By Raina Debrouwer and Lisa MacNeil, Co-operative Education
A change of course to pursue a passion
Growing up, Shannon Paquette (BTHM’21) always thought she would become a dentist. But two years into her Bachelor of Science degree at Dalhousie University, she realized that dentistry wasn’t for her. Despite good grades and apprehension from her family, Shannon paused her studies to follow a lifelong yearning for travel instead.
Shannon quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm, one that’s not uncommon to young adventure-seekers looking to explore the world. “I started this journey of working in bars and restaurants, saving, then travelling.”
First it was four months backpacking across Asia. Then Shannon lived in the Netherlands for six months, taking every opportunity to travel around Europe. After a brief trip home to Halifax, Shannon was off to Southeast Asia. It was there that she met a yacht captain who encouraged her to get certified to work in the yachting industry. Shannon’s mind quickly turned to all the possibilities.
“I romanticized the idea of working in the Mediterranean and sailing across the Caribbean!” Shannon laughs. “Living life below deck. It was a nomadic lifestyle that I was so drawn to.” In spite of the lure of the lifestyle, Shannon showed restraint. “I thought, ‘I’m 23 now. What happens when I’m 55 or 60? What does my life look like then?’ It was a pivotal moment of deciding whether to pursue this opportunity in front of me or find a way to explore my love of travelling in a more sustainable way.”
From student to tour director on her first co-op work term
Shannon began researching post-secondary options online. The Tourism and Hospitality Management program at MSVU stuck out to her because of the co-op option – a chance to get some additional hands-on experience and build connections. Soon after beginning the program, Shannon knew it was the right fit. “I really immersed myself in the program. I loved the small classes. Rather than being one of 600 students in a class, I was one of 40. I just ate it up.”
And ate it up, she did. Shannon took advantage of extra-curricular opportunities like the Learning Passport program and the Learners and Leaders conference. At an industry event, Shannon made a move that would ultimately change the trajectory of her career. “I saw a man standing alone, and decided that I was going to go talk to him. He turned out to be the co-owner of Schools Out Tours. We got chatting and he offered me a position on the spot to host a group of students from Ontario during the Halifax Jazz Festival. I thought, ‘This is incredible. This is what they mean when they say just go up and talk to people’.”
Shannon successfully hosted the students and learned a lot from the experience. When it came time to do her first co-op, this experience influenced her decision heavily. When she saw a posting for a Tour Director position with Atlantic Tours & Travel, she immediately applied. Shannon had a great interview and quickly found herself thrown into the world of commercial touring.
“On my first co-op, I was leading 12-day tours through New Brunswick, PEI, Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia and I was responsible for 52 passengers. It was so challenging, I barely slept. They were such long days. I would be up with guests at 6 a.m. doing check-out, making sure everything was in order and preparing my scripts for the day. I’m not a public speaker, so that was something I learned on the job. I was with the guests until 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes having dinner with them after that. I made decisions on the road, kept everyone on schedule, was responsible for calling ahead to hotels, restaurants, and activities. I logged everything. I managed personalities, worked with the driver, navigated pick-ups and drop-offs…it was a lot of work and really challenged me, but in a good way. It was very exciting. I loved showing the guests Nova Scotia. Guests formed a real connection with each other and me. At the end of the 12 days, tears would often be shed. They would write me letters about what a lifechanging experience it was for them. It was just incredible.”
Shannon went on to complete her second co-op with the same company. She was scheduled to spend her third co-op introducing tourists to the beauty of Newfoundland when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was during this time of pause that Shannon was able to flesh out an idea that had been percolating for some time – one that focused on showing smaller groups the breadth of what her home region has to offer.
A chance to bring her own tours to life
“I wanted to take guests to a mom and pop shop, or invite them to go lobster fishing on my uncle’s boat. I wanted to give them a really authentic experience that’s hard to achieve with 52 guests. I just kept thinking that if tears were being shed at the end of a 52-person tour, what could we achieve with an intimate group of 6?”
Shannon dreamed of her own tours. She wanted to introduce small, authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences. She wanted to promote sustainability and stimulate economic growth throughout the province, not just in traditional tourism hot spots. She wanted to integrate local people and traditions. She also wanted tours to be physically active — “rather than driving through the Cabot Trail, let’s get out and go for a hike!”
An independent study course at MSVU called New Venture Creation allowed Shannon to turn her vision into a solid business plan, including detailing exactly what she wanted to offer guests and implementing her plan on a trial basis. Thus, Ocean Playground Adventures was born.
“I ran a four-hour beer and cider tour in Halifax. I worked with the cideries and breweries, developed an itinerary, marketed the tour, priced it out, chartered a bus, and performed the tour with the guests. It was a great learning experience. I was able to do a cost/benefit analysis of leasing a bus versus buying my own versus chartering, so that experience alone taught me a lot.”
Offering hyper local and high-end experiences
Since graduating, Shannon has partnered with a local operator to develop high-end tours for travelers on super-yachts, catering to a niche Shannon identified as untapped in Nova Scotia: travelers with high incomes who are looking for unique, luxury experiences.
“This winter we are doing a three-day snowmobile tour through the Cape Breton Highlands. Guests will arrive in Halifax and we will fly them by helicopter to Margaree Forks where they will stay on this stunning shed with over 900 acres of land. We’re bringing in a chef from a local fine dining restaurant to come and cater for the weekend. We’ll bring in snowmobiles from Cape Smokey and do three different trail tours directly from the resort through the Highlands. We will then fly the guests by helicopter to Glenora Distillery, do a ski day at Cape Smokey, ride the Gondola, and do the tree-walk.”
Beyond sustainability and active tourism, Shannon has made ‘spreading the wealth’ a key pillar of her business model. She envisions tours that engage local merchants and organizations who will not only ensure an authentic experience for tourists, but also benefit from the exposure.
At the end of the day, Shannon has a passion for creating memorable experiences for people from around the world. She cites her co-op work experiences and networking opportunities as key contributors to where she has ended up today. “I’m excited to see what the future holds.”