Walking tall

Here’s a startling statistic from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business: small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, including businesses with no employees, represent 97.8 per cent of the total business establishments in Canada. Not only that, but those same businesses (with less than 50 employees) employ 31.3 per cent of Canada’s total workforce. In this, our annual celebration of Atlantic Canada’s small business powerhouses, we bring you the stories of several typical small businesses that can be found throughout the region. In addition to their diminutive size, we found that they share an insatiable appetite for innovation and creativity as well as unstoppable ambition. They are nimble economic engines, quickly adapting to changing circumstances and hurdling challenges with enviable ease. They may be small in stature, but small businesses are huge in heart – and they keep this region hopping.

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Aquila is the name, adventure is their game

Sheer, unrelenting jubilance. For more than 30 years Beth Kelly Hatt has deployed it to marvelous effect at her Saint John-based Aquila Tours Inc. In an industry where word-of-mouth is a make-or-break proposition, her “philosophy of happiness” is both infectious and, frankly, good for business. At least, so say her clients, whose testimonials crowd her eight-person firm’s website.

“Prior to this tour, I already had high expectations of Aquila. I don’t know how you did it – but you did it,” raves Rose Poirier of the New Brunswick Museum. “You exceeded even my high expectations. Bravo to the whole team! Many, many thanks to you and your company for this extraordinary adventure.”

Then there’s Adam McEwan, shore excursion manager for the Carnival Victory, who said this about Aquila’s role as tour operator for one of the cruise ship’s shore excursion programs in Saint John: “We had some of the highest sales of any Carnival ship (1,861 tickets sold) without a single negative comment.”

But for all this evidence of external gratification, Hatt derives most pleasure from the simple fact of loving what she does. Since 1989, that has included providing cruise line clients with a range of onshore excursions – from “day trips to charming fishing villages on the Bay of Fundy to thrilling jet boat rides on the Reversing Falls rapids.” More recently, her interests have broadened.

“It was around 2005 when the cruise lines approached us to see if there was a way to take our model and best practices and spread them around the industry,” she explains. “For a lot of years, our tour guides were getting (known) as the best… in the world. In 2007, we launched the Aquila Centre for Cruise Excellence. Since then, we have developed an online tour guide program.”

The Centre is designed to help tour operators around the world “achieve excellence in their ports, tours, guides and businesses” with tailored “coaching and mentoring programs”. According to Hatt, “Our programs have been endorsed by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association… We have guides in over 20 countries who have received their certifications. It’s growing.”

For Hatt, of course, watching her business grow is part of the fun. And, as she might say, fun is its own reward in business and life.

By Alec Bruce

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