By Tina Comeau
The main issue being argued at a Utility and Review Board hearing in Yarmouth on Jan. 29 doesn’t have to do with whether a sightseeing tour company should be allowed to re-establish business to coincide with the return of ferry service.
Rather, it’s whether Yarmouth can sustain another charter business. Two local charter businesses opposed to a charter application by a Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. feel it can’t.
The hearing got underway at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday and when things broke for lunch at noon, the lawyers for the applicant still had a half dozen witnesses to call. They wrapped up their case mid-afternoon. The UARB hearing works very much like a court proceeding, with witnesses testifying under direct and re-direct questions.
On the witness stand for much of the morning was Calvin d’Entremont, who used to run his Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. sightseeing tour business prior to the demise of ferry service in Yarmouth. With the Nova Star ferry now slated to sail between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine, he wants to start up this business again, saying he has a passion for operating a tour business. The types of bilingual tours he is proposing are Acadian culture, a Yarmouth tour, a seafood, a Tusket Islands tour (the latter two would be in partnerships with others).
Yet while the bulk of his proposed business would be sightseeing tours, and the bulk of charter service would be in the summer months, his application does seek a year-round charter licence, which he acknowledges would be important to sustaining his business. He’s proposing two 24-36 seat buses for his tour and charter business.
And that’s what’s driving the opposition by Tri-Star Charters, which operates a 58-seat passenger coach, and Huts Transit, which has two 15-passenger vehicles. These companies are not opposed to a tour business. Rather, these businesses are concerned that another charter service will take business away from their operations, as groups may find the size of a 24-36 passenger coach more appealing or more economical.
“You’re going to take business away from us, whether you realize it or not,” said Gary Hudson of Huts Transit. “I know you would.”
Andrew Nickerson, the lawyer representing Tri-Star Charters at the hearing, suggested if a Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. is successful in getting a charter licence, the only charter business this might leave for Tri-Star Charters is groups in the range of 37-58 passengers.
“Would you agree with that?” Nickerson asked d’Entremont.
D’Entremont said it is a difficult question to answer because it would depend on the availability of his buses.
He also pointed out that the bus operated by Tri-Star Charters isn’t always available to groups, given that its first priority is the Yarmouth Junior A Mariners. When the team is traveling on the road, he said, no one else can charter the bus.
Nickerson asked d’Entremont whether his company would have to own it’s buses, or whether instead he could charter other motor coaches for his tour business.
“I could,” he responded, “but I don’t want to.” Meaning he'd prefer to have his own fleet of motor coaches.
But UARB chair Dawna Ring questioned d'Entremont if it goes even further than that, asking if it's not only a case that he wouldn't want to use other motor coaches but a case that he can’t do it since there are currently no 24 to 36 buses available locally for his tour business. D'Entremont confirmed this was the case.
To bring in another motor coach would require him having to pay dead-head kilometres just to bring a bus into the area, which would increase the cost of the charter, possibly by an extra $1,000 or more.
Tri-Star Charter has put an application before the UARB to allow it to also operate up to two 24-36 passenger buses as part of its charter licence. The line of questioning coming from the lawyer from the Yarmouth company early in the day seemed to lean towards the fact that Tri-Star Charters itself is not looking to operate tours, but could charter motor vehicle coaches to a company that wants to offer tours.
There are local tourism operators testifying at the hearing on behalf of Calvin d’Entremont and a Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. In particular, they are in support of tour business.
“A bus tour will be very attractive to (ferry) passengers,” said tourism operator Brian Rodney, who said having dealt with Calvin d'Entremont in the past, he was a reliable and professional tour operator.
Rodney said there is a need for more transportation services in Yarmouth.
“If we are going to grow and develop here we need to have choices…options,” he said. When asked whether he is concerned about charter business being taken away from other companies, he said, “Let the market decide.”
Roger d'Entremont, the executive director of the West Pubnico Acadian Village, said one year when Calvin d'Entremont was still operating his tours they had 1,019 visitors to the village, which generated $15,000 in revenue. He said since the end of ferry service only around 10 per cent of visitors to the village have been from the United States. He sees the tour business proposed by a Day by the Sea Tour to be vital to the economic well-being of the village, particularly since one of the tours would be an Acadian culture tour.
Harbour's Edge Bed and Breakfast operator Esther Dares said the tour service offered in the past by a Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. was a real asset to the community and the local tourism industry, and she went as far to call Calvin d'Entremont himself, "a gem." She said visitors to her establishment always had a very positive experience on the tours.
Gary Hudson of Huts Transit asked Dares if such tours are so important to the area, then why haven't tourism operators approached existing charter operators in the area to provide such a service. Dares questioned whether it should be up to tourism operators to tell other business to expand.
"That's entrepreneurship," she suggested, adding, as well, you can't just throw anyone onto a bus and expect that they will offer a positive tourism experience to the tourists. And as a tourism operator, she said, there is nothing worse than a visitor of your establishment coming back from a bad experience when it was something that you had recommended to them.
Tri-Star Charters began to offer its side of things mid-afternoon. The media and public were asked to briefly leave the room during a confidential mode of the hearing as sensitive financial information pertaining to Tri-Star Charters was presented. The exclusion lasted only a few minutes.
Testifying at the hearing, Mitch Bonnar, the president of Tri-Star Charters, said in 2013 their bus was chartered for 117 days, 40 days of which involved the junior A Mariners team.
He said a lot of their charters during the year involve sports teams and said that probably 75 per cent of their charters would involve groups of less than 36 people. Therefore having a 36-passenger bus available as another option in the community would hurt their business, Bonnar suggested.
Asked why Tri-Star Charters is making an application itself to make available up to two 24-to-36 seat buses, Bonnar said it was they wanted to help out Calvin d'Entremont by making buses available that he could charter. Bonnar said he offered this as an option to d'Entremont, but d'Entremont wasn't interested.
Still, Bonnar said the company wanted to show the community that even though it was opposing the Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. charter application, Tri-Star Charter was still willing to help out the community by offering similar size buses that d'Entremont is proposing. These buses, Bonnar said, could be chartered for a tour business.
"We're not particularly interested in doing tours (ourselves)," said Bonnar. "But if we can't work with him we'll do tours." Bonnar said, saying they'd do it if no one else was willing to step up.
Bonnar added Tri-Star Charters has also been having preliminary talks with Nova Star Cruises about potential charter opportunities.
In cross examination, Louis d'Entremont, the lawyer for Day by the Sea Tour Ltd., suggested to Bonnar that since he was entertaining the thought of adding up to two 24-36 seat buses, he must think having these one or two extra buses in the community is viable. The lawyer further suggested to Bonnar that he is making the same application Calvin d'Entremont is – the one that Tri-Star Charter is opposing – although Bonnar said that isn't the case. But the lawyer noted in Tri-Star's application asking to be allowed to add up to two buses, the charter company has said a ferry service could cause increase demand for smaller buses.
Bonnar said he's not made a business plan to determine how viable the smaller buses would be. Regardless of his reason for wanting to add buses to his fleet, Bonnar still maintained that allowing Calvin d'Entremont to have a charter licence will negatively affect Tri-Stars' charter business. He said they have no issue with him doing tours.
Tri-Star Charters has been providing charter services since being approved by the UARB in 2011. Interestingly enough, at the time of their charter application a Day by the Sea Tour Ltd. had submitted a letter to the Utility and Review Board supporting Tri-Star's application.
Late in the day, the UARB chair Dawna Ring asked Bonnar if he agrees that there is a want or a need for a smaller size bus in the tri-county area. He agreed there is. She then asked why the UARB should allow Tri-Star Charters to offer this size bus instead of a Day by the Sea Tour.
"My concern is why should you be the player to be the one to purchase that coach and not Mr. (Clavin) d’Entremont?" she asked.
Ring also said about the suggestion that d'Entremont charter motor coaches from someone else, "Don't you think if he was doing the tours he'd want to do it himself?"
And not just himself, but with his own motoring equipment.
The Utility and Review Board will issue a written decision.