We have chosen a stunning evening for our cruise on Loch Ness from Dochgarroch Lock on the Caledonian Canal. Standing at the bow of the Jacobite Rebel with Freda Newton, MD of Loch Ness by Jacobite, I turn my gaze from the scenery around me and watch Freda’s face as we pass by Bona Lighthouse and the length of Scotland’s most famous body of water stretches before us, all the way to Fort Augustus.
Although it’s a view Freda has seen countless times in the 15 years since she bought the tour and cruise company and transformed it into the multi-award winning business that it is today, it still has the power to impress her.
“Every time I come here, no matter what the weather is like”, she says, gazing along the length of the loch beyond Urquhart Castle, “I just think ‘wow’, and can’t believe how lucky I am.”
At that we take a sip of Benromach and silently toast the natural beauty of the landscape that surrounds us.
It’s a still summer’s evening. The loch is flat calm, and the sun is bouncing off its waters, which in less favourable weather can seem broody, dark and mysterious. The sun also catches the amber liquid swirling in our glasses, and we talk about how Freda, with a history of running bus companies Citylink and Rapsons, came to be at the helm of one of the Highlands’ busiest tourism companies.
“I had been looking for a new business opportunity; something that I would enjoy, but that might also make me some money but nothing was really fitting the bill”, she explains.
“I was on holiday with my sister Fiona [Fiona Newton, who owns The Heathmount Hotel in Inverness] on Egypt’s Red Sea Coast. We went on a boat trip, as you do, and the boat was stunning, with gold taps and tinted windows – very Arabian chic! Fiona said to me ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something like this on Loch Ness’ and I started mentally doing the sums. As soon as we got back I started my investigations. There was already someone operating cruises on the loch, and I discovered he was nearing retirement age. So I took all my courage in both hands, phoned him up, and asked if he might be interested in selling his business. We agreed to meet for a chat, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The company which Freda now operates is a far cry from the one she bought, and her transformation of the business into a slick operation which comprises four vessels, offering a choice of ten cruises, including a bespoke charter, from three different departure points - has been recognised with fistfuls of awards. Freda herself has received accolades – in 2015 she was named Highland Business Leader of the Year, and she was made an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list for services to economic and community development in the Highlands of Scotland. In March she was awarded the prestigious VisitScotland Silver Thistle Award in recognition of her pivotal role in the region’s tourism industry. As she is talking about this award, she laughs.
“I always thought of the Silver Thistle as being a sort of lifetime achievement award. I was delighted – and surprised – to receive it, but I don’t feel old enough to be receiving lifetime achievement awards – I’ve not finished achieving yet!”
(Photo credit/copyright: Chris Watt Photography)
Freda has an easy laugh and a generous smile, but there is a tough determination and a shrewd business sense behind her open and welcoming manner. When I ask what her company ethos is, and the reason behind her success, she is absolutely clear with her answer:
“I am constantly pushing for excellence, particularly when it comes to customer service. For me, it’s about getting the big stuff right, but also about paying attention to detail. I like our boats and the loch and canal-side environments to be pristine and clean and for our staff to be impeccably turned out. All of that sets the tone for an excellent customer experience.”
“And it’s about the unexpected extras too. Everything from the posh Dyson taps in the toilets on board, to the live commentary throughout all of our cruises – it’s all thought through. We even have a singing guide on one of our boats – he hands out song sheets so our passengers can join in. It’s all about adding value, and daring to be different. Our Highland Hot Chocolate, made with a dash of whisky, goes down a real storm with our customers, especially on chillier days.”
As she mentions the word chilly, I notice that the evening air is beginning to turn cooler. We stay out on deck to savour the magnificent splendour of Urquhart Castle, then as the boat turns to head back for home, we retreat to the warmth inside, topping up our glasses as we go.
Bringing over 225 000 passengers onto the loch last year was no mean feat, and Freda is proud of her team for the work they collectively achieve. But this is a woman who doesn’t stand still, and there are ambitious plans in the pipeline. I begin to ask her, but she stops me in my tracks.“That’s a story for another day,” she grins. And with another sip of Benromach, swiftly changes the subject.
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