Saint John is the living lab for international business
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Beth Hatt is the founder of Aquila.
Beth Kelly Hatt, founder of Aquila, has built a company that believes strongly in ensuring there is ‘happiness in the workplace’. Aquila is a Saint John company that specializes in creating and sustaining tourism excellence. Each year Aquila creates engaging experiences for almost 60,000 travelers cruising in Atlantic Canada.
Beth established Aquila in 1982 as a seasonal company offering city tours to visitors. Beth’s passion for the tourism industry and motivation to move her company from ‘good to great’ has accelerated the growth of the company over the last 35 years. Aquila is now an established leader setting standards for the industry.
Beth has also been recognized outside of the tourism industry. She has been named one of ’25 People to Watch in Atlantic Canada’ and one of the ‘Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada’.
I began by asking Beth how she got her start, offering tours of Saint John.
A: I moved to Saint John in 1981 and upon arriving went on a bus tour to get an idea of the city. The tour guide was showing us where his family was and where the Irving gas stations were – nothing about the history of the city. My friend and I knew we could do so much better.
Q: How did you get started?
A: We spent the winter in the archives at the library and talking to people in King’s Square that had lived in Saint John forever and we decided to start a tour company.
Q: Did you have an entrepreneurial background?
A: My father was an entrepreneur and I think I was born with that spirit. I always wanted to start my own business. Saint John is such a great pioneering city and was amazing at helping to incubate a new business.
Q: When did Aquila move from a seasonal business to year round?
A: In 1988 I decided I either had to do the business full-time or stop because the season was getting bigger and seniors clubs were calling saying,“We want to go to Quebec City,” or,“We want to go to Saint Andrews.” When one customer called and wanted to go to the UK, we decided,“Okay. This is it.”
Q: When did the cruise ship business begin?
A: The cruise ships started coming through in the early ‘90s and then Carnival came in in ‘94. That was our first big opportunity with cruise business.
Q: What caused Aquila to focus on the cruise sector?
A: In 2004 I had a student intern from UNBSJ who brought me the book“Good to Great”. I didn’t go to bed that night – I read the entire book. The research made so much sense. So, I bought eight copies and decided we were all going to go through this process of finding what we’re passionate about and finding what we can be the best in the world at.
Q: And where you can make money?
A: That was the other important one. We knew that we couldn’t be the best in the world at taking tours to Hawaii or New York because we can’t get the knowledge of that destination from here. And we were really passionate about the cruise ships coming in, about working with cruise.
We started to divest of the other areas of the business and really focus on cruise. The focus helped because it made us really good at what we did because we were focusing on that one thing.
Q: What impact did having a clear focus have on your business?
A: It really made a difference when our team was focused and pulling in the same direction. There’s nothing easy about it, that’s for sure. Around 2007 our guides were winning awards and we had a few calls from cruise executives saying,“We really like what you do in Saint John. Can you model what you do? There are other tour operators who need help.”
Q: What business opportunities did you start seeing?
A: We saw an opportunity to develop an online international certification program for tour guides. In 2007 we launched the Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence – our training arm. We created the program content and worked with Skillsoft out of Fredericton to create a virtual training program. We now have tour guides in 55 countries who aren’t our guides but are working for others and use our training because they don’t have access to universities.
Q: Is your tour guide training done exclusively online?
A: When countries have 50 or 100 guides, it doesn’t make sense to put them through online training. They’d rather we come in and spend a week to ten days and do it all onsite.
We also have a tour operator designation. We work with operators like ourselves. We developed 42 standards with the cruise lines and we offer this through coaching and mentoring on Skype.
Q: It sounds like you’re really open to working in collaboration with other businesses.
A: We are. Our whole business philosophy over the years has been to develop partnerships. When we were a tour operator doing tours or bringing tour groups into Atlantic Canada we developed the Atlantic Canada Alliance. We had 120 members. All of a sudden, instead of having $1,000 or $2,000 budget as tour operator, we had over $100,000 together – it was really successful.
Q: What’s your perspective on the mindset or philosophy to have successful collaboration?
A: The biggest thing is trust. You also need to be open to change.
Q: What is in Aquila’s future?
A: We will be working in Hamburg later this year. Being a tour guide in Europe is a profession. A guide is year-round, whereas it’s not always that way in other parts of the world. We’re entering that market in a big way.
Q: What’s your advice for an existing business owner who might be frustrated with their growth?
A: Don’t be afraid to take risks. Follow your dream and really focus on what it is you want to do. If you’re an older company, make sure you have a succession plan. That’s so important. Nothing worse than seeing a company close their doors.
Q: How would you finish this sentence? “A leader’s job is to . . .“
A: A leader’s job is to empower the team and watch them grow. I really believe I was born to be a mentor. I love watching people become the best they can be.
Q: Is being in Saint John still important to the success of your business?
A: In order to teach and coach others we need to have a living lab. We need to have a base. Saint John is our base. This is where we live, laugh and play.
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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, Sept 30, 2017.