Geoff McGeary – a fortunate life
APT is one of Australia’s biggest travel businesses, and this year celebrates its 90th birthday. Bruce Piper sat down with company patriarch Geoff McGeary to discover some of the secrets of his success.
Geoff McGeary, who took over day to day operations at McGeary Parlour Coaches, the forerunner to APT, in 1961 at the tender age of just 19, has built a small Melbourne-based bus company into a global tourism powerhouse — and credits an incident in the Australian outback as a key turning point in his career.
One of the many ventures he initiated was outback trips from Melbourne and Sydney to Alice Springs and Darwin — two buses in convoy, with McGeary himself driving one of them. “The roads were very rough — no bitumen, and we broke a lot of springs,” he said. On the day in question, McGeary was in the second vehicle and noticed the suspension on the other bus had collapsed. The buses stopped, and ever a practical bloke, Geoff grabbed a chainsaw from the camping equipment on board and took to a nearby tree limb, cutting it to size so it could sit on top of the axle of the defective vehicle and keep it going. “I jacked the body up, put the log in and used a tow chain to tie it in place,” McGeary said, with the buses then limping on slowly to Alice Springs.
A short time later, however, he noticed the other bus had dropped again — clearly the chock of wood had been dislodged. “We stopped, I got underneath the wheel arch with a torch to see what was happening, when suddenly it let go and the bus collapsed on top of me. I was very lucky — my head slipped down the side of the tyre and I didn’t break any ribs — but I couldn’t get out. But we had about 80 passengers in the two buses, and they all got hold of the bus and lifted it off me”.
McGeary wasn’t in good shape and it was decided to take him in one of the buses to hospital in Alice Springs, several hours’ drive away.
“But a while later I started to come good, and so I told them to just turn around and go back, so we did,” he matter-of-factly concluded, adding that about six months later he needed a hernia operation which was probably related to the dramatic outback incident.
“That was the only result. In a way it was a turning point in my life — I felt everything after that was a bonus. I started to use the term ‘a fortunate life’ — and I think I’ve had one,” he said.
While he attributes much of his success to this good fortune, there’s no doubt McGeary’s hands-on approach and willingness to innovate have also been key factors in the rise of APT. When he took over the business from his ailing father he had to get a special dispensation to be able to drive buses at such a young age — and between doing morning and afternoon school runs he set up a board across the back row of seats where he could do the company paperwork. Constantly reinvesting the profits from the business into new equipment meant APT could look further afield — and in the swinging sixties he came up with the idea of taking people from straight-laced Melbourne to the flesh-pots of NSW to see the musical Hair.
Again he drove the coach himself — and for the first time encountered one-way streets.
“I used to think the people in Sydney were so friendly because they were always waving at me,” he said — as he piloted an Australian Pacific Tours coach in the wrong direction through the Sydney CBD, much to the consternation of locals.
When Hair eventually made its way to Melbourne McGeary thought he would have to come up with something completely new — until he realised the Victorian version of the show had been modified to comply with southern sensibilities. McGeary changed the advertising for his Sydney coach trips to say ‘See the REAL Hair in Sydney’ and thus managed to extend the demand for his tours by another few months.
McGeary also came up with the concept of ‘Hot Snow Weekends’ where he took two coaches to the Victorian snowfields, offering the carrot of a free ski lesson for those who rented equipment through his company. Unfortunately he was unable to get access to any ski instructors, so as well as running the trips and driving the bus McGeary ended up helping to teach his passengers at Mt Buller and Mt Buffalo how to snowplough too — despite never having experienced the snow himself. The other driver had skied before, and the pair got the passengers to all line up on the slopes and follow the leader, with McGeary bringing up the rear.
Nobody was watching me, fortunately, and after they had all had their quick lesson I took the skis off and walked back down the hill,” he said.
McGeary’s spirit of creative innovation extended to APT’s burgeoning Kimberley operations, meeting an unmet appetite from Australians wanting to explore their own country.
“We built accommodation in North-West Australia because there wasn’t anywhere to stay,” McGeary said. APT now boasts an enviable portfolio of wilderness lodges and tented camps across the region, along with a major base in Broome and a fleet of about 25 4WD buses — plus a highly experienced crew. Having exclusive access to properties such as Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge, the Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge and Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge has meant APT can provide unique itineraries and allow travellers to experience the true Australia. APT’s involvement in the Red Centre has also seen the company pioneer sustainable tourism and maintain enduring partnerships with Indigenous communities.
As the business continued to evolve, McGeary tapped into the incessant thirst from Australians to explore the world. He expanded the business internationally — initially in New Zealand and then further afield — as APT encouraged thousands of Australians, many of them retirees, to head overseas. APT continues to operate its ever-popular tours to Canada and Alaska along with touring operations in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. River cruising proved a highly popular option, and APT rode the wave, initially chartering vessels but eventually becoming an owner-operator, taking a major stake in AmaWaterways which has a fleet of river ships in Europe, Asia and Africa.
“In my lifetime in travel I’ve never come across anything as fantastic as these river ships,” McGeary said, likening the rise of the river cruising segment to the introduction of the Boeing 747 in irrevocably changing the way people travel.
Indeed partnerships have been a key business strategy for McGeary, with APT having significant shareholdings in river cruise, ocean cruise and rail operators across the globe. “I think you could describe me as ‘king of partnerships,'” he said, before downplaying the importance of such a title. Referring to APT’s involvement with AmaWaterways, McGeary said “we knew we could sell river cruises. But it’s a big move to build the ships and own them”. APT’s partnership strategy, in most cases tying up with like-minded family-based businesses, has extended to small ship ocean cruising via Noble Caledonia, specialist luxury operators Captain’s Choice and Botanica, and Russia’s Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. In the end, McGeary said, APT’s partnerships are like much of the tourism business — completely based on trust.
“Customers trust us and our brands,” he said. “When buying a holiday, there’s not much you can measure. You can’t kick the tyres, or take it for a test drive. You’re buying a dream. When you spend money on travel you can’t sell it later on and get something back — all you keep are memories, photos and maybe a souvenir teatowel. We’re selling intangibles — the customer has to trust us and that extends to the whole experience,” McGeary said. “I also have to trust the people working with me — their ability, and have confidence in our suppliers who have to deliver. Reputation is very hard to build, and you can lose it very quickly,” he added.
Where to next for APT? The scale of the business means there’s plenty of interest from the investment community, with ongoing speculation about a sale or public float amid some heady nine-figure valuations.
Financial details for the travel and tourism powerhouse have never been made public, but the 2013 appointment of former Transonic Travel ceo Peter Lacaze as chairman of an overarching APT Group board fuelled the rumours, given his previous experience in investment banking and public share offerings. However the company has long insisted the governance structure, which also sees Chris Hall overseeing the business as group CEO, simply aims to ensure it maintains its core ethos and family values.
There’s no doubt the future is bright, with APT tapping into the ever-travelling baby-boomer segment. As McGeary told me at the first Cruise360 conference in Sydney some years ago, “We’re all living longer… new stents in the heart, new hips, new knees — I reckon we’re getting these people for ten to 15 years longer than I got the retirees 50 years ago”.
The next big thing, he believes, is small ship expedition cruising, and APT is putting its money where his mouth is via its expanding partnership with Noble Caledonia which will grow to a third vessel this year, offering intimate itineraries to explore places like Antarctica, Japan, the Baltics, the North Sea and the Kimberley coast.
McGeary’s lifetime in the industry has been recognised with an Order of Australia medal awarded in 2014, and he was also named an Australian Tourism Legend at last year’s Australian Tourism Awards. APT continues to win award after award, including in recent years a pool room-full of AFTA National Travel Industry Award trophies for Best International Tour Operator, Best Domestic Tour Operator and Best River Cruise Operator. While McGeary’s son Rob McGeary and daughter Lou Tandy are also directors of the business, Geoff is quick to say he’s in no hurry to retire. “I continue to have a fortunate life, and I want to keep going as long as I am making a worthwhile contribution,” he concluded.