The bus boy goes to sea

The bus boy goes to sea

One of Atlantic Canada’s most successful tourism entrepreneurs has just sold the motor coach business that built his brand. You won’t believe what’s next for this sightseeing industry magnate

IT’S MID-SEPTEMBER and Halifax tour operator Dennis Campbell is combing the world for a catamaran. It’s got to be big enough to ferry 150, maybe 200, passengers around the city’s iconic harbour. It’s got to be sleek to cut through the chop on windy days. And it’s got to be fast, because, nowadays, leisure travellers want to get to where they’re going in a hurry and so does Campbell.

Just the other day, after 32 years in the driver’s seat of Absolute Charters Inc., Campbell sold most of his wheels to nearest competitor Coach Atlantic Transportation Group for an undisclosed amount. The deal involves more than 80 vehicles and 140 employees of his Ambassatours Gray Line division. That leaves him with ship-to-shore sightseeing operations in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick; Murphy’s on the Water restaurant, bar, patio and gift shop; and a double-decker enterprise in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It also leaves him with plans, and the financial wherewithal to make them happen.

“It’s time to hit the harbour big time,” gushes the 50-year-old entrepreneur, whose be-kilted guides have helped define the Halifax experience for motor coach tourists since the 1990s, and who was one of Atlantic Business Magazine’s youngest Top 50 CEO Hall of Famers when he was inducted in 2009. “I’m just raring to go.”

Campbell packs no crystal ball in his tote, but he does detect a change on the wind in his hometown. It smells like opportunity. It smells like money. “Let’s put it this way,” he says, “our greatest asset is our harbour. Trip Advisor voted Halifax as number four in the world among top-ten destinations on the rise. CNN named us number three among top 19 destinations. And that was all before the spectacular new growth that’s going to make the waterfront even that much better.”

He’s talking about everything from a planned expansion of Halterm Container Terminal in the south and a public initiative to make the inner harbour islands of McNabs and Georges more accessible to tourists, to a project for rendering the Eastern Passage community of Fisherman’s Cove more visitor-friendly and a massive job-recruitment program at Irving Shipbuilding in the north.

And lest we forget the cruise industry… “My God,” Campbell nearly barks. “Never forget the cruise industry.”

According to official numbers, leisure ships docked at the port 198 times in 2018, bettering the record of 173 posted the year before. That brought a total of 316,869 credit-card-bearing, cash-carrying passengers to the city’s waterfront, compared with 292,722 in 2017.

“That business is staggering,” the tourism entrepreneur says. “Think about it: If you took all the cruise ships in the world and added up one year’s worth of their receipts, the sum would equal the annual tourism revenue for the City of San Francisco.” Total tourism spending for that city was $10 billion in 2018, according to the San Francisco Travel Association. While global tallies like this may seem meaningless at the local level, his point is broader: “The potential for Halifax is absolutely beyond imagination.”

Unless, of course, you happen to be Campbell, who can imagine a lot (and always has).

It takes a certain amount of brio to start a tourism business when you’re not yet out of high school. But lack of enthusiasm was never one of this player’s problems. “I noticed that little old ladies had a lot of money,” he once told Atlantic Business Magazine, “and I also noticed that they liked giving it to me.”

Charm was one thing; sleepless nights and hard work were another. He built his business literally from the axels up. When banks dismissed him, he found like-minded investors to help shoulder the burden. Slowly, deliberately, he built his brand and expanded his operations across the city and into the Maritimes—eventually running a fleet of 70 highway coaches, and novelty buses for charter across Canada and the United States.

In 2014, he bought a majority interest in Murphy’s The Cable Wharf on the Halifax waterfront to form the country’s largest sightseeing company, which included Theodore Tugboat, The Harbour Hopper and two others. Since then, Ambassatours’ marine fleet has grown to comprise the 250-passenger tall ship, Silva; the 200-passenger Mississippi-style paddle wheeler, The Harbour Queen; the 200-passenger cruiser Kawartha Spirit; the 100-passenger whale watching and fishing vessel, Summer Bay; and the 45-passenger coaster, Peggy’s Cove Express.

It’s fair to say the Murphy’s purchase signalled a changing tide in Campbell, himself. “Over the past 32 years, I’ve seen a great number of competitors come and go,” he says. “When I look back and think of why they aren’t here today, I’d have to say the common thread is they didn’t change with the times; they didn’t grow in the right direction at the right time.”

Now, apparently, is that time for Ambassatours… maybe, in fact, past time. “If it seems like I’m in a hurry it’s only because Halifax really deserves an upgraded fleet of marine vessels to connect all these great places and all these great initiatives that are going to happen,” he says. “Take Fisherman’s Cove, for example. It’s lovely. But it’s not very pretty if you go there by land. If you go over by boat, though, it’s like coming into Peggy’s Cove, it’s so beautiful.”

Of course, to do that, you need a fast boat. Specifically, you need a big, sleek catamaran that can get you there in 20 minutes or less. He’s working on it. “I’m flying to Perth, Australia, in January to meet with one of the world’s largest builders of sight-seeing catamarans,” he says. “Actually, our current plan is do a one-year lease of a cat for trial in Halifax Harbour, sometime within the next three to five years.”

Or, if in the entirely likely event he gets impatient, maybe he’ll just build the flagship of his new business from the keels up.

It wouldn’t be the first time. •

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