The boat that rocked domestic tourism: how a Bay of Islands cruise stayed afloat
In early March 2020, Sarah and Jonny Greener were all set to finalize the sale of the Bay of Islands sightseeing cruise business they had owned for 14 years.
The Paihia-based couple made the decision to sell The Rock Adventure Cruise in late 2019 after Jonny – who is also the boat’s skipper – was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, a condition that has caused him to break more than 20 bones over the past two years.
They had a buyer. Then the coronavirus pandemic closed the borders. The deal fell through and New Zealand went into lockdown. The Greeners suddenly found themselves faced with the challenge of keeping a business afloat where 85% of customers were international tourists.
“We literally lost our entire business overnight,” Sarah said.
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Like many businesses, they tried to recoup a tiny fraction of the lost revenue by launching open-ended gift certificates, which helped boost morale as much as their bank accounts.
“We have had people that we had reimbursed due to the lockdown who contacted us and said, ‘we are booking again, we don’t know if we will get there or not, but this is our way of saying thank you very much , we “are still waiting for most of the other operators to refund our money.”
“Then we had people who had traveled with us years ago and were like, ‘We’re not planning to come to New Zealand anytime soon, but we’ll be buying a $ 50 voucher for the support. “
When the lockdown was lifted, they got down to work figuring out what they could do differently to attract the domestic market. In addition to a six-hour day cruise around the Bay of Islands, The Rock also offered an overnight cruise, which includes accommodation and meals on board, as well as activities such as the target shooting, snorkelling, night kayaking and fishing.
The Greeners came up with the idea of offering private charters of the purpose-built barge, which can accommodate up to 40 people. Guests could still enjoy all the activities that would be available on a normal cruise, but have the whole boat to themselves.
“We were looking at what was different about us. We’re not just a cruise – we have this massive platform that allows us to do all kinds of different things, ”Sarah said.
Since then, they’ve held business retreats, boot camps, birthday parties, family reunions, and engagement celebrations.
“We would pull out a charter, they would go home after their weekend with us, and then we would get a phone call from someone they knew who would book one for the following weekend,” Sarah said.
“People were literally booking and coming on a trip within seven days of the cruise announcement.”
Although they still offer their regular cruises, the majority of their business now consists of charters. They have been so successful, said Sarah, that in 2020 they managed to achieve revenue at just under 60% of a normal year, despite a three-month shutdown and complete absence. international visitors.
“It was a hell of a trip.”
The company remains in the market, however, because the reason for the sale of the couple “still exists”.
A silver lining from last year’s lockdown was that it provided Jonny with time and space to focus on treating his osteoporosis, which resulted in some improvements in his bone density. But it is still a difficult condition for someone who works on a boat.
“It’s fear – you’re terrified of any surface,” Jonny said.
“If you slip and hit the bridge, anything that comes in contact with the ground is going to break, whether it’s a wrist, an elbow, a hip.”
The couple also hope the sale of the business will give them more freedom to travel and spend time with their family in the UK, where Jonny is from, when the borders reopen.
“But it won’t be an easy parting,” Sarah said.
The Greeners bought The Rock from former owners Peter and Stacee Honey in December 2007. At the time, the couple had been living in Thailand for several years and running a kayaking business.
Sarah had previously been on one of The Rock’s cruises with her father, and while she was in New Zealand on vacation, she wanted to share the experience with Jonny.
While on the cruise, they chatted with the owners, who mentioned they were looking to sell.
“We went on the boat with the intention of seeing what was working really well, thinking we could take the things that were great and add them to our kayaking business in Thailand. Instead, nine months later we had a boat in New Zealand, ”Sarah said with a laugh.
Jonny added, “We’ve both worked in tourism for years, working on scuba diving boats and multi-day sea kayaking tours. He basically packed everything we loved to do.
For the first year they lived on the boat, having bought it on the eve of the global financial crisis.
“We had nothing left,” Jonny said.
“We ate porridge every morning, caught fish and made it work. “
Their unique lifestyle meant that their 8-year-old daughter Scarlett grew up on the waterfront, even helping out on the boat during school vacations.
“As a baby she was so crazy about the water that when everyone got in the water to snorkel, I was afraid she would end up in the water too,” said Sarah said.
“We ended up having a big fish tank, filling it with salt water and putting it there so she could play in the water and we wouldn’t have to worry about it eventually overflowing.”
The Greeners had many memorable experiences during their time on The Rock, including taking guests night kayaking surrounded by a pod of orcas and eagerly awaiting the outcome of marriage proposals on board.
“It’s always a little scary because what if they say no?” It’s overnight, so you have everything the next day to go through, ”Sarah said with a laugh.
They remembered a guest who took his saxophone on board, an opera singer who gave the boat a performance before dinner from amazing Grace, and an 87-year-old Japanese woman who had never swam before learning to snorkel on one of their cruises.
“Everyone has a story. We met so many interesting people, ”said Sarah.
For customers, The Rock is equally unforgettable. The couple once received a message from a friend who was touring the Mayan ruins in Mexico and had met travelers who had taken their cruise.
“He said, ‘they came to your boat 10 years ago and they’ve just been raving about it while we’re on this trip,” ”Sarah said.
“In my mind I was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re at the Mayan ruins in Mexico, and you’re talking about our fun houseboat here in the Bay of Islands.”