A walk in the woods with Sea to Sky Expeditions
The view from his office offers Mark Waldbillig a great deal of perspective. Apart from the incredible beauty of the landscape, he can see where he has come from, where he is going, potential opportunities of what lies ahead, and some of the dangers as well. As a leader, he must be mindful that he is ultimately responsible for the health, welfare and enjoyment of both his team and his customers. It’s a great view, but one that is changing with each passing step.
Since 1997, Waldbillig has been leading outdoor adventures throughout BC as a guide for Sea to Sky Expeditions. Originally founded by Len Webster in 1988, the company has been helping both tourists and locals alike explore the natural treasures of our region on excursions lasting from seven to twelve days. In 2009, the company was placed into Waldbillig’s experienced and capable hands.
“Having the dual roles (of guide and owner) is an eye-opener for sure," he said, "there’s so many things going on behind the scenes, from permits to marketing, accounting, you end up wearing so many different hats, but it’s been a dream for a long time”
“One of the ways to make this sustainable from an economic sense as an individual was (realizing) that you can’t always be the one carrying the heavy pack; that you have to have other people doing that with you,” Waldbillig added.
As the company, which employs up to a dozen people seasonally, gears up for another busy summer, Waldbillig is excited about the prospect of seeing an effect on the tourism business in this first year after the Olympics. “We’re going find out soon what kind of exposure the Olympics gave to BC and the tourism industry," he said, "It’s a bit hard to judge right now, but 12 days of sunshine (during the games) sure highlighted how beautiful this area is.”
Much like the games, the eco-tourism industry also brings in highly valued tourism revenue from customers who come here from around the world.
“We’ve always been a strong North American company, with lots of Canadians on our trips,” Waldbillig noted. “We get lots of folks from Alberta and Ontario. It’s about 40-50% of our market.” Customers also come from countries like the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Australia and others, depending on the cyclical strength of their economies and currencies.
Not only is this industry important to the lower mainland, but eco-tourism ultimately benefits the entire region by stimulating the economies of many outlying communities.
“We get around the province a lot and see how many small towns are being forced to adjust, with resources declining, from resource-based economies to something else. Tourism is certainly part of that equation, and I think a lot of these places have to be cautious to not try to make it a complete replacement,” advised Waldbillig, “but it can be part of the solution. As an industry, we are leaving a very small ecological footprint behind. It is renewable.”
With a number of expedition companies to choose from, and given the potentially risky nature of back-country adventure, in this industry trust is paramount. “So much of it comes from longevity and experience. Having been in business such a long time now is a huge advantage for us. Another way that works is word of mouth. People hear from their friends about a great experience, a professional experience. It’s built slowly, one step at a time.”
There are many similar, capable expedition companies based in the Greater Vancouver Area, and they all share the common goal of delivering a memorable outdoor experience to their customers.
“A lot of the experience comes down to the guides and their personalities, and what people are looking for. The number one thing we hear about is the shared experience. You can make better friends on a ten day adventure trip than you did in four years at university. People are also trying to reconnect and disconnect on some level. Professionals are saying ‘I don’t want my boss to be able to reach me. I want my smart phone off,’ and the other thing we see are amazing bonding times with families,” said Waldbillig. “There is so much on offer. The standing joke is that you could hike everyday of your life in BC and never get the same trail twice.”