While lazy days drifting on peaceful waterways is a selling point for most barge and small boat operators, Channel Cruises Holland’s customer didn’t come to sit around. They came to bicycle.
Though fully booked, most of the time the boat sails nearly empty, meeting the peddle-happy guests at the next port, Jan Timmermans, managing director of Amsterdam-based Channel Cruises Holland, said in the 2020 European River Cruise Market Report by Cruise Industry News. Channel Cruises Holland is also known as Eurosail Travel, and tour-operator/reseller sister brand Boat Bike Tours. Passengers treat the boat like a mobile hotel room.
“The core difference is that we are not a river cruise company,” Timmermans said. “Most guests book our tours because they want to discover an area by bicycle.”
If cycling through tulips by day and snoozing on canals by night sounds like the most Dutch vacation possible, you may be right. It’s so Dutch, in fact, the Dutch won’t do it. It’s like a tour of your own backyard.
“Less than 0.5 percent of our guests come from Holland,” Timmermans said. “We even dropped the Dutch language website.”
Avid bicyclists booking Eurosail, Channel Cruises Holland, and Boat Bike Tours are largely from North and South America. The website does have a Deutsch-language option for the ubiquitous German passengers.
“Even in our niche, we are a niche within the niche. We do cycling vacations on ships, with a small market, but even within this niche we are our own niche with our variety of products,” Timmermans explained. “Currently we organize ourselves as a tour operator offering cycling cruises in the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, and the western part of Germany. In these countries, we fully organize approximately 25 different tours ourselves, that can be booked per cabin, and with different levels of accommodation and/or cycling skills.”
First-time visitors may want a fully guided cycle tour. Repeat customers and relative locals tend to be more independent.
Boat Bike Tours also resells tours organized by local companies in Italy, Danube countries, Croatia, Czech Republic, southern France, and other parts of Germany. In all, it offers more than 70 varieties of cycling cruises.
In 2019, Boat Bike Tours contracted long term with 23 ships, barges and sailing vessels, Timmermans said. Most are less than 44 passengers. Two ships are 65 passengers and the largest is 112 passengers. Four ships are smaller sailing vessels able to accommodate 20 to 27 guests.
Most ships are chartered from single-ship owners or small companies with one or two vessels.
Shipbuilder Walter van Berkum has constructed several vessels used by the companies, notably the Magnifique II in 2016, Magnifique III in 2018, and Magnifique IV due in 2020. They are former barges stripped to the hull, lengthened, and rebuilt.
Channel Cruises Holland has shown steady growth, with 3,200 passengers in 2016, another 300 in 2017, another 250 in 2018, and an estimated 4,100 passengers in 2019, Timmermans said.