Guided tours strike right note
Heidi Cowen has seen a slew of new tour bus operators setting up shop in the seven years she has been running Bermuda Byways Tours.
But she hasn't noticed any particular drop off in her business as a result.
“We're all in this together,” she shrugged. “If I am fully booked, I will often suggest the client try out this other guy.”
During peak season her walking and bus tours of the island are pretty full, and in the winter when most other tour operators take a break, she's still going.
“The hotels often call me in the winter to lead tours,” said Ms Cowen, who also runs the Arts Centre in Dockyard.
Since taking over Bermuda Byways from Ray and Kay Latter in 2012, she has worked hard to add her own flair.
To start with, she included lunch. She feels clients all going off to have lunch by themselves in a restaurant kills the mood. Now clients often sit by Flatts inlet and eat lunch while she continues to tell them about the island, or they grab a fish sandwich on raisin bread from Grannie's Kitchen on the North Shore in Pembroke.
“They love that,” she said.
She has also ramped up the company's social media presence, regularly publishing scenic photos from her tours on the Bermuda Byways Facebook page.
But perhaps the biggest thing she has brought to the business is simply herself and her own unique wit.
“People often ask me about the Bermuda Triangle,” she said. “I tell them we took a vote last week and decided that from now on it's Florida's Triangle.”
At the height of the tourist season, many of her clients are from cruise ships berthed in Dockyard, but she also sees a lot of locals.
“I tell locals I promise you today you will see one thing you haven't seen before,” she said. “I also get a lot of repeat customers.”
Tour-goers are always asking her how long it would take to see everything in Bermuda.
Her quick retort: over 50 years.
“I am still seeing new things,” she said. “I am always seeing what is behind that oleander hedge. I would like to think my tour is for ever evolving.”
Her bus tours are six hours long, and meander from Dockyard to St George's and back again.
Her bus can seat 14, but she prefers to cap her things at ten people.
“I would rather have a smaller group and be able to give everyone attention as opposed to piling people in,” she said.
On her tours, she loves taking visitors parrotfish spotting.
“The parrotfish are amazing at Warwick Long Bay,” she said. “Also, if you stand at the back of Fort St Catherine in St George's, and look down into the water, the parrot fish there are unbelievable. There is always a good 20 there putting on a show.”
In the early 2000s, she ran the Lighthouse Tea Room at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse in Southampton. Her grandfather, Rudolph Cowen was the last lighthouse keeper there, before the lighthouse switched to electric light. Running the tea room she often put out written ‘table stories' containing information about her family history, stories and Bermuda's culture.
“Customers would get irritated if new table stories weren't out every Sunday,” she said.
For Ms Cowen, running Bermuda Byways was a way of making those old stories three-dimensional.
She is heavily inspired by her father the late W.A. “Toppy” Cowen who was a hotelier and tireless advocate for Bermuda tourism.
“I was lucky because my father left me all of his history books,” she said.
When he was alive they loved driving around Bermuda looking for historical spots and oddities.
Mr Cowen died in 2014.
Ms Cowen said running a small business in Bermuda isn't easy.
“It is expensive,” she said. “There is insurance for the bus and the price of gas. My bus is new but it won't last for ever. It is also a seasonal job. No matter how hard you work and squirrel away in the summer, there will always be a glitch in the winter.”
But she said it's also fun.
So far, things are going well for her this season.
“Typically, May is the busiest month,” she said, “and April was really good this year.”
• For more information call 535-9169, see www.bermudabyways.com or check her out on Facebook under Byways Tours Bermuda