Riding the Tide: Ambassatours Gray Line Demonstrates Adaptation and Flexibility to Ensure Growth

Ambassatours Gray Line

For thirty years, Halifax-based Ambassatours has adapted to meet the shifting demands of tourists, on water and on land, and become a dominant force in the Atlantic Canada industry. Now, once more, it is treading a bold new path.

Ambassatours’ Founder, President, and CEO Dennis Campbell has been offering tours since his high school days, when, in 1987, he offered his services as a tour guide to visiting groups on motor coaches. Increasing demand for his services culminated in the 1994 founding of both Ambassatours and a subsidiary, Absolute Charters bus company.

Although connected to Ambassatours, Absolute Charters provided independently regulated bus tours. Campbell founded this as a separate entity from Ambassatours because, as he explains, “I didn’t want the regulator to have control over our tour pricing, as compared to our bus pricing.”

Ambassatours expanded steadily throughout the Halifax area, but Campbell is quick to give credit to his colleagues as well as point out his own inexperience, starting out. “I did not do this alone,” he says. “I hired great people. I knew I had a lot of weaknesses, so I surrounded myself with great people, but I also surrounded myself with really great business partners.”

These partnerships brought in more capital, credibility and experience, helping the fledgling company grow.

Passion and talent
Discussing Ambassatours growth, Campbell says he remains deeply indebted to his passionate and talented staff. “We have really set out to get the best people in the tour and hospitality industry in the region, and I would say we’ve kept them.”

With a clear focus on family and work/life balance, Ambassatours has earned several awards, including several for Campbell himself, notably a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tourism Association of Nova Scotia. But, typically, he is still proud of his roots, including a Quality, Service and Cleanliness Award from his very first employer – McDonald’s.

Hopping the harbours
Today, Ambassatours dominates Halifax’s tourism and hospitality industries, offering island and harbour excursions, party cruises and even weddings in addition to its traditional city tours. The company’s biggest seller remains its ‘Harbour Hopper,’ a unique one-hour Halifax tour on refurbished 1960s-era amphibious trucks. These unique vehicles, designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, allow tours to both traverse Halifax’s city streets and (as the name implies) embark on an aquatic excursion across Halifax’s harbour.

Campbell remains justifiably proud: “It’s more than just a tour,” he says. “It really is a unique experience that you don’t get in many places in the world.”

While the dated vehicles are more costly to run, Campbell says the exponentially higher revenues more than offset it. “We don’t mind having high maintenance costs, because that product is such a desirable product for the general public.” The Harbour Hopper, he says, provides customers the perfect combination of novelty and attraction. Moreover, it’s a breakout hit: “We would be lucky to get one per cent of locals to go on our local double-deckers or [other vehicles], yet close to 50 percent of our market on our Harbour Hoppers is locals.”

With appeal going far beyond a largely seasonal tourist crowd, the Harbour Hopper is a guaranteed revenue stream. “We can make, on average, as much money in one day with the Harbour Hopper as a motor coach makes in nine days.”

Off the bus
Ambassatours has recently embarked on a new chapter in its 32-year history with its sale of Absolute Charters to Coach Atlantic Transportation Group, announced in mid-September. Campbell describes the experience as bittersweet: “I feel like I’ve shipped my kids off to university, in selling that company. But it’s the right thing to do at the right time.” Bus tours, while ostensibly a flourishing branch of the tourist industry, are in fact among its least profitable offerings.

But Ambassatours is hardly washing its hands of its former subsidiary. The company previously had Coach Atlantic as a tenant in its state-of-the-art vehicle maintenance facility. Now the roles have switched, though Campbell says the two companies still work very closely together. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship,” he explains.

Campbell views this decision as both an ending and new beginning for Ambassatours: “By selling off our bus division, we’re actually going back to our core roots.” Ambassatours is now preparing to meet increased demand from Halifax’s growing status as a cruise-ship port of call. By selling off its bus division, the company is free to expand its harbour cruises and shore excursions to nearby McNabs Island.

Combining these tour options with the quality seafood provided by the Ambassatours-owned waterfront restaurant, Murphy’s on the Water, Ambassatours believes that it provides an authentic Atlantic Canada experience.

Covering Atlantic Canada
While it expands its major operation in Halifax, the company is remotely managing tours in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and Saint John, New Brunswick. And through these remote business operations, Ambassatours has also gained the necessary experience to begin expansion into Ontario.

The company is now involved in a joint venture to purchase Niagara Majestic Tours, the largest tour operator in area. Operating 64 vehicles on both the Canadian and American sides of Niagara Falls, Niagara Majestic Tours closed its deal with Ambassatours in July 2019 – unfortunately, however, a little too late for the company to consolidate operations by the end of the summer.

But Ambassatours has already gained vital information on how to operate in Canada’s largest tourist attraction. Campbell remarks that “It gives us good visibility on how we can have a great season next summer.” This winter, he explains, Ambassatours will merge its own Niagara Falls operations with this new venture. “We’ll be putting those two operations together, and we’ll become by far the largest sightseeing operator in Niagara Falls, both on the U.S. and the Canadian side.”

Yet, despite these new offerings, Campbell says Ambassatours is still subject to the fluctuating tourist market. China, the largest source of tourists today – and still growing – is playing a much greater role in Halifax’s tourism market. Campbell comments that Ambassatours experienced a downturn during recent political tensions between the Chinese and Canadian governments, but, he says, “not as heavy as I thought.”

Searching for sea captains
The company also had trouble finding and hiring qualified sea captains for its watercraft, having to lay vessels up in a dock for the first time last summer. Campbell attributes this to a changing labour market: “There are not enough young people [wanting] to make being a captain their career.”

In addition to this changing labour market, Campbell says Ambassatours (and the tourism industry as a whole) is being forced to market shorter, snappier tours. “People’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter,” he says, somewhat sadly, making the point that in 1987 a Halifax tour was two or three hours long.

Today, Ambassatours’ most popular offering is its one-hour tour, followed by the hop-on/hop-off bus tour. It speaks to customers’ increasing desire for personalization, Campbell says. “They don’t want to be told how they’re going to enjoy their vacation – they generally want to have that freedom and flexibility.”

Upping the game
But despite this changing consumer trend, Campbell is excited about new kinds of changes coming to Halifax. The city is enjoying a windfall of provincial and federal tax funding, intended to reinforce the city’s role as an Atlantic Canadian economic powerhouse.

The largest project by far is a $300 million expansion of the city’s port, which will remove much of the traffic from Halifax’s downtown area. Other investments include improvements to nearby McNabs and Georges Islands. Both of these islands, already popular with Halifax’s cruise ship tourists, will enjoy increased (and environmentally sustainable) numbers of visitors when the improvements are completed.

Halifax may soon be getting some competition as Atlantic Canada’s major cruise ship destination. Fisherman’s Cove, in nearby Eastern Passage and only a few kilometres across the water from Halifax (thereby also enjoying a natural deep harbour), is undergoing significant expansion. Plans are currently in place to build new docking facilities and a cruise-ship terminal.

Aesthetically, Fisherman’s Wharf exudes Atlantic charm similar to another major tourist destination, Peggy’s Cove. “Arriving by water in Fisherman’s Cove is like arriving in Peggy’s Cove,” Campbell notes. However, Fisherman’s Cove is much closer to Halifax – particularly by water.

In addition, Ambassatours is investigating faster vessels – such as a high-speed catamaran – which would cut travel times from Halifax to Fisherman’s Wharf from one hour to twenty minutes. The company is also planning to expand its Murphy’s on the Water restaurant, reflecting the changes around it: “It’s time for us to up our game,” Campbell says.

Rising tide
From small beginnings, Ambassatours has risen to become a regional powerhouse of a tour company and is embarking on a bold new chapter. As the company adapts to changing times, Campbell is confident tourism will evolve in step with Halifax’s progress.

Facing competitors who operate tours via sea kayaks, bicycles and even Segways – Campbell says that far from being threatened by this competition, he is simply pleased that these companies are enabling more people to discover the city. “They just make Halifax better.”

And then he re-affirms his final point that expansion for Halifax is good for all area businesses, including Ambassatours, with a suitably maritime metaphor: “The rising tide raises all boats.”