I miss the Princess Margaret, not the apparently fabulous and boozy royal, but the hovercraft that used to cross the English channel. In the 1990s it was my way of escape from the hustle and bustle of my first business, and because analogue phone signals didn’t reach further than the shore line, you knew that once the craft had lifted and turned in a plume of spray that you needed to speak to no one, unless you stopped at a French phone box.. Then there was the exhilaration of knowing that the whole of Europe was spread out in front of you, only limited by your ability to pay for petrol. These days there’s none of the drama of the Princesses (Princess Anne was the other craft)or the exciting, but nausea-inducing catamaran.
It’s probably those experiences that subconsciously prompted me to develop my business across the channel, which I’ve done since I launched as Clive Reeves PR in 2009.
These days it’s the bit of motorway heading north towards Dunkirk, where you used to be able to unleash the car before speed cameras that brings the hope and excitement.
The project for Goodyear in 2012 had us, along with Popbang artist Ian Cook and seemingly a support crew of thousands embark on a European tour to mark the introduction of some new legislation. We visited EU parliaments in Brussels and Strasbourg and Goodyear Dunlop factories and tyre dealers across France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium in three days. We were shortlisted for a national PR award for our efforts and we had a brilliant time. Like many things where you have a brilliant time at work, you don’t actually make much money from it. Last year we began another project across Europe, where our export efforts have been a little more profitable and we’ve been able to share the love locally, subcontracting some complex action video work and photography to our long-standing suppliers in Birmingham and Walsall. We were shortlisted for two export awards for that work too, including the Business Desk Business Masters Awards and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Business Awards.
When I say profitable, we’re not talking millions, but it’s enough to pay salaries, keep the rent paid at our posh end of the street, put a very occasional smile on the face of a car dealer as well as paying for a few lovely lunches.
Just when we were making money from export, things are set to change, as are many things in Britain. I’m not going to be frequenting any car showrooms for a while, but having considered how we’re going to react to change, I have reached the conclusion that we’re going to carry on regardless. Our planned new business push in Europe will still happen in September, and despite the increasing inefficiencies and disruption at Eurotunnel, we will block-buy more channel crossing tickets and it will be business as usual. If the fun goes out of what you’re doing, then what’s the point in running your own business? We’ll be taking exactly the same attitude in the UK as the team strengthens and new clients come on board.
For the younger ones of you who never experienced that seat-of-your-pants way of crossing to France, here’s some history: Hovercraft were invented by Sir Christopher Cockerell, and heralded in the 1960s along with Concorde as the brave new face of travel. I have a particular affinity as a creation of the 60s. The two princesses were the fastest commercial passenger-carrying vessels in operation. Capable of 60 knots, they could cross the Channel in 30 minutes, about an hour quicker than most ferries, but their competitive edge was dramatically undermined by the tunnel.
The crafts' limited capacity of 52 cars and the noisy, spartan and cramped passenger compartments also compared unfavourably to the facilities on conventional ferries.
I’ve found some quotes reported by the Telegraph in September 2000. Tony Joseph, from Ealing, west London, said after returning from a motoring holiday in France: "It rattled so much I couldn't get my beer to my lips. I couldn't work out whether I was feeling seasick or airsick."
For those who "flew" hovercraft, though, fonder memories linger. John Jardine, who piloted the craft for a decade, said: "A hovercraft is an arresting sight, coming across the sea with a shower of spray surrounding it like a halo. It was a thrill, but some days your heart was in your mouth when the weather was bad."
And that’s a bit like running this business - it’s a thrill, but some days your heart is in your mouth, but you know, we will channel our inner Britishness and genuinely carry on regardless. I might even start charging in Guineas. There may be a few less lovely lunches, but as Churchill said, ‘KBO’. That’s the former Prime Minister, not the insurance dog. Oh yes.