By Avery Mullen
When Dennis Campbell was a teenager, he bid for the chance to buy Halifax’s municipally-owned tour company, which was being auctioned off to the private sector. He lost that deal, but more than three decades later, the business he started instead has evolved into one of the largest tour operators in the region and a staple partner of the cruise ship industry.
Campbell is the CEO of Ambassatours Gray Line, which operates the distinctive Harbour Hopper amphibious buses that can be seen daily in downtown Halifax, as well as two ships. To mark the company’s 35th anniversary operating under the Gray Line name, this reporter took a sightseeing tour on one of the former Vietnam war troop carriers and then sat down with Campbell for a debrief.
“We look for people that are generally — not always, but mostly — extroverts,” says Campbell of how Ambassatours chooses its tour guides. “Because they tend to be gregarious, and have a good sense of humour, and roll with the punches.
“But we have some excellent, excellent tour guides that are introverts, and they do a wonderful job and have a different style. The key is, it’s critical that everyone be themselves.”
Programming from Ambassatours aims to strike a balance between fun, humorous content and more informative, serious-minded discussion, with the length of a given tour informing how guides tailor the presentations. Campbell’s management team often assigns guides to specific routes based on their unique styles.
“For example, you get a cruise ship passenger who wants a city tour or a tour of Peggy’s Cove, they want a nice, well-rounded tour that talks about the place, the people, the history, the government, the culture, the folklore,” Campbell says. “They really want to learn more.
“Whereas if you go on the Harbour Hopper, for example, we like to say it’s a fun-filled tour. The nature of the machine itself lends it very well to being laid back, relaxed and really fun and upbeat.”
At an hour long, the complementary Harbour Hopper tour provided to The Macdonald Notebook deftly integrated elements of both approaches. (For adult passengers, a tour ordinarily costs between $46 and $54 depending on the day and time, and for children it ranges from $16 to $19.20.)
The tour begins on the Halifax waterfront near historic Cable Wharf — home to the Ambassatours offices, a snack shop and the Cable Wharf restaurant, formerly called Murphy’s, which Ambassatours owned until last year when it was sold to RCR Hospitality.
From Lower Water Street, the Harbour Hopper pays a visit to the Citadel, a national historic site and former military fort that dates back to the city’s founding in 1749, with the current installation having been built between 1828 and 1856. The fort was a major strategic priority for the British, both because of its proximity to key trade routes and because Halifax is home to the world’s largest ice-free harbour.
Despite raids by the French, Acadians, and First Nations groups during Halifax’s early days, Ambassatours guide Kylie points out that control of the heavily-fortified city has never actually been contested in a major military conflict.
The Harbour Hopper continues on to Spring Garden Road, where shoppers can often be seen waving enthusiastically to the colourful truck, before moving on to the arguable centrepiece of the tour: Halifax Harbour itself.
Ambassatours puts its vehicles’ amphibious credentials to the test by quite literally driving them straight into the harbour, which produces an entertaining splash that proved popular with the tour’s younger participants. It then offers holidaymakers a water’s-eye view of many of the city’s most notable attractions.
Particular highlights include a rare view of the massive pipes used in the groundbreaking deep water cooling system that fuels the air conditioning in the towers at Purdy’s Wharf, along with the CSS Acadia, a research vessel that went on to become the last remaining ship to have been used by the Royal Canadian Navy in both world wars, as well as the last surviving ship to have born witness to the Halifax Explosion.
Campbell said tour guides’ presentations are informed by their personal strengths and skill sets, meaning different guides will offer slightly different experiences. But Kylie’s particular Harbour Hopper tour also uses the Acadia as a catalyst for a touching discussion of the history and effects of the Halifax Explosion, including the subsequent intervention of doctors and relief workers from Boston.
“It’s incredible when you meet people that come here….Literally, many of them say ‘As a child, my mother or my grandmother told me about Nova Scotia, or the Maritime Provinces, or Anne of Green Gables, or the Bay of Fundy‘,” says Campbell.
“Our responsibility is to give an outstanding tour and a tour that has people totally wowed.”
Campbell, in fact, has been running his own tour businesses since he was 17, initially by offering “step-on guide services” for motor coaches from out of town with advice from his tour-guide sister.
He founded his own company because the City of Halifax — this was before the creation of the regional municipality in 1996 — had been operating a similar guide service for buses from elsewhere in North America. When the city decided to sell the business and Campbell was unsuccessful in his attempts to purchase it, he responded by opening a competing outfit.
“I called up the Registry of Joint Stock Companies and said, ‘I’d like to buy the name City of Halifax Guide Service,’” Campbell recalls. “And they said, ‘No, that’s taken. It already belongs to the city.’
“‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Is Halifax City Guide Service available?’”
It was, and for just $20, no less. The winning bidder to purchase the real City of Halifax Guide Service had renamed it Nova Tours, effectively torching the original company’s reputational capital and leaving tour businesses seeking the apparent familiarity of Campbell’s brand.
By 1994, he had bought the territorial rights to the name of Gray Line — a tour bus operator headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and one of the largest sightseeing companies in the world. Gray Line’s international name recognition has fostered Campbell’s current, lucrative business offering tours to cruise line passengers.
And in 2014, Ambassatours Gray Line bought what was then called Murphy’s The Cable Wharf, along with the Harbour Hoppers, the tall ship ‘Silva’, and a paddle wheeler now used for dinner cruises.
By the time Covid struck in 2021, Ambassatours was bringing in $20 million in annual revenue. That figured dropped to the low six figures during the depths of the pandemic, but has since recovered.
Campbell sold the Cable Wharf restaurant to RCR last year because that company’s status as a restaurant industry incumbent makes it better equipped to transition Cable Wharf from a “tourist trap” to a local eatery, which he believes is crucial to its future viability. He also shuttered a satellite Ambassatours operation in Niagara Falls in an effort to streamline the business, as welling as selling his Halifax-based motor coaches to another operator under a deal that will see Campbell’s team continue to provide tour guides for the buses.
But despite shedding those business units, the company is on track to outpace last year’s already strong revenue figures and continues to employ more than 300 people as cruise ship season approaches.
“Last year, we were sort of saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be one of our best years in the history of the company,’” says Campbell. “And then (Hurricane) Fiona knocked out 53 cruise ship arrivals between Sydney and Charlottetown because both those ports were closed for two weeks.”
“But we’re delighted to be going into the fall in a good position, so if the hurricanes do get challenging, we’ll be able to weather the storm.”