Allow me to set the scene
Back when we started out as independent punt operators, there were just two of us, each with our own boat, working together as a partnership. As time went by, we added more punts and, as a consequence, needed more people to work with us to help take the tours and find people to go on them. In those days, we jokingly referred to ourselves as ‘Team Awesome’ (yeah, I know – it might seem a bit cringe-worthy looking back on it but it seemed like a good idea at the time!).
In those days, punting was still, largely, a summer activity, most operators ceased trading altogether during the winter, or ran a very limited service. It was during one of those winter breaks that I decided to build us a website to help promote our business and perhaps bring in some advance bookings.
Whilst trying to find a suitable domain name (website address), I discovered that most of the ones with punting in Cambridge (or words to that effect) had already been taken. Looking back, had I been a little bit more imaginative, I might have been able to find something (e.g. our current website address www.puntcambridge.co.uk may have been available). However, I decided to take a different approach and got inspiration from our tout boards, which all had Cambridge River Tour written on them. Perfect, I thought. It’s very ‘Ronseal’ it describes what we do and has the added advantage of making sense to people who have never actually heard of (at least in the context of Cambridge and boats) punting.
I registered both the .co.uk and the .com domains and set about building a website (now on www.puntingcambridge.net but design wise, not a whole lot different to how it was back in 2005) and we started being referred to and trading, as Cambridge River Tour/Tours (interchangeably). The original website address redirects to this site now, for no reason other than it was easier and more convenient than moving this new design over to the old address.
Water under the bridge
That was obviously a long time ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then (well, 9 bridges to be precise). We have built up an online presence across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TripAdvisor; we have many customers who have regular repeat bookings with us; and we have built up a good reputation and large amounts of goodwill associated with our business name.
Garrett Hostel Lane
For many years, a small, closed group of independent punt owner operators had been working and trading from Garrett Hostel Lane (GHL), between Trinity and Trinity Hall colleges. Then during the past 8-9 years a much larger number of punt operators arrived here, filling their boats by touting for business on King’s Parade and in the Market Square in Cambridge. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into the reasons why they ended up there, although some of them used to trade on Quayside and Jesus Green prior to the opening of the La Mimosa punt station and related ban on punt operators using Jesus Green for loading and unloading. Still more have started up trading over the intervening years and have never operated from any other location in Cambridge. You can read about some of the history here, although please bear in mind that site has not been updated for some years.
A bad trip (advisor)
Last year, we became aware that some of the operators working and touting on King’s Parade were apparently calling themselves Cambridge River Tours. This came about following some bad reviews on our Trip Advisor, which, upon reading, were clearly not anything to do with us. Although we have pointed this out to Trip Advisor, their stance is very much hands off, not their problem, and that people can post what they like, even defamatory comments, and it’s not their responsibility. We have responded to all incorrectly placed reviews (both good and bad), pointing out their error and, so far, only one reviewer has removed theirs.
Hello? Your car is on fire!
Things took a turn for the bizarre last August when we got a call from the CURUFC stating that a black VW Golf owned by one of our staff was parked in their car park and it was on fire! This was obviously slightly alarming, although it would have been more alarming had the vehicle actually belonged to anyone involved in this business. It turned out that the car wasn’t on fire, they were just fed up with it being parked there (no, they hadn’t set it on fire) and were hoping that saying this would get the attention of the owner. On the back seat, clearly visible, was a box of business cards with ‘Cambridge River Tours’ written on them, along with two phone numbers. We assured them that this was nothing to do with us (as it wasn’t) and started doing some investigations into the names on the cards.
It’s all for charideee mate
It didn’t take long to find this article about two individuals who had been fined for running ‘illegal’ punt operations (at the time trading as M&M Tours) from Garrett Hostel Lane whilst claiming that the money raised was going to help charity projects in Malawi. Coincidentally, their names were the same as those printed on the cards…
I’m calling the police
Despite our best efforts, the Trip Advisor reviews have continued and not long ago, I received a telephone call from a very upset gentleman who wanted to make a complaint about ‘one of my staff.’ As we do not employ touts (and have not done for many years) I knew immediately that it was unlikely to actually be anything to do with our business. I asked him for more details and he said that someone wearing a Cambridge River Tours t-shirt had approached him on King’s Parade.
I stopped him at this point, because I knew that it was not something I would be able to help with. He was extremely sceptical and informed me that he had been discriminated against and asked me, repeatedly (verbally and in writing), to confirm my assertions that the individual(s) involved were nothing to do with me, or my business. I’m not sure whether he did contact the police in the end but I forwarded his email that he sent (later that day), including the photograph of the individual alleged to have discriminated against him, to Cambridge City Council (with his permission, of course).
Last night, a meeting of Cambridge City Council decided they were going to bring in a PSPO (Public Spaces Protection Order) to ban touting for punt tours in large parts of the historic city centre. They also decided that there is no public land available for the provision of an additional punt station for use by independent operators. It seems likely that there will be a further legal challenge mounted to this by those operators punting from Garrett Hostel Lane, which could delay the implementation and enforcement of the PSPO.
In favour of independents
Please don’t misunderstand me, I have always been an advocate of independent punting and was involved in the original consultation process when the La Mimosa pontoon was being offered at a time when Scudamores had just bought out Tyrrells, giving them all of Quayside and effectively forcing a large number of those who worked in punting to become independent operators and set up in competition with each other and Scudamores, or face losing their livelihoods. At the time I was concerned (amongst other things) about those operating from La Mimosa becoming marginalised by Scudamores. The irony now is that, pretty much all punt operators in Cambridge have become marginalised by those operating from GHL and touting on King’s Parade.
These unlicensed punt operators are generating so much revenue and have so little in the way of overheads (no mooring fees, they aren’t licensed by the Cam Conservators, do they even have public liability insurance?) that they have been able to tie up both the Cambridge City council and Cam Conservators in expensive legal battles for years, that threaten to continue even now. They operate without regard for damage that they are doing to the reputation of the punting industry or Cambridge as a whole. They have repeatedly chosen not to adhere to any code of conduct that other punt operators have signed up to and continue to harass and upset the public in their attempts to make as much, for as long, as possible.
Is anything going to change?
It makes me very sad that visitors to and residents of Cambridge are being subjected to abuse by these people and it makes me angry that it is being done using the name that this business has been trading successfully under for many years. I hope the PSPO is rolled out with immediate effect and, crucially, enforced. This would have an immediate and transformational impact on King’s Parade, as well as putting chauffeured punting tours in Cambridge back in the hands of the professionals who genuinely care about the safety of their vessels, who work year in year out to maintain their standards and provide excellent customer service as well as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour of our beautiful city. We’ve been here before, many times. For the sake of tourism in Cambridge and the many people working hard to make a legitimate living from punting, let’s hope this time things work out differently.