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‘We will live to quack another day’: Boston Duck Tours plans to stay afloat in rough waters

The COVID-19 pandemic truncated Boston Duck Tours' season last year and cut ridership by 96%.

Boston's iconic duck boat tours weren't able to start until mid-July last year. Steven Stenne / Associated Press, File

In the pantheon of Boston tourism staples sit a brick path dotted with historical sites, an 18th-century marketplace and meeting hall, and a flashy fleet of amphibious vehicles.

You know them well — the duck boats, those colorful pun-adorned vehicles that have puttered through the Charles River and the streets of downtown every summer since 1994, carrying caricatured “conducktors” who share historical factoids and coax passengers to noisily quack at passersby. It’s a popular excursion for local middle schoolers, international travelers, and sporting champions alike.

But the start of the COVID-19 pandemic left the tourism industry in shambles last year, and Boston Duck Tours was stuck in the same boat. CEO Cindy Brown, who has sat at the helm since 1997, said the tours carry 550,000 guests in a typical season, which normally runs from March to November.

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Last season, which couldn’t start until the middle of July because of state and local regulations, saw only 30,000 passengers — a 96% loss compared to a typical year. Brown said the company lost $4.5 million.

“It was a really tough year, to say the least,” she said. “If we didn’t have a reserve and PPP, we certainly wouldn’t be in the position now to reopen.”

The virus still lingers a year later, but the duck boats will roll out Thursday, April 1 thanks to loosened restrictions amid an accelerated vaccination effort. Brown hopes to get more business in the core summer months, but the start of the season will still be shaky. The boats can still only operate at 50% capacity, and only 15 out of 27 vehicles will be deployed at first. They’re expensive to register, insure, and maintain, so the rest will start the season in storage.

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“Hopefully there will be enough people wanting to take the tour, but at 50%, it will be hard to make money,” Brown said. “I don’t think any company can be profitable at 50%.”

The company has had to change its primary market — which, for now, is basically the only market — to “staycationers” and regional travelers. Brown hopes for a pent-up demand from local families that might soon feel comfortable doing more outdoor activities on weekends or after school.

“We’ve lost cruise ships, field trips, business conventions and meetings, international [travel],” Brown said. “So we’re very limited with who even is in Boston.”

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She said it should help that the large vehicles leave the windows open, allowing for free-flowing air, and she noted that the company reported no cases from guests or employees last year. Everyone aboard is still required to socially distance and wear masks, and the vehicles are sanitized between every tour.

Boston Duck Tours usually employs 200 people during a season, including the drivers and tour guides hired as seasonal employees. Brown said this year will start with around 75 workers, which may climb to 100 over the next month. She said her goal is to eventually hire back everyone who wants to return, but it’s an industry that is often precarious in the best of times.

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“It’s so hard to predict anything,” she said. “I’m on calls with industry friends across the city, the state, the country, and we are all playing a guessing game right now. Will people be vaccinated, will they travel, will they have money to travel, will the capacity increase?

“We deal with weather, we deal with the economy, we deal with competition. There were already so many things to balance before.”

Brown said despite the ongoing trials of the pandemic, she’s optimistic that Boston Duck Tours will be able to turn a profit again soon. She said the company has burned through a million-dollar reserve and another million in cash, but that PPP money has helped keep it above water.

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“I think tourism is prime to recover,” she said. “It’s just getting everyone their shots and making travel seem attainable again. I think we’re close for people to start being optimistic about traveling.”

As Brown sees it, the ship hasn’t sailed on Boston’s iconic duck tours.

“We will definitely stay afloat, that I can assure you,” Brown said. “We will live to quack another day.”

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