One of Devon’s best-known tourist attractions has emerged from a global pandemic and family tragedy to win a prestigious travel industry award.
Stuart Line Cruises was named the UK’s best passenger boat company at a recent national awards ceremony in Birmingham.
The victory came after the family business, which runs boat trips along the Exe coast and estuary from its base in Exmouth, not only had to endure the rough seas of Covid, but also had to deal with the death of charismatic former owner Ian Stuart in October of last year.
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Ian’s wife, Philippa, says it’s been a rough time, but since the summer, business has been booming again.
Like many in the tourism industry, she identifies staff shortages and uncertainty over future restrictions as the main issues, but is positive about Stuart Line’s outlook for the next 12 months.
“During the lockdown, we were able to stay busy and did a lot of maintenance,” she said.
“Then we got off to a slow start this year because we couldn’t get back to business until May.
“In July things started to improve and once we got into the main summer vacation it was very busy and it has been that way ever since.”
Stuart Line Cruises was founded by Ian’s father, Tony, in 1968, and took over in 1992, building on its foundations, purchasing new ships and expanding cruise travel.
When Ian passed away from cancer in October 2020, tributes were paid to the ‘charismatic, good-humored and generous’ man who championed Devon as a tourist destination.
“It was obviously tough,” said Philippa.
“We promised him that we would continue to run the business.”
She said much of the credit for winning the British Coach Tourism Award 2020 can be attributed to the team who work hard around her, including her son and skipper, Jake, and her daughter-in-law Lauren .
“They took over the business when Ian was not doing well and tackled all the pandemic issues that we had never dealt with before on this scale,” she added.
The innovations included extended boat trips for people who wanted a close-up view of stranded cruise ships in Tor Bay.
“People wanted to go out and see them, so we organized two and a half hour sightseeing tours,” Philippa said.
The company’s fortunes are directly linked to the number of holidaymakers visiting Devon, many staying at campsites or arriving by coach.
With the return of coaches, Stuart Line Cruises hopes to continue operating at near full capacity during the winter months, particularly during the lucrative Christmas period.
Like many in the industry, there have been staff shortages. Philippa says many students who usually provided an extra pair of hands on the bridge did not apply for part-time jobs this year.
The British Coach Tourism Awards 2020 took place at the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham.
The prestigious ceremony brought together the best companies in the group travel industry from across the UK.
Stuart Line Cruises was invited to compete alongside the Devon Best Attractions Association and, despite competing against operators from Plymouth, Poole, Liverpool and Scotland, took home the Gold Award for ‘ Best River and Domestic Cruise Operator in UK 2020 ”.
Jake Stuart said: “The past two years have been extremely difficult for the tourism and leisure industry as a whole and it is only in the past two months that things have started to look more positive for tourists. visitors, as people regain confidence in their travel and vacation in the region.
“We pride ourselves on our commitment to providing tailored and personal experiences for groups and to be recognized with this national award speaks volumes and provides a tremendous sense of accomplishment not only for us as a company, but for the tourism in the South-West. “
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