All shipshape up on deck of Abu Dhabi boat-tour operator

One small business owner tailored his start-up boating company to the needs of Abu Dhabi, not the glitz of Dubai.

“People immediately assume that boating is for the rich,” Tony Neto, 36, the owner and managing partner of Captain Tony’s, says. “So my approach was very different than what you see in Dubai.”

Mr Neto’s vision was to have simple boats that the average consumer could afford. “Don’t expect luxury on the boat, the luxury is the scenery and really good service,” the captain says.


The idea began brewing in 2010, a couple of years after Mr Neto and his family moved to the UAE from Portugal. He was an architect by trade, heading an Australian firm based in Abu Dhabi. One of the first big purchases the family made was a boat, costing Dh50,000, which was later used to start Captain Tony’s.

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“I used to dock the boat where the fishermen docked because I didn’t want to pay the fees,” says Mr Neto. This led to him exploring different areas in Abu Dhabi than the most popular destinations. “When people turn right, I tend to turn left and what I found was amazing,” he says.

When friends joined his family on these weekend cruises, everyone was amazed at the turtles, white sand beaches and the peacefulness of these under-explored areas. “Eventually I began exploring this idea on a commercial, but small-scale level,” he says.

He was still working as an architect, but in his free time he began to draft a business plan. And three years ago, Captain Tony’s went from idea to reality. He took his family boat and bought a new engine for Dh70,000 – which was more expensive than the boat.

Mr Neto set out to meet up with several hotels in the Yas area, inviting concierges to come along for a tour to see the service.

On UAE National Day 2012, Captain Tony’s welcomed its first customers: a young couple from Dubai looking to charter a romantic cruise for Dh2,000. Mr Neto says that with all of the time spent marketing the company, landing the first booking seemed surreal. “You’ve been planning for so long and then it happens and suddenly, you don’t know what to do,” he recalls.

He immediately bought flowers and chocolates to set the stage, pretending as though he had done this a million times. “I’ve dealt with large projects before, but this was so important to me that it couldn’t go wrong,” Mr Neto says. The satisfaction after getting the first customers was incredible. “I thought: ‘The first one is behind me and it can only get better from here,’” he says.

Yet the business didn’t immediately take off. Mr Neto says it was a gradual increase. There were no bookings during the week at first. This increased slowly to two trips during the week as well as two to three weekend bookings.

And then last year happened.

“Suddenly we were fully booked during the week and weekend,” Mr Neto says. He bought another boat, and ended up expanding his workforce from one employee to 11.

“The hotels were sending us people, others were finding us online and everything just started to add up,” he says. And the company’s list of services also began expanding.

His staff includes an older woman from Brazil, which has helped expand the business to cater to ladies-only tours. Mr Neto also began working with the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority to offer an abra service.

Abras ferry passengers around select areas similar to a hop-on, hop-off shuttle service via the water. The free service is currently catering to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Ritz-Carlton Grand Canal, the Shangri-La and Souk Qaryat Al Beri. Abras will also make their way to Al Maryah Island connecting the Galleria in Sowwah Square to the Abu Dhabi Mall.

Another idea for the company came about when Mr Neto and his family were staying at a nearby hotel. He stumbled upon a marine biologist who had been teaching his children about different shells found on the beach. He approached the hotel’s general manager and so began Captain Tony’s Eco-Tours, which has become very popular for local school trips.

Mr Neto wants to maintain the small-town feel with his company. He dismissed the idea of an online portal for bookings. “Part of the charm of Captain Tony’s is personal contact, and we want to keep in touch with our guest,” he says.

The boat owner also supports other local small businesses. When he began looking for a catering company for bookings, he decided against a commercial chain and went with Cafe Firenze – a locally-owned restaurant that makes about 50 sandwiches a week just for Captain Tony’s.

“When you believe you’ve got something good, you do it honestly and offer a really good service, people always come back,” Mr Neto says.

lgraves@thenational.ae

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