Rita Beckwith OBE is Chief Executive Officer of City Cruises plc. City Cruises plc. is the leading operator of tourism and leisure passenger services on the River Thames, carrying in excess of four million passengers annually on their route through the heart of London between Westminster and Tower of London … then through Tower Bridge and down river to Greenwich. The company now operates a modern fleet of large, comfortable boats with open top decks together with their unique heritage fleet.
“…In my experience, tourism is an industry where women can excel at top level. I have been in business circles where women are very noticeable by their absence, but in tourism everyone starting at entry level has the opportunity and there are many women who have excelled…”
Please can you tell us about your career to date and how you ended up as CEO of your own company?
I started my career as a secretary in insurance broking aged 18. I ran the office in this very young company and, as well as honing my typing skills, I undertook a myriad of tasks and responsibilities which gave me the confidence and ambition to move on. And what a move it was!
I went to work in a start-up book publishing company, with ambition to publish new fiction by journalists. I was asked to read manuscripts, find book printers, organise design of book covers, do some editing, and organise book launches and much more. As we grew, we specialised more in TV tie-ins and biographies / autobiographies and worked with the celebrities of the 70’s. I took on the job of press and publicity, getting media coverage, organising launches and arranging author interviews all over the country, as well as visiting publishers overseas to sell book rights.
Sadly, the company didn’t make enough money to succeed and was forced to close, but my experience with another start-up – this time launching a weekly tax newsletter for business which explained and simplified tax news and rules to keep businesses up-to-date – taught me a lot about tax and business and developed my interest and knowledge in the financial side of businesses, which was to stand me in good stead for the future.
In 1980, I met Gary, my husband-to-be. He owned a fuel barge on the River Thames with his father which provided a filling station for many boat operators. His father retired and I joined Gary in the business and in life. The river was a man’s world and it was quite unusual to find a woman running a company. I wasn’t a waterman [boatman], but I had fallen in love with the Thames – it became my passion. The knowledge and experience I had gained from my early career was to be so important to the company’s future success.
When a passenger boat came up for sale in 1985, we saw the opportunity and bought the boat – taking our first step into sightseeing with a service to Kew and Hampton Court. This was just the start.
We sold the fuel barge and bought City Cruises, established in 1936, to expand the fleet to five, and then built our own boats – the Queen launched the first in 1996. It was a very proud moment for us when the Thames’ first purpose-built boat in 25 years set sail.
The real turning point was when the river route to the new Millennium Dome (now The O2) came up for tender. Our vision was to build four new 500-seater boats and I had to borrow £5m! This meant a very thorough business plan. At this stage we had been growing steadily, so had a good track record.
We had reached £3m turnover, with a £3m asset base so to borrow £5m was not easy task. I had meetings with 16 banks – and eventually got an offer from two. The bidding process for the Dome took months and the proposal ran to 250 pages – and we won! There was a lot at stake as we were guaranteeing the loans. But even as a naturally cautious person, I just knew this was the right thing to do. In the year 2000 I became Managing Director of City Cruises and Gary became Chairman.
City Cruises has since gone from strength to strength, standing in the forefront of investment and innovation and winning recognition with many awards. We painted our boats red to match London icons and launched The Red Fleet, which was the first branded fleet in London. We developed the first GPS-driven multilingual commentary system. We invested in our fleet and infrastructure at our headquarters at Cherry Garden Pier. And we invested to employ the right people to take the company forward and ensure they were trained for their jobs.
In 2009/10 City Cruises won the Coutts Prize for Family Business: Winner Best Family Business, London and Greater London Region, £5-25m category.
I realised that I was working in the business far more than on it! I worked tirelessly, focusing on quality, innovation and customer service, forging relationships in travel and tourism and enabling our staff to grow and flourish, resulting in turnover growth in the ten years since the Dome from £3.3m to £10m. I knew that the company needed structure and experienced management and that it was time to find an experienced managing director for the business to take the company forward through its next period of growth.
In September 2011, we appointed Kyle Haughton as managing director. Coming from Funways Holidays and Heathrow and Gatwick Express, Kyle brought with him a wealth of experience of nurturing and growing businesses and excellent management and leadership skills. And that is how I became CEO!
In 2012 we launched a new ship, the Millennium Diamond, which with 600 passengers has the largest capacity on the river and before March 2016 we will launch two vessels designed and rebuilt by famous Parisienne architect, Gerard Ronzetti.
The company continues its strong path forward with revenues approaching £17m, offering a World class service, an organisational structure delivering management and accountability and a great team of people – whilst still embracing the family values into the future.
How has the growth of London as a global tourist destination allowed you to scale up the business over the years?
In the mid 80’s / early 90’s faxes and mobile phones were not commonplace, computers were machines you heard about but never used and tourism had been on the agenda since the 1969 Development of Tourism Act and launch of the London Tourist Board (LTB) in 1963.
The river was a cottage industry at the time with little structure or money for investment. The owners were mainly watermen, skilled to captain boats. The need for passengers to travel by water had fallen over the years, the docks closed and old warehouses had fallen to dereliction and tourism was in its infancy. It seemed to be mainly domestic tourism, but there was no way of knowing where the customer came from – they just turned up at the ticket box to buy a ticket.
I think because we came from outside of the river industry and had early careers off the river, we could see things differently and were able to recognise the importance of tourism to the River Thames and to our business. Apart from an accountant and office staff, our first major appointment was a dedicated sales and marketing manager followed by a sales and marketing director.
The London Tourist Board recognised the river as a significant tourism asset and in 1991 launched a three-year promotion called Discover the Thames. We became active on the tourist scene, joining the LTB and British Incoming Tour Operators Association (now known as UKinbound), going to the early workshops in France.
London was being promoted as a destination, tourism was growing and we were ready to respond with the fleet, our products and our thought leadership. As London grew as a tourist destination, our passenger numbers grew and income increased. By continually re-investing in our business and our product, we were able to respond to the visitors changing needs. We increased our profile and joined the tourism boards. I have spent 30 years lobbying for the Thames to be recognised as a tourism asset, not only as a form of transport but as a journey through 2000 years of liquid history and an attraction in its own right.
At each stage of the development of London’s infrastructure alongside the river’s banks, the growth of London attractions and the growth of London as a global tourist destination, we have been ready. By leading the river forward with investment and innovation, recognising and changing our routes to market, embracing new technology and developing the web and booking systems, employing the best people and building great teams and offering a world class service, we have been in front of the market and have worked with our tourism industry to increase the passenger numbers ensuring the River Thames has its rightful place as a must-do attraction at the heart of London.
What made you decide to expand outside your core London market and how has this worked?
City Cruises has its roots in an entrepreneurial business and we have developed an open-minded culture that seeks ideas and opportunities for the future. Poole was a great opportunity for us to take brand City Cruises and our expertise and make it work outside London.
We had people with expert knowledge in the area to work with us and first one, then two boats to provide the products. There are always a myriad of details to sort out at first with any new venture and a lead-in time for optimum performance, especially with trade sales working 18 months out and developing IT. But we hit the ground running and have been delighted with the growth we have seen in the Poole business after 16 months and the development of the quality services and products we have been able to provide. It is also a great opportunity for staff in Poole and staff in London to interact and have the opportunity to work elsewhere for the same company.
You recently retired from the Chairmanship of UKinbound, the membership body representing the inbound tourism sector. How important are roles in bodies like this for personal development of talented women?
Being a businesswoman who works in tourism, I have always had a foot in both camps and believe networking is vital for creating opportunities and relationships. In the early days of City Cruises my office was in Docklands before Docklands was built. I joined the Docklands Business Club which was set up to support small businesses through the great change in the area and when the opportunity arose, offered my services to the board. I went on to become Chairman for eight years, following the merger with the London Chamber of Commerce and helping business adapt, grow and nurture relationships within the new Docklands.
At the same time City Cruises was a member of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association (now UKinbound) for many years and provided us with an invaluable network in tourism and many friends. I was to become the first non-tour operator Chairman of UKinbound and recently retired after five years at the helm.
In 2012 I was honoured to receive the OBE from the Queen for services to the tourism industry and the regeneration of London’s Docklands.
Roles in bodies like these are invaluable learning experiences and an opportunity to use your skills in a different environment, to give something back and to make a difference. They require devotion, passion and time, but undoubtedly help you to become confident in yourself and your ability to contribute and can play a very important part in the personal development of women.
How can tourism sector re-balance its talent pool to ensure the high number of women entry level roles make it all the way to the top?
In my experience, tourism is an industry where women can excel at top level. I have been in business circles where women are very noticeable by their absence, but in tourism everyone starting at entry level has the opportunity and there are many women who have excelled.
We only have to look at the Shine Top 100 women, or the Association of Women Travel Executives 60 for 60. You will find names that offer great role models for our younger women. Both women and men have to be committed to their jobs and professions, they have to excel and go the extra mile. They need ambition. It is often I feel, not how far we can travel, but how far we want to go.
What is it like working alongside your husband and do you ever fall out over work?
I have found it a great experience working with Gary. I think it is because we both have very different skills and take different roles in the company and yet come together in the middle somewhere and enjoy things together.
I have to admit we have fallen out over work, usually because Gary is such an entrepreneur and I am a naturally cautious person. He feels things in his head and I have to see them on paper! So really we complement each other and never fall out for too long!