A Tourism Transformation Story: Ottawa Tiki Tours

Photo credit: Ottawa Tourism

By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board Member

We are now well past the one-year mark since COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic. The data, the projections, and the road ahead seem almost insurmountable as we fight towards our next normal. But of course, there is hope. Through the devastation and grief, we have continued to look within ourselves and our support systems for strength and courage. The word resilience has come to define Canadian tourism during the first year of the pandemic. Our industry, our businesses, and our people have embodied author Adam Grant’s definition of resilience: “the strength and speed of our response to adversity”. We have demonstrated immense strength and we have been forced to embrace speed as we responded to the many waves of adversity.

So where do we go from here? What lies beyond resilience? I believe it’s time to focus on reinvention. Reinvention is not scrapping everything and starting again. Nor is it throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Reinvention is about reiterating our original idea—our invention—to create a more powerful and relevant version of ourselves and our businesses. If we want to reinvent tourism, it begins not as top-down policy from government or business strategy implementation. Although those are vital to our recovery, reinvention begins with individuals—tourism professionals embracing the moment and creating new things that centre around our core tourism ethos. And we don’t have to look far to see it happening already.

Along my local travels, I bumped into two people who have embraced that very philosophy. Gaby Saucedo and Mike Karpishka are co-owners of Ottawa Tiki Tours. They kindly shared their inspirational story of transformation with me, and I share it here with you as an example of the potential to reinvent.

Gaby is an insurance broker. Mike has been a children’s entertainer for 30 years. He was instrumental in Mad Science’s early developments and was part of that family for 15 years before establishing his own entertainment company. When the pair met, they quickly discovered their shared interest for the tourism and hospitality industry—an industry neither had experience working in. As it turns out, they didn’t need that experience to enter the industry because they came equipped with something even more potent: an idea and the willingness to embrace change. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and through their passion and interest in the industry, reinvented their careers and joined the Canadian tourism family.

Scheduled to set sail in May of 2021, Ottawa Tiki Tours provides a new way to experience the nation’s capital. Hawaiian tiki hut-style boats are rented for 90-minute tours that take guests up and down the Ottawa River and can be rented for a variety of different events and social gatherings. They meet Transport Canada’s guidelines, are equipped with all coast guard requirements, are licensed, and even have toilets aboard! With a limit of 12 people per ride, it is also an ideal tourism experience for the current and post-COVID world.

How did two people with no experience in the tourism industry embark on such a business journey? They opened their minds to new ideas and did not accept limitations as roadblocks. About two-and-a-half years ago, the concept of tiki boats in Lake George, New York, was first brought to the attention of the co-owners. They immediately saw it as a tourism opportunity for Ottawa and promptly left the careers they knew for the chance to explore the unknown. The pair checked out the operations and discovered it was a franchise based in Florida. They found someone closer, in Connecticut, selling boats and put in an offer to purchase their first micro-fleet. They now had the idea, the business plan, and the resources.

By fall of 2019, they were ready to launch their business when they found out that the way the boats were constructed was not authorised for Canadian waters. Despite some challenges, they spoke to Transport Canada, who suggested they build their own boats, and that’s exactly what they did. All of their boats are now manufactured in Canada, within the Ottawa region. Once again, they were ready to launch when another disruption occurred: COVID-19. Ever optimistic and hopeful, the co-owners pushed through with their idea, and their perseverance and resilience worked in their favour. They were getting noticed, and even more encouraging was that they were getting bookings. Partnership requests poured in from all over Canada, the U.S., Australia, and the Bahamas. The pair anticipate that by summer 2022, they will have 40 boats in the water across Ontario alone.

What is the bigger tourism picture here? They believe people will drive in for the experience and simultaneously take in Ottawa’s vibrant tourism scene while there. And as they expand, the same philosophy of community tourism applies for any region they occupy.

“We’re a ‘bring-your-own food’ experience, so we want the restaurants to really use that as an opportunity,” states co-owner Mike Karpishka. “If we put our third boat in the water, we are going to use it for re-bookings and to help local tourism or at least the restaurants by saying the only way to get a ticket to the hottest event in town is to buy a $50 meal from one of the local restaurants. Then you will be given a code to buy the tiki tour tickets. We want to deflect some of the attention that’s being put on us and really support every tourism business in the region, because everybody is suffering and we want to help as many small businesses as possible.”

Their excitement for collective transformation and success is undeniable, and their faith and encouragement to prosper in this hard-hit industry is inspiring.

Their business prospects don’t stop at what they themselves own. They are also interested in helping others that want to be a part of their business. Part of that expansion includes selling boats to current operators. They will license one of them for 10 years for their specific existing territory and create a lease agreement as to where the vessel can be operated.

Their advice on how others can reinvent and succeed in this era of disruption? “Even if COVID goes away, the scar of COVID will linger for many years. People are going to stay in their micro-communities. As much as possible, people should try to learn how to pivot, focus, and develop that nimble mentality and think differently. Talk to people, lean on other people’s experiences, utilize social media, connect,” offers Karpishka. Co-owner Gaby Saucedo adds, “Think about your idea of the business and take away COVID. Does it still work? If it does, move it forward. It’s not easy, it’s not impossible, and you have to not give up. Keep trying.”

Accepting change is not an admission of failure. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a statement about embracing transformation and growth. A willingness to be vulnerable. And acknowledging change is necessary to realize that. So, as we move through this pandemic trying to rebuild and refocus, let’s not retreat. Let’s move forward head on. Let’s reinvent our industry, which starts through reinventing ourselves. And let’s not be afraid to rock the tiki boat along the way.


Joe Baker is President and CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a leadership consultancy focused on strengthening organizations and people at the core of a future-forward hospitality and tourism industry. Joe is a board member of Tourism HR Canada and presently working with the team at OTEC as a Strategic Advisor on the Tourism and Hospitality Emergency Recovery initiative. You can find Joe everywhere @thejoebaker.