ONE of Scotland’s biggest cruise boat operators is shifting its focus to daytripper, staycation and health-related travel as part of a post-lockdown diversification strategy.

Cruise Loch Lomond would typically have carried 160,000 to 180,000 passengers a year before the pandemic and was seeing strong growth from overseas, particularly France, Germany and India.

“We’ve always carried the daytripper and staycation market, but previously our main focus was the overseas and domestic coach tour markets, which accounted for eighty per cent of our business,” explained Cruise Loch Lomond director Stuart Cordner.

The Tarbet-based company, which re-opened on a reduced scale on 15 July, is now developing new offers including trips around the theme of ‘blue health’ – the positive effect of coasts and rivers on mental and physical health and wellbeing.

“We had already started looking into cruises around a concept called ‘Water Story’, where people with dementia come on trips and are encouraged by a facilitator to write poetry or stories,” said Mr Cordner, whose father founded the business in 1978.

“Then during lockdown we started exploring the concept of blue health or blue space. The idea is that there are positive health implications for wellbeing and mental health by being on or near water.”

The company had received positive feedback to the idea from Age Scotland, the charity for older people, and dementia charity Alzheimer Scotland. Mr Cordner said the University of Edinburgh was also interested in working with Cruise Loch Lomond on further research into blue health. The University of Exeter Medical School is one of the partners in the €6m ‘BlueHealth’ programme, a European-funded research project to assess the potential health and wellbeing benefits of freshwater sources such as coasts, rivers and lakes.

Cruise Loch Lomond has a fleet of eight vessels that carry between 47 and 126 people. With social distancing measures in place, Mr Cordner was hoping to achieve 50% capacity. “We will need to review the size of the fleet,” he said.

The firm furloughed its 20 staff at the start of lockdown.

“Our business is very seasonal and the end of October is when we switch into winter mode,” Mr Cordner explained. “We would usually keep on a core staff of 12 crew over the winter doing maintenance on the fleet of eight boats. But with the fleet being redundant for most of the year, winter work will be dramatically reduced.”

Early signs were encouraging. “We definitely get the impression that people are just pleased to be outdoors and in the fresh air,” Mr Cordner said.

Banks had initially failed to provide support and the company’s first application to the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme had been rejected, Mr Cordner added. Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government had come to the rescue with funding support and ‘sanity’, including weekly calls and help with marketing, human resources, advice and finance applications.

“Both the Scottish Government through their grant scheme and Scottish Enterprise as a government agency have been incredibly supportive,” he said.

Local people and businesses had also been hugely supportive. For example, local distiller Loch Lomond Whiskies had provided free hand sanitiser and whisky miniatures for guests. Holiday park operators Forest Holidays and Argyll Holidays had also waived their usual commission for selling Cruise Loch Lomond tickets.

Covid-19 procedures introduced by Cruise Loch Lomond include new PPE requirements for crew, hand sanitiser dispensers on board and on the pier and enhanced cleaning measures. Clear signage and allocated seating areas have also been introduced to help maintain safe distancing. The company operates cruises and ferry and waterbus crossings from Tarbet, Inversnaid, Rowardennan and Luss.

“I think there’s still an appetite for Scotland as a holiday destination,” said Mr Cordner, who is co-director of the business with his cousin, Fred Moore. “But it might be two years before we’re back to where we were.” Mr Cordner’s sisters and stepmother and Mr Moore’s children also work in the firm.