An entrepreneur’s quest to buy a Dutch barge has run aground…again
In 1984, my aunt and uncle took off on an adventure around Europe by way of canal. With no real barge or waterways experience, those two purchased a barge and lived aboard for two years, making their way through the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany before selling it at the end of their trip. My aunt regaled me with the hilarious outtakes on learning the boat locks and finding marinas along the way with their maps or using their broken French conversing with locals. Similarly, I had gone on a Euro trip by car to 16 countries after college graduation. It reminded me so much of our funny outtakes, and the epic trip that I called “drive by tourism.”
This barge story and lifestyle has resonated so deeply with me that I fantasized of doing the same one day. Flash forward to my 30s when I started scanning websites in earnest for barges for sale, combing over river cruise itineraries and familiarizing myself with the barge hotel offerings, I decided that I wanted to be a barge owner and create memorable guest experiences for others. While living a boat life intrigued me, hosting travelers suited my social butterfly personality and strengths, not to mention, it can be a good business for the long-term and into retirement.
You may be thinking, what the heck qualifies me to create such a business?
Well, for the last 12 years, I’ve dedicated my career to promote travel, specializing in public relations and marketing experiences, including working in-house at boutique hotels in New York City. At this juncture in my life as a consultant and having the luxury of location-independence, I dug deeper into this research to take strategic next steps. I hired a boat consultant named Ties from the Netherlands, who I had read up on various forums as a solid advisor and joined the Dutch Barge Association. Researching barge specifications, canal networks and listings, I came upon this charming barge that was outfitted with a full lounge and bar that resonated with the vibe and experience I was hoping to produce. It even had a large above deck entertaining space and hot tub. It immediately stood out from the rest and my mind was abuzz with ways to market and create for visitors.
That January 2018, I flew to the Netherlands to visit the barge. It was perfect. I scrambled to pull together the money and presented my business idea to banks to no avail. It was hard to get anyone to wrap their minds around an American starting a business venture in Europe, and involving a foreign boat asset to boot, no matter if I had a substantial down payment.
And with that, the boat was just too expensive for the owner’s timeline, who wanted to move on. It sold to the local township, so I found myself back to the drawing board, reviewing barge listings again. I went to share the news with my barge expert Ties that we had to start over to only receive sad news of his sudden death. Struggling with my own dad’s recent passing a few months ago, I was starting to think that my idea was foolish and out of reach.
Should I give up?
Still in need of expert guidance, I reached out to Ties’ son, who was so sweet to point me to another barge consultant, which his father had referred business to Doeve Brokers. We both commiserated over our wonderful dads, and I started to feel re-energized. My dad wouldn’t have wanted me to give up. He was one of my biggest cheerleaders.
Wild horses can’t be broken, right?
After a prompt reply from the gentleman from Doeve Brokers, I thought I was back in business and can redirect my energy to an attainable barge purchase. After a call and several emails about boat listings, I could sense the man thought I was not qualified or established some assumptions about me. He was polite but told me to come back to him when I had financing in order.
Not feeling confident with this advisor, I thought I’d give it some time and research on my own before engaging him again. Maybe no one was taking me seriously, because I haven’t taken the barge school course yet or needed to start smaller to build my way up to the 8-10 passenger boutique hotel barge.
But who is born a barge expert?? You learn!
Just as I started to feel that way, I found the perfect “small” barge measuring at 15 meters (49 ft) and could accommodate six passengers with three cabins for 59,000 euros. It was a steal. And better yet, I could afford it. My best friend from college and travel buddy Amy had become so helpful and passionate about my endeavor that she wanted to get involved. My retired mom decided, what the heck, she wanted in too to make this dream become a reality. Now, we’d have enough for the sale, renovations and upkeep without having to get investors or ask a bank for a loan.
The listing just so happened to be on Doeve’s site. I emailed the advisor on May 10th that I wanted to make a cash offer for this particular boat and thought a smaller barge would be ideal to prove my business concept while familiarizing myself with barge life. He agreed and put me in touch with his counterpart in France on May 14th, who was the broker on the listing. She sent me the latest survey as requested from 2012 in French and offered to schedule a time to visit.
Time to act fast
While not ideal, I knew I had to act quickly and book a flight to France to see this barge to seal the deal. On May 15th, our meeting time to see the boat was confirmed for Tuesday, June 11th, so I had a month to formulate my plan for the sale and clear my schedule later in July and August.
The timing wasn’t great going to France during the business week, since I was spearheading a conference for nearly 1,000 travel media and industry professionals later in June in Boston.
I touched down in Paris on Monday, June 10th, a bit blurry eyed from the red-eye flight from Newark. I was giddy with excitement, since I was on my way to change the course of my life and buy a barge. I hopped in my rental car and started to drive south to Sancerre to spend the night and be up bright and early to meet the owner. And then I receive this cavalier email from the broker:
“The people who visited Waterman yesterday were so enthusiastic that they want to buy the barge. They have an agreement with the owner. If all goes well, they will sign the contract tonight.
In that case you are too late. I’m sorry for that. These things happen I’m afraid.
If you wish I can show you two other barges I have for sale in Briare. Let’s be in touch once you have arrived in France.”
I called her immediately in pure disbelief on the side of the highway somewhere in France with tears in my eyes. I had spoken to her that Friday, June 7th repeating that I was flying there to make a cash offer for asking price (or more if needed), which I made clear back on May 14th. Only on June 7th, she had informed me a couple would be looking at it on Saturday. And I kept saying on the phone, Door (the agent) please remind the owner my intent to buy and that I’m not there just to look at it. After the couple saw it on Saturday, I followed up, and she said my meeting will still stand for that Tuesday morning June 11th, which was on Sunday just before I got on my flight.
Point blank on the side of the highway, I asked her if she ever told the owner of my intent to buy when I had made that known back in May…
She said, “no, that’s not my job.”
I am not sure how things work in France, but I was confused, what was her job? And I asked who does she work for? Why wouldn’t you tell the owner all the offers that were on the table, especially since I was the first and ready to make an offer? I told her that I want her to call the owner right now to please keep the appointment. I am in FRANCE now and only a few hours’ drive from the barge. She refused and said it was a done deal (even though it wasn’t at the time). I told her I will go back to the owner’s Facebook page, since his contact details are listed to deal with him directly from now on. And I’d be happy to share this story with others as this was highly unprofessional no matter what country, and she started to get quiet.
What did she do?
She called the owner and told him to lock the boat and hide, which I found out later. That I was on my way. I’m sure the idea of a solo female traveler trying to buy a barge in cash is terribly scary, but OK. Personally, I just would appreciate some decency after I came all that way. She was trying to make a quick commission by using me to push the couple into making an offer and didn’t want the owner to know the whole story.
I drove straight there to find no one around, but I did get to see the barge in person on the dock. Completely exhausted and dismayed, I arrived at my hotel. I got online to find the owner’s contact details, which I realize I should have done the week prior given her shady communication. I sent a Hail Mary email in a last-ditch effort while I’m just 30 minutes down the road. He responded right away to say he wasn’t aware of my intentions, and she had never told him that he essentially had an offer as early as May 15th. The couple had changed their minds three times already, which didn’t make him sound confident in the sale. He said he hadn’t signed anything and let’s meet in the morning.
As the owner showed me the barge on June 12th as scheduled, I finally felt like there was still a chance. Upon leaving, I called my boyfriend and mom with the latest update that I had hope. My boyfriend said he could get over there earlier if needed to help make sure the survey and sale happened, since I had the travel conference shortly after my return.
Ultimately, the chips were stacked against me and the barge owner decided to just go with the couple. I could tell his perception had been tainted and all sides were pushed into an easy, fast commission.
That got me thinking to look back at the initial exchange over email between my advisor and the agent in France. It was in Dutch, but I decided to ask my Dutch friend to translate it, since now I was curious if that started it all.
Turns out my “advisor” said to the agent in so many words:
She has these stories about owning a larger boat, and now she wants a small one. She thinks she has the money. Please send her the most recent survey but don’t bother translating it.
Wow. After several frivolous days in France and expenses, I took myself back to the US. But first, I had to share that I had translated the message, and their behavior was incredibly unprofessional. The guy immediately called me, I’m sure to say that I misunderstood like some dumb little American girl. The two still say they did nothing wrong. Sure, maybe not legally, but I’m impressed they’re still in business behaving this way. Seemed like they were trying to walk back their behavior, but the damage was done.
Back to square one and still looking.
As I reflect on the incident with friends and family, I just cannot fathom what they had to gain from behaving this way other than losing a future sale? Why not discourage me from flying across an ocean? Was it because I was an American, young, a woman? Who knows. But I hope by sharing my story, they don’t do it someone else again.
All that is to say:
1) don’t go to Doeve Brokers to give you sound advice
2) don’t let people discourage you
3) rise above and prove everyone wrong
Cause guess what, this ain’t over till I’m a barge captain and hosting you on a memorable experience! Look out for me on the canals and stay tuned.
Thanks for reading and caring! ❤️