Jonathan Welsh, CEO of Discover Banff Tours
Jonathan Welsh, CEO of Discover Banff Tours

Discover Banff Tours (DBT) began with a great idea and humble beginnings. Jonathan Welsh, the owner and ex-ski instructor, noticed there was a niche to provide winter sightseeing tours and activities in Banff National Park.  After working for many different activity companies, including a taxi service in Lake Louise, Jonathan realized that there was a much bigger opportunity to show international ski holiday makers the sights of Banff National Park.

Starting with three small things:  one daily scheduled tour (Discover Banff & its Wildlife) in the winter, a mobile reservations department (literally, it was a cell phone), one leased bus and a couple of enthusiastic local guides (one became Jonathan’s wife!) DBT quickly built its brand of small personalized tours. By embracing “small personalized tours” as the company philosophy DBT has grown tremendously to become the premiere activity provider for the Banff area.  Today Discover Banff Tours provides tours year round and has 6 different departing tours every day.  The reservations department is now a walk in center that books their own tours in addition to all other popular activities in the Bow Valley.  Finally, they have a head office and industrial bay, a fleet of modern blue buses, and a large staff of local guides.

Discover Banff Tours provides small sightseeing tours and activities in both summer and winter for individuals and groups.
Discover Banff Tours provides small sightseeing tours and activities in both summer and winter for individuals and groups.

How do the experiences you offer at Discover Banff Tours give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region?

Telling stories that engage and inspire people about the landscape, the people, the natural and cultural heritage of what makes Banff and western Canada special is what our experiences are all about. We want our guests to walk away feeling that much more connected to where they are visiting. From the First Nations connections, to the railway history, to the development of the first National Park in Canada, to the mountaineering history to the wildlife and their movements there really are countless stories to tell. And we love telling them!

How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?

We leased a rafting bus and started with one tour “Discover Banff and It’s Wildlife” to connect guests in the winter months who were coming on ski holidays to learn about the area they were visiting. We were inspired by the level of enthusiasm and general interest of our customers who joined our tours and asked us questions about where we lived and why we were passionate about this special place. Our tours grew in popularity and in variety because of this positive energy. We fine tuned out tours adding in more stops, gaining more stories and ensuring that we complimented our experiences with interpretive pictures, songs, and props to connect people even more to our destination.

What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?

To engage our audience and to make each tour unique we have themes with respect to our story telling that help create a well thought our tour. This is beyond picking out great locations to visit and actives to do in those locations. If you join our Discover Lake Louise and Moraine Lake tour in the summer for example, most of our stories are connected to the mountaineering history of the area. Guests learn who were the first to climb the peaks, the victories and defeats, the challenges and efforts made in creating the trail network, the development of parks rescue and the adventures that are happening today. Embracing the theme of “ Where the clouds can go” helps our guests see more than just the beauty of the mountains around them and helps them feel apart of that rich history.

What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?

That our motto is “to create small personalized experiences” and that our guiding team wants to live up to it each and everyday. To do that we actively encourage our guests to ask questions, to share their stories and knowledge and to be involved. We want their tour to be just that…their personalized experience in the Canadian Rockies.

What is one travel trend that really excites you?

All business operators working in the travel industry need to be accountable. The popularity of use of Trip Advisor and other customer review forums has really changed the game in the past ten years on being the best that you can be. And not settling as a business with being ‘ok’. The positive and negative experiences that are expressed on these travel sites gives you concrete approval of your business and at times the awareness and need to keep improving. I think this has made the travel industry as a whole better and so it is has helped make it very exciting .

Horseback riding in Banff ranges from hourly horse trail rides with either mountain or river highlights, to full day Explorer trail rides, for those wanting to experience a little bit of backcountry by horseback.
Horseback riding in Banff ranges from hourly horse trail rides with either mountain or river highlights, to full day Explorer trail rides, for those wanting to experience a little bit of backcountry by horseback.

What sets Discover Banff Tours apart from other activity or tour companies in the area?

There are lot of good tour companies that operate in the Banff area. We respect them. And in many circumstances we work with them. Whether it is selling their products from our store front, or creating tour experiences to connect them with those operators. Our main goal is to create fantastic experiences for those that visit the Rockies, understanding that we are a piece in helping make that happen has helped us create additional partnerships and by doing so continues to make us more successful.

What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?

Set yourself up to make the most of your vacation by looking into the activities that are available in the location that you are visiting. Many people take the effort to book the flight, the hotel, the rent-a-car in advance yet don’t take time to set up what is really important..the activities that are available for you to get involved with and make your holiday stand out. Setting up in advance to book a dog sledding adventure, a horse trail ride, or an interpretive hike can assure the stories that you have to share when you return home are connected to the unique experiences available of that place.

What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow? Please explain how?

Embracing change. Being open, ready and accepting to change really has helped us continue to excel. To not be afraid of new technologies, to embrace them and to work with them. To look for new business partners and work opportunities and to adapt. When Alberta was in a boom economically and there was lull of visitors to some degree visiting from United States and other markets we had to look at our existing tours and ask ourselves what will appeal to a more regional market? We developed an evening tour visiting a familiar day location. By incorporating the use of headlamps and torches we created this really fun night product that is all about appreciating the silence and beauty of night. The popularity of this tour really took off and it worked to attract the audience we needed to keep our business successful.

Viewing our wildlife is one of the most popular and exciting activities for visitors to Banff National Park.
Viewing our wildlife is one of the most popular and exciting activities for visitors to Banff National Park.

What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?

Knowing when to pick up the phone and talk to someone directly rather than emailing or texting. Even better knowing when to meet for a coffee to talk in person.

Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.

On Canada Day one of our tour groups hiked up to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. It was a beautiful day. This hiking locations back drop is outstanding as the peaks of Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy are surrounding you as are the views of free standing glaciers and the beauty of Lake Louise. What a day and a way to celebrate the county of Canada. After stoping for lunch, one of our guides asked the group if anyone would like to stand up and sing the national anthem to commemorate the day. The father of one of the members of the group nudged his older daughter to stand up and sing. She was a petite young woman, a first generation Canadian who had been enamoured with the views as she ascended the trail to the top. She had taken countless number of photos on the journey and was intrigued with all of the stories of the original climbers to the area. She stood up. And she began to sing O Canada. Not known to the group at the time was that she had been in school training to be a opera singer. The quality of that anthem, that song, that voice, that conviction for pure appreciation of place was truly and utterly remarkable. So many that had made their journey who were sitting in their own small groups eating their lunch not only listened but began to stand, remove their hats and truly appreciate that day and that moment. For Rose, our Senior Manager of Guiding Operations who was leading the hike that day in her early years of guiding with us, will always remember that particular experience.

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