Reflecting on the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent events.
As I sit at home in isolation, feeling sorry for myself having tested positive for Covid for the second time, I have had plenty of time to think and reflect about the pandemic and the effect it had/has on the business. So, I decided to put pen to paper and here are my thoughts ….
For the last two years, all our lives have been engulfed by Coronavirus which has been a challenge for many, with some dark days and sadness being experienced by almost every human being on the planet. Not just in our personal lives, but in our business lives too.
On the 16th March 2020, the Prime Minister spoke words than none of us wanted to hear … everyone had to stop non-essential contact with people, and non-essential travel, and on the 23rd March 2020, the UK encountered the first national lockdown. For the majority of people, there was so much fear and uncertainty about the virus, and as a Boat Brokers we were forced to close as we were not deemed an essential service or shop. We managed to stay afloat (no pun intended), thanks to the very generous furlough scheme which enabled us to furlough all our staff, leaving the Directors working from home. It was a very tough time for the business and indeed, the inland waterways industry as a whole. As with most businesses, we had to re-think our practices and devise new ways of working that would allow us to continue operating in a socially distanced way, abiding by all the new rules and regulations, and this was really quite challenging.
Just as we were exiting the first lockdown in June 2020 and starting to return to 'normal', albeit with some restrictions still in place, our euphoria about being able to trade again, came crashing down when we were given six months notice by Castle Marinas Ltd, meaning that we were going to loose our sales berths at Crick and Cropredy, and our partner marina agreement with Brinklow. As you can imagine, this was a huge blow to us, and at the time, looking back, we were dismayed, disheartened and extremely worried about the future of the business.
Thankfully, for some years, we had been in discussion with North Kilworth Marina about running a brokerage from the marina, and indeed, we were already selling boats from that site, and so, after more discussions, we decided to progress this move and it was full steam ahead both for us and for North Kilworth Marina to get the offices ready for us to move in on the anticipated date of 1st January 2021. Little did we know, that another lockdown was looming and this date was not going to be achievable.
From 15th June 2020 when we re-opened, we were the busiest we had ever been. It seemed that people had re-evaluated their lives, and with travel abroad being so uncertain, everyone wanted to buy a boat. Boat prices were going up and up and people were happy to pay the increasing prices, which was great for sellers! The problem we faced, was that with the uncertainty about foreign travel and holidays, many boat owners wanted to keep their boats. We also had another broker on the scene – Castle, as well as other brokerages starting to emerge. With so many people wanting a boat, and so many boat owners not selling, coupled with all the Brokers competing for the few available boats, the supply of boats coming through was dire compared to previous years. For example, in 2019, we would have had 70 boats on the books in the summer months. In 2020, we were, at times, down to 1 or 2! As soon as a boat came in, it sold.
We also had local lockdowns and tier systems to deal with, which made operating a bit of a faff. Leicestershire for example was put into local lockdown on the 4th July 2020, meaning that we couldn't do viewings at North Kilworth Marina. Caen Hill, another of our partner marinas was also put in a local lockdown, so we couldn't organise viewings there. It was all very frustrating, both for us and vendors and purchasers alike.
Then, on the 31st October 2020, the Prime Minister announced another national lockdown and from the 5th November 2020 we were plunged into further doom and gloom and had to furlough staff again, leaving the Directors running the business from home again. This time however, a glimmer of hope for the business was that, after taking advice, we were able to conduct viewings for customers who were purchasing boats to live on, much the same as Estate Agents were able to continue with their business. Some surveyors were also still working, so we managed to complete on sales during the lockdown period. We then had a brief period of freedom during December 2020, where we bought staff back to work, but this was short lived and on the 6th January 2021 the UK entered a third national lockdown! It was at this time that the last ABNB brokerage boat at Crick Marina was moved out and our agreement with Castle terminated.
We pushed ahead with our plans to move office to North Kilworth Marina, and, on the 12th April when non-essential retail were allowed to re-open, all our brokerage boats had been moved to the site and we officially opened our new office on site. I think I speak for the whole ABNB team here - we all love being at North Kilworth Marina. Our offices are a splendid environment to work from, the staff at the Marina have welcomed us with open arms, and more importantly, the services and facilities on site are perfect for our Brokerage. In short, I believe that our service to customers has improved ten fold. We can organise lift out's at the drop of a hat, and surveyors like surveying at North Kilworth Marina as the crane can lift the boat high enough for them to easily see and check the bottom plates. Any works required following survey can be carried out by the on-site engineers in their state of the art, heated workshops. Blacking can be carried out on-site, including bottom plates, and of course, John Barnard is also on site for any boat painting (although he does have a long waiting list).
The story doesn't end there though. Although we seem to have come through the other side of the pandemic (although I'm personally not convinced we really have), and for some, it now seems a distant memory, I think I would be right in saying that the inland waterways market has changed and we face new challenges ahead with the limited supply and high demand still very much apparent.
Whilst I am writing this, let us not forget Crick Wharf which was home to ABNB since 1999. This beautifully peaceful little wharf is now a small marina for 24 private moorings and is filling up nicely. Still run by the same owners of ABNB, but now registered as a separate company (Crick Wharf Marina Ltd). In effect, our move to North Kilworth Marina expanded our business, so perhaps we should be saying that every cloud has a silver lining.
As with the rest of the world, in all our 27 years of trading, we have never experienced anything like this and it has been a bumpy roller-coaster of a ride for the last two years. We are not out of the woods yet, but I do think there may be a slight glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel .... and a 30th birthday party awaiting us in the not too distant future!