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One of the sea arches in Cape Broyle, Newfoundland, image from the Stan Cook website.
One of the sea arches in Cape Broyle, Newfoundland, image from the Stan Cook website.

Grow: Mia Wedgbury

Sea kayak tourist company changes with the times Add to ...

It seems to me that just about everyone who has spent any time in Newfoundland has heard of the Cook family.

Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures has been around for four decades, experiencing the kind of longevity and success that small-business owners dream of. Stan Cook Jr. may not cite any one strategy or business decision that led the family company to become a tourism icon, but as far as I can tell, Mr. Cook’s secret is clear: stay fresh.

Over the years, the family has done just about everything it can to keep up with the changing needs of its guests. After all, selling an experience is often very different from selling a product.

“Most of the time when you purchase a product it is something tangible,” Mr. Cook says. “We’re offering something intangible ... you pay before you go out, put all your faith in us, and jump in the boat to see what happens next.”

The company’s customers have always been interested in witnessing Newfoundland’s spectacular seascapes, caves, icebergs and whales – but the amount of time they can commit to the experience has changed over the years.

“When dad first started the company, the people who came out were different than they are today,” Mr. Cook says. “Before, they’d be interested in a five- to seven-day trip, and now they can only spend a few hours.”

So the Cook family adjusted, and it created shorter trips that still keep the spirit of adventure and education alive.

As their services have evolved, so too has the way the company communicates those services. Years ago, it was more difficult to engage potential customers. Today, the company has leveraged new technologies and social networking to get the word out online, inviting guests to send in their own videos, photos and stories that share just how thrilling their day at been.

“Last year we had a lot of guests send in short clips, and I post them online so people can have a look and see what the tours are really like. Often it is very dramatic footage,” Mr. Cook says. “Talking to people on the phone sometimes sounds like a sales pitch. But when they see it in video, that is the best way to portray the majesty of what we’re offering.”

Mr. Cook has also gone above and beyond just investing in his family company: he works to grow tourism in his province and right across the country. He is the chair of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada as well as the chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism board, where he and his colleagues are working to draft a “blueprint for growth” that will double Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual tourism revenue by 2020.

“You’ve got to work hard at it and it doesn’t fall in your lap – it is a hard business,” he says. “Being involved in the tourism board has put me in the room with bright marketers ... so it is also a really great professional development opportunity.”

With all of his experience and effort, Mr. Cook is still humble about the family’s success.

“It is very surprising to me how the Stan Cook name has become a brand.

“Three years ago I came off of a plane and the cab driver thought I was a tourist. He told me that I should go kayaking with Stan Cook. He said people he drives to the airport say it is the best thing they do on their vacation.

“I was so happy. We’re obviously making an impact through word-of-mouth ... even the taxi drivers are talking about us, and they are some of the most important ambassadors to have on our side.”

Companies with decades of experience in their industry never achieve their success easily. But with great leadership, strong teams and a commitment to executing fresh communications and marketing strategies, just like the Cook family, you and your company will have a good chance at being in it for the long haul.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Wedgbury is president of the Canadian region for Fleishman-Hillard Canada and its sister company, High Road Communications. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing award-winning communications agencies. Her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle. She works in partnership with her clients to build brands, mitigate risk and shape communications strategies.

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