How APT changed the way Australians travel
Author: Kendall Hill
Photography: James Geer
Once Geoff McGeary reveals his Viking ancestry, the world-conquering career suddenly makes sense. The boy from Brighton has turned his APT Group into a global travel empire spanning cruising and touring operations in more than 70 countries and on every continent. The wanderlust extends from river cruising in Portugal and camping at private lodges in the Kimberley to riding trains in Russia, and Antarctic expeditions. A single suburban bus has become the biggest travel company in Australia and New Zealand.
APT celebrates its 90th anniversary next year, and we've met in one of McGeary's offices in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Hampton to talk about the company's pioneering past and future. I ask him to take me back to 1927, when his father, Bill, fixed a bus body to atruck tray and used it to transport commuters from Northcote to Clifton Hill during a lengthy tram strike. But McGeary prefers to take me a little further back, to the very beginning.
Young Geoff McGeary with his parents.
"I've started getting an interest in the family heritage," he explains. "We went back to about the time of the Vikings, when they raided the top part of the United Kingdom." That was when he discovered his Scottish forebears had Scandinavian bloodlines. Jonas was one of the family names.
McGeary has an insatiable curiosity about the world, so he embarked on an expedition cruise to the Isle of Skye and his ancestral homelands. He was shocked by what he found. "They came from a place called Glen Clova, which sounds lovely, but it's terrible!" he says, almost shuddering at the memory of its bleakness. "No wonder they all left to come here."
His forebears emigrated to Australia - "a land of opportunity" - in 1854. McGeary's grandfather had a horse and dray business in Fitzroy, but his father saw the future in motorised transport. He became a mechanic, built his own bus, and founded a suburban transport business known as McGeary's Parlor Coaches.
The McGeary's Parlor Coaches fleet in 1950.
When Bill became ill, his 19-year-old son sat for an underage bus driver's licence and took the wheel of the business in 1961. McGeary junior swiftly launched coach and camping trips to Central Australia and Queensland. When the risqué musical Hair opened in Sydney in 1969, he cashed in on its popularity by running weekend bus tours to the show. He served chicken and Champagne on the way out of Melbourne and added visits to the Les Girls cabaret and Pink Panther strip club for extra thrills. The trips were marketed as "swinging weekends" and customers couldn't get enough of them. "It was really very successful," McGeary recalls.
His wife, Anne, was not so enthusiastic. When he invited her to Sydney to visit the Pink Panther she was mortified. "She said, 'I can't believe you are doing something as terrible as this'," he says.
The camping holidays, too, became a huge success. "We became king of the campers," McGeary smiles. "At its peak we were running something like 40 coaches at once on these trips."
Geoff McGeary at his Brighton office in 1971.
The tours expanded to New Zealand and Tasmania, then later to Europe, Canada and Alaska. In 1967, McGeary renamed the company Australian Pacific Coaches, the precursor to today's Australian Pacific Touring. Fifty years later, APT remains the number-one tour operator in Australia and New Zealand.
Anne was much happier when her husband moved into river cruising. At the urging of his friend pioneering US travel agent Jimmy Murphy the couple joined a cruise along the Danube in 2000. They enjoyed it so much that McGeary launched European river cruises for Australians the following year. "This was better than taking her to the Pink Panther," McGeary says of this new direction. "She was much happier and thought I had redeemed myself."
Adventurers on an Australian Pacific Coaches tour in the 1970s.
In 2005 he went into partnership with Murphy's AmaWaterways, operating tourist vessels on the great rivers of Europe. A year later their first purpose-built river cruiser, AmaDagio, made her maiden voyage on the Danube. Cruising is now a major slice of the group's business; with AmaWaterways, APT operates 18 luxury ships on the rivers of Europe and Asia.
"Investing in river cruising was the biggest risk of my career," McGeary admits. "Committing to charter ships was a huge step to take. But the benefits of the travel style and the calibre of the product that APT could create were obvious to me. I knew it would be a travel style that Aussies would fall in love with. And that's what has happened."
In the past decade APT has stayed ahead of the growing fleet of European river-cruise operators by "continuing to invest and innovate to ensure we stay ahead", says McGeary. In the past year alone the company has launched new vessels in Myanmar and Europe, and upgraded its Mekong ship.
A 1984 European tour brochure.
The AmaWaterways deal is one of several strategic partnerships and shareholdings McGeary has negotiated with specialist operators so he can expand confidently into new markets and modes of travel. AP Holdings is a shareholder in the expedition company Noble Caledonia, which sails three ships under the APT shingle, and works closely with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, which operates private trains in Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, India, Canada and Africa. As well, AP Holdings is a major shareholder in Captain's Choice, the private-charter touring operator pitched at rich retirees. (Captain's Choice was founded by fellow Melbourne entrepreneur Phil Asker, who McGeary met when they were both running coach tours to Hair.) Initially the company bought 50 per cent of Captain's Choice, but now owns about 75 per cent - McGeary is vague on specifics. The APT Group remains privately owned so he's under no obligation to publicise details of its turnover and profits.
The secret to the company's success? "Delivering an exceptional experience, each and every time," says McGeary. "We're always focused on exceeding expectations. That has been APT's mantra from the very outset."
Perhaps a good measure of his success lies in the fact that McGeary has always played to his passions, selling the sort of active, experiential travel that he enjoys himself. "The people that go on our trips are there for the learning experience. That's what people are seeking now," McGeary says of the APT approach. "We're not specialists in lying on your back in the sun or sitting at a resort."
His personal travel style is "adventure seeking", he says. His heart lies in the Australian outback - the Northern Territory, the Kimberley and Central Australia - "the regions where my travel adventures began". He has a 1967 Holden HR rally car that he races, and a LandCruiser for more leisurely exploration. He and Anne have always had their own boat, too, which he often uses to reconnoitre potential new APT destinations.
An Australian Pacific Coach in central Australia.
McGeary thinks he might finally get to Antarctica during the company's anniversary year. "It's still on my travel list, so I might head there next year, either on one of our cruises or aboard an Antarctica flight," he says.
His children, Rob McGeary and Lou Tandy, have both taken leading roles in APT Group but, at 75, McGeary remains as active as ever.
Perhaps it's the Viking blood. That would explain his lifelong desire to see the world, to conquer it in a modern sense. McGeary says only, "One thing you learn (from delving into the family history) is that we are all a product of where we have come from, and the people who have been before us."