A customer driving a Le Boat yacht, cruising its Ontario waterways.

The cruising company charters Ontario’s waterways in its first North American expansion

“I would say Ontario, Canada is one of the best-kept secrets in the world,” Cheryl Brown says, beaming. “You have absolutely everything.”

Cheryl Brown is the managing director of Le Boat, the biggest canal boating company in the world.

Le Boat has been operating in Europe for more than five decades, and around 2016, the company uncovered a very specific niche in the tourism market in Ontario. Little did they know, it would soon become the province’s first luxury yacht tour operator.

As Le Boat quickly learned, in Ontario’s tourism market, development opportunities abound—for recreational outfitters, attractions (like Little Canada), accommodation providers (like Hotel X) and cruise operators like itself.

Cheryl Brown standing on a dock with Le Boat yachts behind her.
Cheryl Brown, Managing Director at Le Boat, at the docks in Smiths Falls, Ontario

Five years ago, the boat rental company set up its first-ever non-European headquarters in Smiths Falls, Ontario—an hour’s drive from Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. Le Boat has more than doubled in size since its founding and today boasts 30 boats in its fleet (and growing).

Brown recalls her first visit to the region which Le Boat’s North American headquarters calls home. “I was blown away with Ottawa,” she says. Brown remembers thinking, “This is an incredible place. What are we missing? Why isn’t anybody else doing what we do on this water? Somebody has to be the first, and why can’t it be Le Boat?”

European travellers discovering Ontario for the first time are equally impressed by their experience, Brown says. “All of the customer feedback is, ‘Canada is amazing,’ ‘Beautiful!’ and ‘The people are just lovely.’”

In Ontario, the tourism industry brings in $38 billion in receipts and $35.5 billion of the province’s total GDP, with even more room to grow within Canada’s largest province. What’s more, travellers make up 42.7% of all visits to Canada and 51.5% of all international visits to Canada—an environment ripe for an expanding tourism market.

Ontario’s advantage

Given the untapped potential of Ontario’s 250,000 lakes and 100,000 kilometres of canals, rivers and streams, it’s no surprise that Le Boat’s first-ever North American location is along the 200-kilometre-long UNESCO World Heritage site, the Rideau Canal. The Rideau’s continuous lakes, locks and canals extend all the way from Kingston to Ottawa, along the eastern region of the province.

“What blew me away with this cruising ground is that it had all of the best of our European cruising grounds, all in one place,” Brown says. She noted that the first time boating along the UNESCO World Heritage’s Rideau Canal, she could seamlessly compare parts along the way to French, Irish, Dutch and German waterways.

Large fleet of boats docked.
The Main Base for Le Boat’s yachts in Smiths Falls is fully stocked at the beginning of the season, full of boats ready to cruise along the Rideau Canal.

For Le Boat customers, Ontario provides the ideal infrastructure for tourists to easily access its services—in the heart of North America, Ontario has five international airports with worldwide connections, an expanding regional rail system, 14 land border crossings and 16,900 km of provincial highways, making getting in and around Ontario convenient for visitors that are both domestic and international.

As for its North American headquarters, Smiths Falls provided the ideal infrastructure for operations. “It was right in the middle of the cruising ground—our customers can go north or south. They [also] had the start of the infrastructure that we needed. Parks Canada was incredibly supportive, and there happened to be fantastic workshop facilities,” says Brown. As it turns out, Parks Canada was able to secure an old lock building available for use, and across from it was an area to base the boats as well as take them out in the winter. “It just worked for us.”

Unparalleled support

When Le Boat began searching for a new market for expansion back in 2015, Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport was the first to approach them at a New York Holiday Show. At the same event, Le Boat was contacted by representatives from New York’s Erie Canal, seeking to provide a competitive opportunity.

When Brown was asked why Le Boat chose the Rideau Canal over the Erie Canal, her answer was simple, “It was support. [Ontario] made the process very easy for us. They helped with the funding opportunity. And we had a date when we wanted to open a new destination. We moved faster with [Ontario’s] Ministry of Tourism, and it ticked all the boxes from a cruising ground destination. That’s why we went with the Rideau Canal, without a doubt.”

Financial support was also extremely important. “We needed some funding to help put Le Boat on the map.”

Ontario brought support on every level, from Parks Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation (now Destination Ontario), and all the regional tourism offices along the canal. “Everybody helped make it possible,” says Brown. “I’ve never met so many people just really happy to help. It’s really been a pleasure, and it’s made the project so easy for us all.”

Several grants were given, the biggest being the Eastern Ontario Development Fund (EODF). Le Boat also benefitted from the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, which allowed Le Boat to ship vessels into Canada without paying customs fees. “That helped us over the five-year period, and it was all given in one go.” Brown also remarked on how much her Canadian partners valued her business, “[The support] was to do with the fact that, clearly, we were bringing in a new product to Canada.”

For businesses looking to expand today, Ontario’s support continues to extend to new tourism ventures, with funding committed to various programs, including the Ontario Tourism Recovery Program, the Tourism Economic Development & Recovery Fund, Reconnect Ontario 2022 and Reconnect Ontario Marquee Event Fund.

Boats docked along the canal in Ottawa with the parliament buildings in the distance.
Le Boat’s yacht docked along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada’s capital.

The pandemic and an opportunity

A pandemic shift revealed a hidden gem of Ontario’s tourist economy—the “staycationer.”

In the beginning, Le Boat’s expansion plan was clear. “The big opportunity for us was driving our existing Europeans to Canada—and of course [attract] new customers … growing our North American source market starting off in Canada,” says Brown.

Le Boat knew its customer base would be drawn to Ontario’s pristine waterways and the wide-open lakes of the Rideau Canal. Le Boat’s customers seek out new outdoor experiences, and this new cruising ground had an almost exotic appeal for European travellers.

Then, in 2020, COVID-19 radically changed tourism globally with the widespread restriction of international travel. Le Boat had to change plans for its Ontario-based operations and shift to attract a more local customer base.

Le Boat discovered a unique quality of Ontario’s tourism market—staycation travel culture, where people take overnight trips to explore areas within a day’s drive of home. The province has a proven (and growing) domestic market. This market is so valued on an economic level that there is now a Staycation Tax Credit, where Ontario residents are encouraged to continue travelling within their home province.

This opportunity to tap into the staycation market allowed Le Boat to shift 80% of customers from Europe and the United States to 100% from the Canadian source market.

With pandemic considerations in mind, Le Boat also had the “bubble” advantage. Brown explains it was a huge turning point in its business model, “getting customers to travel from the bubble of their home to the bubble of their car to the bubble of our boats.” That move boosted Le Boat’s potential market reach, allowing the business to grow during a time when tourism was halted on a global level.

Now, as a sense of normalcy is returning to the tourism industry, Le Boat will once again benefit from international travellers in addition to its large Ontario base.

Expansion across Ontario

Le Boat is looking to expand within Ontario, with its sights set on the Trent-Severn Waterway—a 386-kilometre-long canal route marked by historic lock stations that connect Lake Ontario to Lake Huron.

“We know [Ontario], Canada, as a success story,” Brown shares without reservation. And Le Boat wants to continue exploring the untapped advantages of Ontario’s tourism market.

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