Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How local businesses are prepping for Victoria’s busiest tourist season ever

An estimated 850,000 travelers are expected to cruise into our town

Kate Hildebrandt
April 11, 2023
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How local businesses are prepping for Victoria’s busiest tourist season ever

An estimated 850,000 travelers are expected to cruise into our town

Kate Hildebrandt
Apr 11, 2023
One year ago, locals welcomed back the first cruise ship after the pandemic hiatus. James MacDonald / Capital Daily
One year ago, locals welcomed back the first cruise ship after the pandemic hiatus. James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How local businesses are prepping for Victoria’s busiest tourist season ever

An estimated 850,000 travelers are expected to cruise into our town

Kate Hildebrandt
April 11, 2023
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How local businesses are prepping for Victoria’s busiest tourist season ever
One year ago, locals welcomed back the first cruise ship after the pandemic hiatus. James MacDonald / Capital Daily

As the first cruise ship arrives in Victoria on April 11, 2023, at 9am, tourist season officially begins.

It arrives just after the province’s announcement that BC is “emerging” from the pandemic. Spring boosters will go out to some of the most vulnerable, while Victoria’s tourism industry will be receiving its own shot in the arm after years of revenues lowered by COVID: a historic high of 850,000 cruise visitors (up significantly from 715,000 in 2022 and 709,000 in 2019).

With 320 luxury cruise ships arriving within the next six months, local business owners are readying themselves for high traffic and plenty of spending.

“We estimate an injection of about $130 million solely from cruise ship business this year,” said Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. That would be the largest economic result in our cruise ship history to date, and includes not just passenger spending but also costs for services provided by local businesses these ships depend on while in dock

When asked if he felt the cruise ship industry has changed Victoria, Williams responded quickly. “It changed Victoria more when it wasn’t here,” he said, recalling a short-lived issue raised in 2021 and 2022 of Victoria being by-passed by US cruise ships. The US, which reopened cruise ports before Canada, suspended federal rules that usually require foreign ships to make foreign stops between US cities. 

The Chamber played a key role in overturning that decision with support from Donna Spalding, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association – North West & Canada, who described Victoria as a highly rated “marquee” port.

Robert Lewis-Manning, the new CEO with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, believes we’re just getting started when it comes to high ratings: “This authority is a pretty small non-profit yet plays a highly innovative role connecting this community with an ocean economy.” 

The cruise ship industry aims to become a 100% green operation and Ogden Point will be part of a green travel corridor: zero-emission maritime routes between two or more ports. It will be the first in the Pacific Northwest, and Lewis-Manning hopes it will become a recognized centre of excellence.

GVHA and several community partners are also mapping out a path toward reconciliation with local First Nations communities. 

“There is a shared vision among us of achieving economic benefit while upholding environmental protection and sustainment practices,” says Lewis-Manning. “This has become a very strong bond in our working relations with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations people of this region.”

Tourists disembark from the first ship to arrive in 2022. Photo James MacDonald

The just-announced shore power agreement is part of the plan, too. With $9 million from the province, GVHA will work with BC Hydro to plan and install infrastructure at Ogden Point that allows cruise ships to access clean hydroelectricity at the port, turn off their engines and reduce carbon emissions.

Green operations are important to tourists seeking "beyond great" travel experiences.

So says Jodi Westbury, VP of marketing and communications for Destination Greater Victoria. She and her team have been studying tourism research and planning since last summer, building campaigns to attract travelers here from Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

“Some interesting information came to light through research conducted during the pandemic,” Westbury explains. “Travel was identified by some study participants as a necessity.”

This desire leads to pent-up demand, she says, where people don’t just want to go somewhere. “They want GOAT travel, as in the Greatest Of All Time travel experience.”

Noting the high number of hotel bookings for this year alone, Westbury says, “We’re on track for a banner year, so now is the chance for Victoria businesses to recover their losses from the pandemic.”

We checked in with four local businesses that stand to benefit from ship visitors and asked them how they are gearing up for tourist season.

How do you prepare for tourist season?

Andrew Capeau, company owner, with two happy cruisers. Photo submitted

Victoria Pedicabs: Fine-tuning the equipment—and the experience 

Andrew Capeau bought this company in 2004 after working as an operator for two years. Now, two decades later—with two years in lockdown—he remains buoyant.

“It’s a huge passion. The bicycle is the happy place for me, and for my operators and our customers.”

He is very prepared for cruise ship season, having completed a fleet inspection and made all repairs. He has learned lessons from the past and now makes a point of having one too many of everything, “because downtime is evil.”

With a new shipment of extra, high- quality pedicab gear in hand from a highly-rated supplier in Denver, Colorado, he reflects on his promise for 2023: there will be no flat tires.

“The pandemic caused quite a hassle with accessing the right gear. Our tire tubes were breaking down and I had to continually patch the ones I had left.”

He converted his pedicabs to the electric-assist model, too, so anyone can enjoy the ride and the driver can operate in comfort.

While the equipment is a big factor, Capeau boasts that his team is what makes the service successful.

“We do a fabulous job of presenting our city in the best possible light,” says Capeau, anticipating the surge of tourists this summer. “Americans fall in love with us. Many go on cruises with dreams of visiting Alaska, not realizing that Victoria will be the highlight of their trip.” 

His team includes greeters and sales folk running booths at the Ogden Point terminals A and B, a mechanic and 30 operators who double as “the best tour guides in town.”

“Our team has included doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. The average age is 40+ and most are parents. It’s a job that can satisfy on many levels—meeting people, getting exercise, being outdoors, showing off your hometown while you make a decent living cycling.” The pay averages around $30 per hour and he says employee retention stays at about 95%.

Capeau earns enough in the six months of cruise ship season to rest from November to March. “We work hard. It’s intensive, go-go-go. But then we get a nice long break.”

Key selling points: pedicab operators can park where others cannot, are among the ‘greenest’ ways to get around and average a 10km/h pace—“Perfect for sightseeing.”

Staff here work hard so you always find something memorable on these shelves. Photo: J. Brew / Flickr

Munro’s Books: Government Street mainstay celebrates 60 years amid recent challenges

Manager Jessica Paul understands her customers. 

“We see a huge influx of people during the summer tourist season.” From cruise ship passengers to extended weekend visitors, they come from all corners, near and far.

Paul admits being fully conscious of the store’s status as a destination and ranked as one the best book stores in the world; of buyers being drawn to the great range of books and periodicals and loving the heritage building and collection of fine art; and of how privileged they feel to be so treasured. 

The fact that Alice Munro, co-owner who founded the store with her husband Jim, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013—the first Canadian woman to do so—certainly helps distinguish their brand.

That people returned to reading in a big way during the pandemic was another blessing. “People of all ages came to us in search of real, physical books as a form of respite from looking at screens all day.”

The selection of books also speaks to the shared love staff and customers alike have for the finest writing in print. 

“We really try to provide that memorable reading experience, to curate what we are buying and factor in our customers’ preferences.” As a general bookstore, theirs is a 50/50 mix of fiction and non-fiction with the added luxury of perhaps the best-stocked magazine racks in town.

They also have two peak seasons: August when tourists and regular visitations reach their height, and December when Christmas shoppers come searching to gift that best seller. 

It’s not all roses, sorry to say. Shipping issues still come up. Staffing shortages create the occasional wrinkle. Getting to the Island and getting home can be fraught with travel delays.

“Consistency is not what it was,” says Paul, and yet, Munro’s’ Books carries on as it has done since 1963, staying open for business every day of the week. 

Heading back to Ogden Point via Government Street. Photo submitted

Tally-Ho Tours: The popular carriage rides are built on extensive training

Donna Friedlander, owner of this 120-year-old family business and farm, is busy training staff and horses “physically and mentally”, refurbishing carriages and gear and investing in exclusive horse harnesses customized to fit each of her 23 draft horses. 

“We specifically buy from the Amish in Pennsylvania because they have ergonomic designs,” she says. They also offer customized adjustments to enhance the horses’ comfort. “They’re in that harness eight hours a day, so fit is important.” 

With how hard horses work, she feels a $5,000 harness is worth every penny.

She’s also busy painting six carriages and reupholstering the cushioned seating so the humans are comfortable, too.

Among 30 new hires, carriage drivers are tested on their horse experience and understanding. Horse sense is a real thing. Being well-versed on city bylaws re: horses and traffic is another must-have. “About 90% of drivers pass at a respectful speed and distance.”

The horses don’t notice the traffic and are not bothered by it, she says. “That’s part of their training. We work from February to May getting each horse prepared, raising their fitness level up.” 

Her veterinarian maintains each horse’s Body Score Condition, a preventative care method. “We track their weight, nutritional needs, foot care, teeth, the works.”

“These horses have had different experiences and varying levels of care before they come to Tally Ho,” says Friedlander, who ismember of Vancouver Island’s extensive horse community. “We track every animal’s story.”

As for bringing new horses onto the team, Friedlander says selection is determined by how each horse responds during the training process. “It’s like managing a football team. Some are super stars. Some get benched.” 

Temperament and energy levels are carefully studied with an emphasis on safety. “If a horse isn’t happy doing this work, they won’t do it,” Friedlander says—but she says this is rare and the horses are usually enthusiastic to work. “They wait for me at the gate,” she laughs. “Even the retired horses. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘I’ll go! Pick me!’”

Her team is currently training three draft horses to pull the Victoria Fire Department’s 1899 steam pumper through the Victoria Day Parade in May. “We run a three-abreast set-up that maximizes the power of each horse,” she says. This kind of hitch is required for the horses to pull the 10,000 lb (4.5 tonne) steamer for the length of the parade.

Horse and rural history, teaching fair and respectful treatment of horses matters to Friedlander and her team, so they added education to their menu. The Grassroots Tour is an hour-long, hands-on session with staff and horses at the James Bay stand. Here, you can learn about humans’ 6,000 years-long relationship with these animals and why it has lasted so long.

Owners of Whistle Buoy Brewing: (l to r) Iwan Williams, Colin Curtis, Matt West-Patrick, Nina Colovic, Isaiah Archer. Photo: Johan Vincent.

Whistle Buoy Brewing: Starting small and staying ready 

The folks at Whistle Buoy Brewing feel a certain buzz, a kind of pre-party anticipation. It’s not because they’re the brewer closest to the dock. It’s because they have achieved a state of readiness.

“Impending masses coming our way!” laughs general manager Colin Curtis.

The Whistle Buoy crew started their business in 2019. “We were opening our doors just as everyone else was closing theirs,” Curtis recalls.

Familiar serving the public with 10+ years in hospitality, Curtis kept faith in his teammates; all owners are under 40 and happy to stay small and lean.

That’s why Whistle Buoy is not a brewpub, a kegging group, or a restaurant. They established themselves as a casual taproom provider of fresh, local beer endorsed under a lounge licence that allows for cold storage.

More nano than micro, their brew is successful in sales and return traffic, rated among The Best Breweries Near You craft beer listing for Victoria, BC.

“You won’t see our product in the big liquor stores. We don’t want to be a production-level brewery,” says Curtis, referring to the ‘pivot’ strategy that got them through lockdown. “We have purposely tightened our grip on what we do best.”

Which means they fill their cans by hand. They deliver via one company vehicle. And they obsess over the quality of their beer.

Matt West-Patrick, head brewmaster, has a hand in all this. He studied in Germany, previously worked for Spinnaker’s Brew Pub and fits nicely into this party of five who explore locally-grown herbs and grains. They routinely ask West-Patrick, “Can we find a way to put that in our beer?”

Their 100-seat patio and 70 seats inside provide sufficient capacity with an informal vibe where “no one patron is more important than the other.”

“You have to line up for your beer.” There are no waiters and no hosts, says Curtis, firm on this modest approach. “Each batch we brew is only 800 litres. That’s nano-level compared to other craft brewers who typically brew 10 times that much.”  

Curtis explains to be agile is to be responsive, a spin on the company name that came to them on a fishing trip. Fogged in on a reef near Bamfield, they relied on a beacon to stay oriented. That beacon was a whistle-buoy, whistling when the wind blew, serving as a safety device.

They remain grateful for that beacon and to all others who stood by them during the pandemic lockdown. “Many became regulars. Some ordered deliveries. Tourists sought us out. It was a really special thing to experience our patrons keeping us afloat.”   

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Kate Hildebrandt

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