Few places in the world are as beautiful as New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy. With such a gorgeous coastline to boast about, it stands to reason that New Brunswick’s tourism industry would include top-notch companies offering world-class hospitality. Saint John’s Aquila Tours is one of those companies.

Aquila has become a world leader in its industry. Their Center for Cruise Excellence now exports New Brunswick’s tourism expertise around the globe.

Opportunities NB (ONB) wanted to learn more so we spoke with Beth Kelly Hatt, Aquila Partner and Director of the Center.

ONB: Can you give us some background on Aquila Tours and what it does?

Hatt: I founded Aquila 33 years ago now — when I was 12, I tell people. We started as a tour operator offering step-on service. We would step on to motor coaches from away and give them a city tour. Then we started doing both outbound and inbound tours. We brought people in from all over the world for some 20 years.

We also did some convention organizing. We did all the stuff you do when you work in tourism, really. When cruise got big in the ’90s, we decided to focus on that, so in 2000 we started divesting some of those other areas. We sold our convention program and the outbound/inbound offerings and focused on cruises.

Aquila was already seen by cruise lines as one of the best they dealt with in the world. Tours were good, and the Port itself was considered top-notch. Everything Cruise Saint John does is helpful like their Meet and Greet. We were constantly told we had the world’s best guides. We had cruise people saying “how can we model what you do and bring it around the world?” That was the seed for Aquila’s Center for Cruise Excellence, launched in 2007.

ONB: Let’s get more specific with the Center for Cruise Excellence, which is a unique export service coming out of the province. What does that program entail?

Hatt: It offers training programs, which vary depending on what the destination/tour operator requires. In 2010, we developed an online International Tour Guide Certification Program. Now we have guides in over 40 different countries. They do the program online, and it’s based on six core lessons one needs to focus on to be a great tour guide.

They write an exam (online) and provide us with a short video where they start a tour, give us a story to demonstrate storytelling skills, and end the tour. Things like how you present yourself are tough to measure online, so we ask for videos. When they successfully pass both assessments, they become an internationally certified guide.

That program became endorsed by all the cruise lines and by the FCCA (Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association). We have become, in recent years, the FCCA’s official training partner. Whenever they see companies in the Caribbean or Central America that need help, we get involved. We’ve worked with many tour guides to help them get better at the job and now offer many other training programs, including an ACE Tour Operator Designation. This program coaches Tour Operators through 42 standards and three pillars of service excellence.

The FCCA has a few members outside the Caribbean and that’s something we may focus on moving forward. The future likely involves translating our tour guide course into Mandarin. Right now English is what the cruise lines needed because the majority of passengers are English.

ONB: There must be opportunities to be found already where areas are heavily Spanish-speaking.

Hatt: Yes, this is why we traveled to Cartagena, Colombia last summer. We trained 100 tour guides there. Much of what they get there is in Spanish of course, but they need help with English. Their Tourism Authority gave us some great testimonials regarding how much our training has helped.

ONB: We’re curious how you get your message out since your targets are outside the country. What’s your marketing strategy like?

Hatt: The big thing is the FCCA; as their official trainer most of the marketing now goes through them. Any sales we do, whether it’s trade shows or their own events, we work with them. We do schedule one-on-one meetings with member countries and it’s been a tremendous partnership.

I was in El Salvador for a conference this spring and the President of the FCCA and the cruise lines would say to Ministers of Tourism “You need to go speak to Aquila, you need more training and they’re the ones doing it.” The exciting thing is now people are asking: “How do we get in? We need to do this right away and we’ve been told to talk to you.” It’s really shown us that the training is having positive results and that what we’re doing is working.

ONB: You said at the outset that you had good qualified people, and got rave reviews. Did that help give the company confidence to expand its offerings?

Hatt: Yes. It’s part of the reason we felt we could look for something more. We looked at what else we could do during the off-season to keep our great team year-round. That’s why we started concentrating on one thing—cruise— and stayed focused on doing it well. It keeps business rolling in all year round now.

ONB: It was recently announced that Port Saint John would receive provincial financing for its modernization project. Will that offer benefits for Aquila?

Hatt: It will. Though it’s over on the West Side of the port, the dredging they’ll be doing will absolutely help. Some of the ships that arrive, such as those from Royal Caribbean, are quite large. Sometimes they have to change their schedule and reduce time in port because of the tides, because if it’s an extreme low tide they can touch bottom. So they leave earlier sometimes, reducing time passengers have in port to enjoy all that we have to offer as a destination. This dredging should help with that, and success in other areas of the Port means more investments in the future of cruise.

ONB: What do you see as benefits of being in New Brunswick?

Hatt: We have some of the most beautiful geography all around us in New Brunswick. Within minutes we can be on the river or on a beach somewhere. We have all the infrastructure in place to work effectively from office or home if we want, because our high-speed internet is great; that sort of thing is good for business. It’s a less hectic way of life too. It’s not that the larger centres don’t have their appeal, but the short commutes and way of life here are just terrific.

ONB: What’s your best piece of advice for other businesses looking to get their message out and see some success in new export markets?

Hatt: To really look at their market and spot where the partnerships are. We’ve been huge on partnerships. There’s always people you can partner with to increase market share and help you get into places you thought you couldn’t. If you had told me ten years ago we’d be where we are today with presidents of cruise lines telling people to talk to us about training, I’d laugh.

You have to look at where you want to go and focus. Sometimes we tend to put bars in our way and are our own worst enemy and think “we can’t do that”? Well why not? What’s going to stop you?

Cover image via Flickr.