City Splash Tours is the latest brainchild of Irishman and serial entrepreneur, Des Rogers, and his brother Fergal, collectively Rogers Group Investments (RGI Ltd).
Never a man to shy away from an opportunity, Rogers had already co-founded a succession of business operations including mini-storage and hospital waste disposal before dipping his toe into the water tours sector.
It was the brothers’ experience of their small business venture, Sea Safari – whisking people round Dublin Bay in high-speed Zodiac boats – that inspired them to purchase the amphibious vehicle operator, Viking Splash Tours, in 2006.
They immediately saw the business model’s potential and set out to become the global leader in the marketplace.
“It’s not a well-travelled space, ” says Des Rogers, “and we like to go where other people are not going.”
He spoke to Blooloop about the imminent launch of City Splash Tours and the sea of rules and regulations he had to wade through on his journey to develop a state-of-the-art amphibious vehicle.
Mini Storage – Small Beginnings
Rogers describes the seemingly unconnected string of business ventures that led to the creation of City Splash Tours as ‘a master strategy, in retrospect’.
His flair for spotting an opportunity found its first outlet in Canada when he crossed the Atlantic with a group of friends after finishing his training as a quantity surveyor.
It was the concept of mini-storage that caught his eye. Although unheard of in the UK or Ireland at the time, it was already a successful business model in Canada.
“All those rows of lockers that are now prolific around the UK and Ireland – that is a North American concept – and I studied it and brought it home and started it in this country in 1982, ” he says.
“That was my first business start-up. The very moment I was starting the concept in Dublin, there was a woman starting it in London: Abbey Self Storage. We met about three years later and had a good giggle about it.
“The difference, of course, was that London was a much bigger opportunity.”
Mini-storage marked Rogers’ first foray into business with his brother, Fergal, and spawned an off-shoot providing secure storage for people’s personal documents:
“…all driven by a barcode system, and that was quite a pioneering venture; people weren’t offering that service. It was complementary to the self-storage business, but it was a completely different discipline because we were offering a retrieval service for people’s documents, and they’re very precious, obviously, so there was a high degree of professionalism involved.”
That company was bought by P&O.
“The shipping company had huge warehouses, and if a client like, say, Kelloggs Cornflakes, left and went to somebody else they had a big void, and they got into the records management business as a nice safe bet.
“That was subsequently sold to Wincanton, and they sold it in the last year for sixty odd million. Everybody’s made bundles along the way.”
Because the storage business generated so much waste packaging – cardboard and pallets and so on – which was expensive to dispose of, the brothers bought a little incinerator. This was the starting point for their company, Ashes.
“It complemented the file storage business, because when people wanted to get rid of their records after the statutory period, they were quite happy to entrust disposal to the people who were looking after them in a storage capacity, ” says Rogers.
“Our incinerator then turned into a commercial operation because we would get rid of our own waste in around two hours a week, and then we had 38 hours left to do other people’s stuff.
“People heard about us, and people that were unconnected to the storage business heard about us, and next thing, we were in the document disposal business.”
Then one day they had a phone call from a maternity hospital that was having trouble managing its own incinerator:
“… which was not surprising as it was a piece of junk. They were in the delivery of babies business, not in the incineration business. They asked us to come and outsource it.”
“I scooted up in my Robin Reliant and filled it up with things I didn’t know anything about – yellow bags and yellow containers, and sure, the incinerator gobbled them up in about 40 minutes.
“I said to Robert – the guy who called me – ‘Have you any more of this?’ He said, ‘Oh, every day.’ So I said, ‘OK, we’ll be here at 9:00 every morning.’ And he said: ‘Happy days.’
“That was the start of us getting into the hospital waste business. One hospital guy told another, and next thing there were two hospitals, then four, then eight, then thirty-two. It was a bit like that moment in Jaws when he looks out the back and says: ‘We need a bigger boat.’ Our little incinerator was packed out.”
The brothers bought a bigger incinerator and the business kept growing.
“With the advent of Aids, hepatitis and other transmittable diseases, awareness was heightened. Infection control officers became very important in the hospital world. They needed an outlet and we were it. Long story short, we sold that business for quite a lot of money in 2006.
“Some of the businesses are slightly connected, as you can see – there’s a progression. It’s actually a master strategy, in retrospect.”
With funds from the sale of the hazardous waste business, Rogers, who had always had an interest in the sea, dabbled in a small business, Sea Safari, taking people round Dublin Bay in the type of high-speed Zodiac boats used by the RNLI and Greenpeace.
The downside from a business perspective was its dependency on the weather:
“Every time it rained or the weather blew up – which was usually on a weekend – you had to cancel all your hard-earned bookings and stand everybody down and do rain checks and refunds – you know. It became a lot of negative energy in un-bundling all the good work you had done.
“So we said, maybe we can bolt something else on that might be complementary and sell two types of tickets – some that are less weather-dependent than others.”
Viking Splash Tours
Thus, the brothers bought Viking Splash Tours in 2006 from a Canadian couple, Linda and Peter Stocks, who had seen the concept in Boston (Boston Duck Tours) and transposed it to Dublin in 1999, basing the business model on other tours and combining it with an interactive Viking theme. The Stocks now planned to return to Canada.
“Boston is the grand-daddy of the amphibious vehicle tour business, ” explains Rogers. “The business was up and running; they had four vehicles and customers and a garage and mechanics.”
Initially, the plan was to sell tickets for both a city tour and a sea-safari type tour. In the event, it transpired that customers didn’t necessarily want to do one tour without the other. They decided to sell off Sea Safari, having evaluated both businesses, and focus on Viking Splash Tours.
“We could see the potential there because the customers would just dress for the occasion. They’d put on a raincoat if it was raining, and if it was sunny they wouldn’t. It wasn’t at all as weather dependent as the other business.
“We felt we were uniquely positioned to exploit that opportunity. There was nobody else doing it in Ireland, and very few people doing it anywhere. Even fewer were doing it sensibly.”
Rogers was undaunted by the specialist nature of the enterprise.
“Because we weren’t frightened of the opportunity, we tried to get under the bonnet – what is this equipment and what does it do?”
A legacy of buying the business was a contact the previous owners had made in Berlin. This contact, who owned a hop-on, hop-off bus business in Berlin, wanted to expand, replicating what the Stocks had done in Dublin and suggested a collaboration – he would put money into the venture, and they would have the vehicle built in Berlin.
Drowning in a Sea of Regulations
It should have been plain-sailing but the project became mired in a sea of unworkable rules and regulations.
“There’s very little bespoke legislation that suits this business, ” says Rogers. “Inherently, it’s an anomaly because you’re a bus for three quarters of the time, and a boat for a quarter. The regulatory community are straight-line people. So if you’re running a bus, here are the rules. And if you’re running a boat, here are the rules. They’re two very separate sets of rules which don’t tend to mesh easily.”
“Long story short, the vehicle we were building turned out to be a non-commercial version because the weight per passenger changed at that time. There was a recognition that people were getting heavier. It used to be that the measure was 140 lbs [63.5 kilos] per person, and it moved to 185 lbs [84 kilos].”
So a vehicle designed to carry 30 passengers could now only carry 22, making it commercially unsustainable.
“It was an expensive learning curve, and consequently cost us the guts of £2 million.”
And so, undefeated, Rogers decided to tackle the regulations head on.
“We saw the regulatory shortcomings and the idiosyncratic nature of the project as an opportunity – it’s not a well-travelled space, and we like to go where other people are not going. That’s been our strength, ” he says.
The brothers took the fundamental decision to move the project back to Ireland. This lead them to set up in Belfast, where they could take closer control of it.
“There’s an array of talent in the North and an appreciation generally for things that have wheels and motors. We looked for that talent to set up a project to make a bus float.”
In collaboration with Queens University (above), the Centre for Engineering Excellence “and a few other folks”, and having employed engineers, their first task was get to grips with European law.
“In a sense we’re pioneers trying to blend road and marine regulations. We’re excited because it’s not a well-trodden path.”
The next challenge was to find a donor vehicle that could morph from truck into bus into boat. Having looked at various equipment manufacturers, Daf, Scania, Renault and so on, they then engaged Bob McDowell, whom Rogers calls “an important cog in our wheel”.
Like a DUKW to Water
McDowell – a highly successful entrepreneur himself – had been using both original WW2 DUKWs and a second generation amphibious vehicle in what had become the premiere amphibious sightseeing operation in the United States.
“DUKWs were originally designed for landing men and munitions on a beach in an invasion-type capacity. If they lasted until the next day it was a bonus. There were about 22, 000 of them built, and there are a few hundred left. That’s what has spawned this industry.”
McDowell (right) had worked with the original vehicles and designed the second generation. The 28 vehicles used in Boston are all his version 2 vehicles. There are, in total, around 90 in operation in the States. Globally, however, there are around 280 vehicles and almost 60 operators.
“Dr Bob (as we called him) would come over to advise us on technical matters. We put together a design team, a project manager, a senior designer and an electrical engineer – our core staff in Belfast. We had a lady too who took care of investigating the regulatory side of things. That team took about two years to bottom out on equipment and regulations.
“We found on our journey that other people had tried this and either been… inept, I suppose you’d call it, or had rushed to market with a product that was clearly not well thought out.
“In the middle of this, interestingly, there were two major accidents in the UK. The first one was when a WW2 DUKW sank in Liverpool. Shortly after that and in a connected fashion, a DUKW caught fire and was beached in London.
“That caused the UK regulatory community to sit up and take notice – particularly the Minister for Transport.
“He did not want to have tourist passenger carrying vessels or vehicles catching on fire and sinking on his watch. Especially on Sky News.”
A Novel Approach
An investigator from the Marine Accident Investigation Board was appointed as a result of this. They made a comprehensive report identifying the shortcomings of existing equipment, and making recommendations.
The MCA Coastguard took a lead role by assembling regulators, industry insiders and designers experienced in their field, including Rogers and company, to collaborate on establishing a regulatory framework for the business. The participants met every two or three months in a workshop environment.
“It was quite a novel approach, ” says Rogers. “Certainly it’s held up as a successful way of industry interfacing with the regulatory guys.
“Due to being part of the workshop, we were actually inside the tent developing the rules. At the same time we were designing and building in the North of Ireland according to these new rules.”
International Amphibious Passenger Vehicle Association (IAPVA)
This meant they were ideally positioned to obtain an insight into the future from a regulatory point of view, albeit in the UK. From a global perspective, it became clear that there are no bespoke rules for amphibious vehicles, other than what the US coastguard imposed in the wake of an accident in Arkansas in 1999. It is, as Rogers says, a relatively undeveloped industry, and one that is growing organically.
“We felt it was prudent for an industry which we were in to develop a trade organisation. So, we reached out to folks that we knew were in business. Every year we attend IAAPA in Florida, and convened a meeting of like-minded people there two years ago. This formed an international body called International Amphibious Passenger Vehicle Association (IAPVA).
That trade association was born out of the accidents that happened in the UK and a recommendation by the investigator for industry to get together. We (Viking Splash) took the lead on it. For a little company in Ireland to be doing that, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s been fun.”
Because of this they are now at a point where they have a patent pending design they believe will meet standards.
“A lot of clever work has gone into this; we were promoters and founder members of the trade association and we’re about to come to market.”
Licence to Thrill
Projecting into the immediate future, Rogers stresses that, as a commercial operation, the point is not to sell vehicles.
“If you wanted to get into the amphibious vehicle business, we would license you to operate our equipment. We also want to be prescriptive in terms of how you take care of our vehicles. You could, potentially, be the weakest link in our chain. City Splash Tours is our banner.
“We would also encourage you to put your own style of tour around your vehicle. For instance, if you wanted to turn yourself into beefeaters, and theme your vehicle as a beefeater vehicle trundling around London, fine.
“But, from a technical point of view, we are definitely prescriptive. We can actually remotely disable your vehicle if you misbehave.”
With current technology moving apace, if a feature can be envisaged, it can generally be built. The City Splash Tours vehicles will be the stuff of safety-oriented sci-fi.
“The vehicle will talk to us and tell us that everything’s in order, or not – whether it’s being operated and serviced correctly.
“If you were to bring it to a racetrack and tear around a racetrack, we would know that and could cause it to sit down. We can also cause it to be geo-fenced, structuring it such that it must operate within a specific boundary. We can also make it so you must blow into a breathalyser before the ignition will start.
“All these things are available – we’re just bundling it into a clever amalgamation.
“We’ll also randomly audit our licensees to ensure they’re maintaining our tour standards. The first word every morning is ‘safety.’
Rogers is also keen not to get distracted by potential applications for the vehicle beyond the tourism sector.
“We know there are, because we’ve had enquiries, ” he says.
(Above: Des (left) and Fergal Rogers at EAS)
“There are, obviously, military applications that we wouldn’t know anything about. They keep things close to their chest. And, then, there are emergency response applications – obviously, flooding and things like that. And, then, there are commuter applications, because cities are built on rivers. People inevitably need to get from one side to the other. To ease the congestion of bridges and tunnels, all we’d need would be a slipway to get in and a slipway to get out.
“There’s a probability rather than a possibility of expansion into one or more of those directions, but we don’t tend to focus on it at the minute. Our primary focus is getting the equipment built and in service. If we had a bigger purse and could employ more folks we could have a division that could explore those sectors.
“We want to be the premier company offering this style of vehicle and this style of tour globally, without being pretentious.
“We’re not saying we’re going to conquer the world. That would be arrogant for a little company in Dublin, ” he says.
“We’re simply saying we’d like to.”
(All images kind courtesy Viking Splash Tours and RGI Ltd.)