On Thursday 12th January 1989 Pat Bushell and I took a Kingswear Castle stand at the South East England Tourist Board (SEETB) Excursions Fair at Wembley.
From the outset of returning KC to service in 1985 I developed a very different business model for our operation from that used by Waverley. KC was built for the one and a half hour run up or down the River Dart between Dartmouth and Totnes. She was therefore not really suited to long day trips and with her tiny galley did not have the capacity to service the inner needs of passengers with any sort of hot food suitable for a long day out.
When we started we got into bed with the Historic Dockyard Chatham to which we were welcomed by their first Chairman and Chief Executive, Sir Steuart Pringle, when it opened in 1985 as a tourist attraction. Of course we offered some joint work with their visitors but that turned out to be slender pickings. Our real forte was the pattern of afternoon cruises we developed lasting for up to two and a half hours from Chatham, Strood and later from Rochester. These worked very well and produced solid and consistent revenue for us.
Chatham was not then a honeypot. There just wasn’t the passing footfall to pick up passengers on the day on spec. I took the view that it is better to have a boat tied up doing nothing and loosing nothing in the process rather than steaming round empty loosing money hand over fist. So in the early days, whilst I programmed and advertised a few of these afternoon cruises, I mostly put them on to demand for coach parties and other groups and then opened them up to the general public when I knew I had a booking for a particular date already in the diary. In that way I knew that when we lit the boiler in the morning we had the business to fund it later in the day.
In seeking group and coach party bookings these travel trade fairs like Excursions and others put on at different locations throughout the region organised by the South East England Tourist Board proved seminal. At the first one we attended in 1986 I was at first taken aback by all the old people milling about, some on zimmers. My first thought was that this was a complete waste of time. How wrong I was.
Everyone there had a group of up to fifty or so looking for something to do on their afternoons out in the summer. There were leaders of groups from the Women’s Institute, Probus clubs galore and other retirement associations from banks, department stores, industrial works and so on and so forth. You name it. On one occasion we even took out an association of retired undertakers. By the end of that first day we had already taken nearly one hundred bookings each with a group in tow. It was a real success and a turning point for our business at Chatham.
Of course we did some other things as well. We ran some Jazz Jamborees and later Forties Nights on some evenings. And we offered a smattering of day trips targeted at various different market segments. On these we offered simple fayre including things like French sticks, sandwiches and fresh cream gateau as sustenance.
As the years rolled on we became better established and better known so the number of pre-advertised afternoon cruises we put on expanded until we reached a point where they were offered on practically every day during the peak weeks. And generally they did much better commercially than the few day trips we rostered. With 175 passengers aboard steaming down to Darnet Ness and back, as was often the case, on an afternoon cruise we could turn in more money than with only 50 aboard, as was also often the case, on our day trips which involved the costs of nearly three times as much steaming.
So it was the success of these short afternoon cruises which made KC at Chatham and produced the solid revenue which underpinned the business model. And it was attending these SEETB Excursion Fairs which provided the key to unlock and expand this particular box.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 12th January 2021.