969 founded Blue Line with eight boats. Le Boat today is a combination of three companies: Crown Blue Line (originally Blue Line), Connoisseur, and Emerald Star in Ireland. It offers houseboat rentals that cruise the waterways in France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Germany, as well as in Canada.
In the company’s first two years of operations pre-COVID in Smiths Falls, 60 per cent of bookings were from Europe, 30 per cent from the U.S., and 10 per cent from Canada, according to McLean. Most were from past Le Boat customers interested in seeing more of Canada by boat, especially since the Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The change in tack brought about by the pandemic did not go unnoticed by local municipal officials.
“Their pivot brought new tourists from the region, who discovered not only Smiths Falls, but also all the towns along the Rideau Canal,” comments Crowder. “The town is working with Le Boat to help expand their fleet and provide more opportunities for both domestic and international visitors.”
As a result, Le Boat is expanding not only on the Rideau, but potentially beyond.
“We now have 30 boats and because demand from the domestic market has been so strong, we are getting four additional boats next year, so we’re exceeding our original business plan of only 32 boats on the Rideau,” says Mclean. “We’ll have 34 boats on the canal in 2023 and we’re currently looking for a second base somewhere along the canal – hopefully in Ottawa.
The company is also exploring expanding operations onto the Trent Severn waterway over the next few years. But its growth has not been all smooth sailing.
“With the demands of COVID, boat sales in Canada are actually up 20 to 25 per cent so it looks like people from Ontario turned to boating during COVID and a lot of people bought their own boats, so dockage space is actually a challenge,” says Mclean.
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