Meet the Boss: Derek Banks, European Waterways

Derek BanksDerek in his youthOne of European Waterways' hotel barges

In our latest Meet the Boss interview, we talk to Derek Banks, Managing Director of European Waterways. It seems that rivers have always featured in Derek’s life – he went to three schools, all of them on the River Thames, spent his school holidays working in a boatyard and he, his wife Debbie and their five children now live on the river near Windsor (along with their old farmhouse in the Algarve).

Derek started the company in 1977 from a small lock house on the Nivernais canal in Burgundy, armed with ‘O’ Level French, a Yacht Master’s ticket and the sort of confidence required to think you can achieve anything. The European Waterways Group Ltd now owns, operates and markets luxury 17 hotel barges – “floating boutique hotels” – on the rivers and canals of eight European countries. Floating past glorious rural scenery barely at walking pace, these holidays are all about quiet relaxation, gourmet cuisine, fine wines and daily guided excursions by minibus. Derek puts the company’s success down to hard work, creative thinking, a good team and a few lucky breaks.

Q. Please tell us about a great holiday memory from your childhood.

“When I was about 15, I crossed the English Channel aboard a Nicholson 32 sailing yacht to Alderney in the Channel Isles with family friends. This first introduction to offshore sailing was really quite influential towards a life and career afloat. Arriving at Braye harbour and visiting the Napoleonic forts, experiencing the Alderney race, a 10 knot tidal flow and making the return journey to Lymington were all memorable.”

Q. What three items are always found in your hand luggage?

“My hand luggage is usually a 50 year old Hardy canvas sea fishing bag which has been patched about 10 times. I’ve been using it for over 35 years. I find it amusing that these bags have now become a travel fashion item never having seen myself on the cutting edge of  haute couture. This counts as my first ‘must have’ item. Next has to be a Tilley hat which I seem to lose regularly but Tilley always replace it if a good ‘how I lost it’ story is supplied and I always carry a leather bound notebook.”

Q. If you could spend next weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

“Difficult, as I have so many favourite places. The Admiral’s Inn in English Harbour, Antigua ,is a great bolthole. I am basically a Grotty Yachtie and it appeals to my requirement to be close to classic yachts, the sea and naval history. Afloat on a boat anywhere comes a close second.”

Q. Please tell us about a particularly challenging booking your company has handled.

“Easy answer. The BBC chartered two of our hotel barges – Rosa and Anjodi – for six weeks’ non-stop cruising between Bordeaux and Marseilles to make TV chef Rick Stein’s ‘French Odyssey’ series for the BBC. Apart from completing the journey and nailing the logistics involved, looking after the film crew and a demanding film director’s every whim was a challenge. It was a great success though and the series achieved constantly higher rankings than any other production Rick Stein has featured in.”

Q. What has been your most enjoyable holiday in recent years?

“Two years ago, I enjoyed a volcano cruise in our sailing boat ‘Dream Chaser’ from Vesuvius via Capri,  Stromboli and Etna to Greece. Seeing Stromboli’s erupting fireworks at night and fishing for pumice stone as we approached the straights of Messina were fun highlights. Sipping Pimms below the red hot lava flow of Etna in Taormina bay in Sicily really was absorbing.”

Q. And what has been your all-time worst holiday experience?

“I always try and make the best of any bad experience. Top of the pile was being delayed for 26 hours in Antigua’s then non air-conditioned airport with our fifth child Emily aged 13 months, whilst a replacement XL airlines jet was sent out to replace the faulty plane sitting on the runway. Things improved when the bar was reopened at 2am and at 5 m, after summoning the chairman of XL out of bed, a hotel was arranged for passengers with children.”

Q. What luxury would you take to your desert island?

“A hammock. I would be wearing my Tilly hat and have something good to read like Adrift or Survive the Savage Sea to pass the time.”

Q. What one thing would most improve people’s overall holiday experience?

“Easy. A complete shutdown of the internet.”

Q. Tell us your favourite hotel – one for business, one for pleasure.

“The Hotel Westminster in Paris for business. It is centrally located, has excellent staff and Nicolas the concierge can arrange everything. The English bar has comfy leather sofas and a wide choice of single malt whiskies. For pleasure, it’s Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Isles. Just 15 ft from the sea (at high tide), it’s all about lobster barbecues, steel bands, palm trees, hammocks, deep sea fishing, hobie cats and lasers.”

Q. What is the most exciting project your company is working on right now?

“After nearly 40 years we have accumulated a fleet of luxury hotel barges across Europe. We are in advanced negotiations to create a winter base on the Burgundy canal which will allow us to bring all our vessels together every winter and make life so much easier when it comes to the yearly refurbishment programmes.”

Thanks, Derek.

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