When Andy Furniss first arrived in Guernsey six years ago, becoming a train driver wasn’t a life goal, but driving Le Petit Train between 10am and 3pm fitted perfectly around doing the school run for his two boys while his wife settled into her new teaching role. One year later – at the end of 2018 – Andy seized the opportunity to take over the business in its entirety.
“We had one really good year in 2019 and then Covid struck. With the States’ support scheme for small businesses, I was just about able to stay afloat and in a way, it gave me the breathing space to think about the direction I wanted to take the business.”
At the time, cruise boat visitors accounted for 95% of the train’s passengers – a market that disappeared overnight due to the pandemic, but a vulnerability that Andy had already recognised as something he needed to address. With over 40 ‘petits trains’ in France having gone out of business – victims of Covid 19 – he wanted to move away from being wholly reliant on the tourism industry.
“I wanted to focus more on local trade as I saw that as the growth area for the business. So in a way, Covid accelerated the realisation of that vision.”
Andy is no stranger to hard work and innovation and whole heartedly believes in the ‘you get out of something what you put in’ mantra. Prior to moving to Guernsey, he and his family lived in the Falkland Islands where, as he explained, everyone has to be a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ and make a contribution or the place doesn’t run. He spent time as a marine mammal observer, a fish catch verifier as well as an HGV driver and instructor. Andy also spent many years working in special needs education in the UK and lived in Australia for a period working for a mining company.
He grasped the post-Covid challenge to build the business with the same energy and enthusiasm. Initially he offered free seats for children as a way to drive incremental adult ticket sales resulting in a 40% uplift. He then developed a programme of evening events from food safaris (three restaurants in three hours) to Abba nights and children’s sing-alongs.
In an island with a finite market, the need to introduce new products and services is paramount. So Christmas lights and ghost tours around St Peter Port are now also on the agenda and are popular with corporate and group bookings and are proving to be a valuable revenue stream. Le Petit Train also ran ‘Park and Ride’ services for the coronation celebrations and for Christmas shoppers.
Last year, Andy took on Lucy, initially to sell the advertising space on the train, but who now supports him with event planning and promotion. He describes her addition to the team as a ‘game changer’. They have since set up a separate company Mainline Events through which they can run events away from Le Petit Train. Mainline Events owns ‘The Little Black Bus’ found on the quayside when a cruise ship is in, offering small group excursions.
For Andy, diversifying the operation is a way of future proofing the business. The cruise market still constitutes 65% of his passengers but with Princess Cruises not visiting this year, and with 35 fewer boats in total in 2023 compared with 2022, developing his local events trade seems a sensible strategy. And the numbers seem to stack up: 45 events in 2022 and an impressive 145 planned over the course of 2023.
When Andy isn’t in the train, he might be found under it on engine maintenance duties. The Italian-built vehicle is around 30 years old and needs ‘a gentle hand’. The diverse nature of his day-to-day life is what he loves.
“For me it fulfils everything I need. I have a ‘quirky’ business. I can tinker with engines (it used to be motorbikes and land rovers; now it’s a land train) plus I have the challenge of running my own business which is becoming increasingly interesting as it grows. Knowing that this is all of my own doing gives me a huge amount of satisfaction.
“Guernsey is a beautiful place to live where you can enjoy a great work/life balance. When friends ask me what it’s like to live here, I just say that I can get to a beach in 10 minutes in any direction. That’s hard to beat.”