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May 4, 2020

Joe O'Brien is a gifted entrepreneur.  His tourism operation, O'Brien Boat Tours, includes three boats, two restaurants, gift shops, and shuttle buses.  His base is St John's Newfoundland, and he captains his guests to the edge of the world where they get so close to a whale that they can smell its breath. Giant icebergs, a wild bird sanctuary, mixed in with the songs and spirit of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Joe shares his story of growing up in a fishing village and having to reinvent when the Cod disappeared. Joe's philosophy on how to create experiences for his guests and employees that last a lifetime is a masterclass for the service economy.
This economic storm could capsize his business.  Joe needs our help. We ask Ujwal Arkalgud, a cultural anthropologist, Alex Blum a talented tourism marketer, and Kellie Sauriol from RBC, who considers small business operators as heroes for their advice.
They not only lift his spirit; they will lift his boats back into the water. Great insights for anyone building a career or brand in the tourism, hospitality, retail, and services space.
Small Business Matters series, presented by RBC.

Pivoting from Cod fishing to Whale watching (01:16)
Joe O'Brien grows up in a fishing village 30 minutes from St John's Newfoundland, it is the only business his family knows, but in the 1980s, overfishing has ruined their livelihood. Joe considers a significant pivot when he looks at eco-tourism. But few are convinced. Thankfully Joe ignores the sceptic's and starts a boat tour business. He wants to take tourists to 'the edge of the universe, where whales, puffins, and icebergs.

Joe learns the secret of the worlds great tourism operators (05:38)
Joe realizes that he isn't in the tour boat business, he is in the business of creating memories that last a lifetime. To do so, he must master the local geography, weave in the unique culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, win over local businesses, and then hire and train employees that can do more than punch tickets; they must make every trip feel like the first and best.

Joe builds a 5-star tour operator, wins countless awards, and puts smiles on the faces of thousands of customers while changing the work ethic of hundreds of employees. Joe now has three vessels, two gift shops, and restaurants, and shuttle buses. Instagram and Facebook are the perfect channels for guests to share coming so close to a whale, that they can smell its breath.

Joe’s boats are landlocked and his business might go underwater (10:18)
Joe can have one of the most highly rated eco-tourism businesses in Canada, but COVID-19 and human isolation capsize his dream. Joe draws deep into his past when he pivoted from fishing to touring but is resilience enough? Joe knows he is not alone and always optimistic, he believes that we can work together and to start "…pulling on the rope together to make it go in the right direction."

But he needs help - so we find him that help.

The experts lift Joe’s spirit (13:32)
Ujwal Arkalgud, CEO of Motivbase is a brilliant cultural anthropologist who surprises Joe O'Brien with his thorough understanding of consumer behaviour, and why he knows Joe is well-positioned for the future if he can ride out the storm.

Alexandra Blum, Founder of Silver Lining Marketing, one of Canada's top brand strategists and marketers in the tourism sector, gives Joe a playbook for engineering a post-COVID-19 comeback.

Kellie Sauriol, from RBC, adds icing to Joe O'Brien's cake by stating that small business owners are her hero's and that his history stands tall.

Tony wants to bottle Joe’s resilience for all of Canada to consume (23:50)
Some make things happen, while others watch and wonder what happens. Joe, you are and have always been someone to make things happen. Your resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, generosity, and constant pursuit to serve, and to create extraordinary experiences is something I wish we could bottle, and every Canadian could drink.

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Kellie Sauriol -

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