Ottawa entrepreneurs carve out tourism niche by offering unique experiences

alpaca
Ever wanted to hang out with a pack of alpacas in Ottawa? You can.

When Paul Proulx retired from his federal government job a few years ago, he decided to turn one of his favourite hobbies ​– showing visitors around the city he loves ​– into a way of making a little extra money.

“I always had friends that came and I organized tours,” says the resident of Vanier. “They always said, ‘Wow. I never saw the city like this.’ I don’t bring people to the standard tourist places. If tourists want to go to Parliament, well, they’ll go to Parliament. I don’t have to bring them there. I like to bring them to places they would never know about.”

Proulx runs about 75 excursions a year through his venture, Tours Expedition Ottawa, taking visitors on day-long canoeing, walking and cycling trips in warmer weather and cross-country ski adventures in the winter. 

He doesn’t do any advertising, relying on travel website TripAdvisor and Google to drive customer traffic to him. Proulx says he likes to keep his groups small – no more than four people per trip – and tries to tailor the excursions to clients’ individual interests.

“Once I meet them, we talk a bit and we decide how we’re going to proceed,” he says. 

Proulx steers clear of touristy spots like the ByWard Market, instead focusing on “little gems” such as the Manx pub, Art Is In and Union Local 613. Rather than soaking in the autumn colours at Gatineau Park, he prefers to take visitors to the nearby Foret-la-Blanche Ecological Reserve, which he argues is equally spectacular – and far less likely to draw gawking hordes of fall foliage fans.

“I meet people from everywhere,” Proulx says, noting his customers tend to be in the 20-to-35 age range and are more likely to come from Asia, Australia and Europe than Canada or the U.S. “I’ve made lifetime friends.”

An avid traveller himself, he says his clients are constantly “amazed” by Ottawa’s culinary diversity, not to mention the capital’s proximity to lakes, hills and plenty of trees.

“They always say to me, ‘Damn, we should have stayed another two days.’ Because they’re told there’s not much to do in Ottawa. It’s too bad we have that stigma and it sticks to us. And it’s up to us to change it.”

Proulx is one of dozens of local entrepreneurs operating what he calls “micro-tourism” ventures that visitors discover through TripAdvisor and other platforms such as Airbnb Experiences and Ottawa’s own Wandure, an app launched last year to help travellers find and book customized individual or small-group tours.

Wandure co-founder Ismail Benmbarek says the customized travel space is “blowing up right now,” thanks to millennials and Gen Zers who are thirsting for travel experiences that go where your typical bus tour doesn’t. His company now has seven employees and is a member of MakerLaunch, a new startup accelerator based at the University of Ottawa.

He says many of the travellers who use the app simply love the thrill of taking part in cool activities and posting it on social media for all the world to see.

“It’s essentially people showing off – people trying to show that they’re doing the most unique thing out there,” says Benmbarek, who estimates his app now has links to about 500 such travel experiences around the world, including more than 30 in the Ottawa region. “Those are the people that we’re targeting.”

Among the local entrepreneurs using Wandure to promote their ventures is Richmond teenager Ben Rabb, who charges curious customers $35 each to mingle with the dozens of alpacas and llamas he helps raise on his grandfather’s 60-acre farm.

Rabb, 17, has been leading small groups on walks along the Jock River with the exotic animals for several years.

“It pays the feed bill and the hay in the winter,” says the recent graduate of South Carleton High School, who plans to make carpentry his full-time occupation but doesn’t sound like he’s planning to give up his side project any time soon.

“I’ll probably do it for the rest of my life, I imagine.”

Cycling tours with a twist

Wes Scheer-Hennings, the owner of Steel Pigeon Bike Experiences, launched his website on Canada Day last year. He says he was inspired by a bike tour he took in Barcelona three years ago that gave him a chance to sample local drink specialities such as sangria. 

Scheer-Hennings, a high school English teacher, runs tours during the summer and on weekends during the school year. He and his business partner, local artist Tricia Enns, show groups of about half a dozen riders “the classic parts of Ottawa,” such as Parliament Hill, the Chateau Laurier and the Canadian War Museum.

But the avid cyclist also enjoys putting his own twist on things. 

cycling
Wes Scheer-Hennings, owner of Steel Pigeon Bike Experiences. Photo by Mark Holleron

He’ll serve up “maple mojitos” infused with local maple syrup and mint grown in his backyard in Hintonburg. The itinerary might include stops at legendary Little Italy sandwich shop DiRienzo’s or watering holes such as Irene’s, depending on the time of day. 

He’ll incorporate a bit of local trivia into the tour, enthralling visitors with tales about the exploits of Ottawa’s notorious bank-robbing “Stopwatch Gang,” for example, and likes to show visitors examples of local graffiti and the work of other artists he admires such as painter and sculptor Christopher Griffin.

Scheer-Hennings, who hosted 18 tours last summer, says he hopes to nearly double that total this July and August. He promotes his venture on Airbnb Experiences, which takes a cut of his revenues, and says the number of clients funnelled to him through the site is constantly rising.

“People are looking for unique experiences, and they’re looking for something that’s boutique like what we’re offering,” he explains, adding 90 per cent of his customers are from out of town and have come from every continent except Africa. “I think it’s going to become a platform that’s able to diversify even more.”

University of Ottawa student Mohammed Al-Ameen recently started offering walking tours through Airbnb Experiences. Within a couple of days, he had booked six people for his first excursion – a group that included a visitor from Mexico, two travellers from Nigeria and a pair of Malaysians.

Born and raised in Yemen, Al-Ameen moved to Ottawa about five years ago. The third-year electrical engineering major actually developed an app similar to Wandure in his spare time but decided not to pursue it after discovering Airbnb Experiences already existed. 

Instead, he decided to use Airbnb’s platform to earn a little extra cash. He typically shows visitors around the ByWard Market, which is close to his Lowertown residence, and sometimes ventures farther afield to other attractions clients want to see, such as Rideau Hall.

“I try to cater to my customers, basically,” he says. “Even though I’m in engineering and we deal a lot with technical things, I really love the dealing-with-people aspect. It’s an awesome side gig.”

Proulx agrees, noting he’s actually getting paid to show off his beloved Ottawa to interesting people from all over the world. What could be better than that?

“I’m not doing this for money,” says the soon-to-be-60-year-old. “Your hobby should always be a passion. If you lose that passion, then it’s time to move on. I was thinking of selling it, but I don’t think so. It’s fun.”