Travel Alberta

Discover Banff Tours Stays Fresh by Taking Risks

Fresh Ideas and Expert Advice Ignite Business Growth

It started in the winter of 1999 with one leased bus, one cellphone, one guide and a conviction that visitors to Banff wanted to experience more of Canada’s first national park.

Intimate, personalized tours to local landmarks, historic places and wildlife viewpoints hit a chord with travellers – and filled a need in the marketplace.

Today, Discover Banff Tours has 25 vehicles, 55 staff and a state-of-the-art real-time booking engine. From humble beginnings, it now provides year-round sightseeing featuring every kind of activity out there – snowshoeing, dogsledding, icewalks, rafting, horseback riding, cliff climbs and heli tours, to mention a few.

“It was the right product,” says Daymon Miller, general manager of Discover Banff Tours (DBT). “There was a gap in the market that we noticed, so we filled it.”

Take a Risk

In the 1990s, Jonathan Welsh was a ski instructor in Banff, transplanted from the United Kingdom, driving shuttles and picking up whatever work he could find. It dawned on him that other than skiing, there were few opportunities in winter to explore Banff National Park.

He talked to a local whitewater rafting company into leasing him its 24-seat bus that sat parked in winter. He got his hands on a cellphone, which became his “reservations office.”

With one guide and the Banff & Its Wildlife Tour, the fledgling company Welsh founded embraced the philosophy of small, personalized tours and began filling a market niche.

“Jonathan established a culture of having fun and courageous risk-taking that continues to define the company today,” says Miller.

Power of Partnership

Even from the beginning, DBT relied on collaboration with others, Miller says. It was only through a partnership with the rafting company that they were able get access to their first bus.

Partnerships became increasingly essential as the company built out its offerings, re-selling a huge variety of authentic experiences and attractions as part of its tours.

But the team went further, looking for ways to bring its expertise in tour management, reservations and marketing to other tourism operators who had great attractions, but didn’t have time or resources for the front end of the business.

DBT now partners with the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary near Cochrane, Chinook Rafting, Banff Trail Riders – one of Canada’s largest horseback riding outfitters – and Mt. Norquay for its summer products like the Via Ferrata climbing experience and chairlift.

For seasonal businesses, DBT offers year-round reservations, customer service and marketing stability. “If we can provide front-end support, then they can focus their resources on their experiences, which ensures that they will thrive,” says Miller.

Secrets to Success

Miller believes the success of DBT can be attributed to many factors – great ideas, talented people, hard work and the courage to try new things while still aiming to have fun along the way.

“What’s really critical, though, is to always be keeping your eyes open for new opportunities and not get stuck doing the same old things and getting stale,” he says.

Another tip? Get as much advice as you can from the experts.

“You need to look for things that can help you; places where you can get free information and guidance, like Alberta’s Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) and Travel Alberta.”

Miller remembers going to his first Travel Alberta Industry Conference in Red Deer and how it opened his eyes to ways to improve business – even something as simple as how to design brochures so they’d get picked off the rack.

“Travel Alberta’s Cooperative Marketing Investment Program has also really helped us punch above our weight class in reaching new markets,” he says. “We’ve had tremendous advice from so many tourism experts in Alberta. The expertise and resources are there – you need to make sure you take advantage of them.”

This is the first of a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.

Travel Alberta