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The big business of showing off a city

Two of Halifax’s largest tourism businesses are joining forces and counting on a growing tourism industry

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Harbour-hopper-feature

Ten years ago, Ambassatours Gray Line put an amphibious craft named Seymour Splash into Halifax Harbour to compete with the Harbour Hopper, run by Murphy’s on the Water.

It quickly failed. Murphy’s bought Seymour and repainted it as a fourth Harbour Hopper. “It’s a great business when you have the right recipe, and it’s not a great business when you don’t have the right recipe,” says Dennis Campbell, CEO of Ambassatours. “And we didn’t have the right recipe.”

But in August, Campbell bought back Seymour—and the rest of Murphy’s—in a deal that doubles the size of Ambassatours Gray Line to almost 500 staff and makes it, according to the company, the largest sightseeing tour company in Canada. The extensive Murphy’s portfolio includes the restaurant and gift shop at the Cable Wharf, plus 11 vessels including the Peggy’s Cove Express, sailing ships Mar and Silva, and Theodore Too.

Jeff Farwell co-owned Murphy’s and has become president of the supersized company. “[Jeff] and I together leveraged up to buy the company together. It’s more of a merger than an acquisition,” Campbell says. “It really is a terrific company.”

Farwell agrees. “We are very excited to bring these two companies together,” he says. “Dennis and I, as industry leaders, are both optimistic and energized about the continued growth and vitality of tourism in the region. We look forward to keeping Atlantic Canada in the tourism spotlight as we continue to innovate and grow our business together.”

Haligonians and tourists won’t see many short-term changes, but big things are coming. First, the Murphy’s products will plug into Ambassatours’s worldwide Gray Line connections. Campbell points out that today, you can’t book Murphy’s tours on Expedia, Travelocity, Orbits “or 400 other online travel agents” Ambassatours connects with. “We find visitors can be fairly fickle in their buying habits,” Campbell says. “Sometimes if they don’t plan something in advance, they may miss out on a great opportunity to get out on the water and experience Halifax at its finest.”

The merged companies offer plenty of chances for streamlining operations. Murphy’s has a garage for the Harbour Hoppers, and Ambassatours has two garages for its double-decker buses and motor coaches. Those will merge into one big garage. “We don’t anticipate any job losses through it,” Campbell says. “We do absolutely see efficiencies and synergies to be had, but it’s not on the labour side.”

Dennis Campbell. Photo: Tammy Fancy

Dennis Campbell. Photo: Tammy Fancy

The Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS), which the new company is a member of, says the merger is good news for the entire sector. “The merging of two great companies involved in the tourism industry speaks to the confidence that exists in the sector and the potential for growth,” says chairman Glenn Squires. “TIANS is confident this merger between Murphy’s and Ambassatours will mean great things for the province as we strive to attract new visitation from international markets.”

Squires points to the Ivany Report’s call to double the tourism sector in Nova Scotia and lift its economic contribution to $4 billion annually within the next decade. “This newly merged company will be a significant part of Nova Scotia’s future success,” says Squires.

The Murphy family, who couldn’t be reached for comment, recently sold off its shares of the company Gerard Murphy founded in 1984 when he and wife Dorothy bought Mar and began offering harbour tours. About 15 years ago, the couple’s daughter Christine and her brothers took over the company. Jeff Farwell bought in around the same time.

“They’ve done an incredible job to create something from nothing,” Campbell says of the Murphy family. “In a few years from now [I hope] they’ll look back and say, ‘We sold it to the right people.’ I hope they’ll be proud of what we do carrying on the Murphy name.”

It finds a kindred spirit in the Ambassatours story. Campbell likes to say his company started when he was seven and joined his sister at her job giving bus tours. At the end, “little old ladies” stuffed money into his hands and he realized there was plenty more where that came from.

He later started a business of step-on tours, where his guides boarded tourist buses to give tours. He accidentally hired a prostitute around that time, due to his misunderstanding of the term “escort.” The mistake came to light when she turned her modest company kilt into a provocative mini-kilt. Small stumbles aside, he and his team slowly built Ambassatours into the dominant Atlantic Canada tour bus company.

In 2006, Campbell openly talked about leaving Ambassatours by 2011. Instead, his business partners talked him into staying and in 2013, he bought 65 per cent of the company.

Campbell, 45, tends to speak well of most people, but he can’t hide his frustration about dealings with Mayor Peter Kelly’s council. “My experience so far with Mike Savage? I can’t say enough good,” he says of the current mayor.

For example, Campbell and others are considering bringing back a version of FRED, the Free Rides Everywhere Downtown bus, but this one would loop from the Seaport Farmers’ Market to the Casino. He called the mayor’s office and Savage invited him to sit down a few days later.

He says Savage told him he supports the idea and will try to win Council over. “That just wouldn’t have been the same previously,” Campbell says. “I’m very pro-Mike Savage.”

Campbell plans to keep the branding as it is, but Ambassatours will expand the Murphy’s offerings. Over the next few years, Harbour Hoppers will splash into the water at Sydney and Saint John, New Brunswick.

Theodore Too (a life-sized replica of TV’s Theodore Tugboat) will soon get new friends. Ambassatours runs a Thomas the Tank Engine festival in Saint John and plan to bring it to Halifax. Campbell holds an even bigger vision: he wants families to step off a cruise ship in Halifax Harbour, ride Bulgy the Bus to the Via train station and catch a 25-minute ride on Thomas. Bulgy will bring them down the waterfront for a 30-minute harbour tour on Theodore. “When we can pull that off, that will draw a lot more families because it’s a trifecta of fun,” he says.

You might also soon see a pink Harbour Hopper to match the pink double-decker bus Ambassatours operates to raise awareness about breast cancer. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be Seymour Splash.

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