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'We provide the boat, you provide the story'

Canoeing the Grand on making memories and winning the KW Chamber Award for hospitality and tourism

It was a moment of curiosity that changed Kitchener resident Shelly Jo Holmes’ life.

Ten years ago, Holmes noticed the canoeing business near her house, operating since 1991, was up for sale while she was on holidays. Though she wasn’t looking for another business, as she was already running a successful daycare, being a “curious neighbour,” she wanted to know what was going to happen to it. 

“When I was told that the place would probably not remain, that they were going to do either a veterinarian clinic, a restaurant, or some other thing, I just thought, I don't want it to be lost,” she said. 

She asked the real estate agent if the previous owner would mentor her in the business; they said yes, and by the time her holidays were over, she owned Canoeing on the Grand. 

“It was exciting and scary, and I've not regretted one minute of it,” she said.

Now, she wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world. 

“Honestly, if I won millions of dollars tomorrow, I would not stop what I'm doing. I love what I do.”

It’s a good thing, because after speaking to Holmes, it’s hard to picture her doing anything else. Not that she couldn’t, but that this job seems tailor-made for her. 

Canoeing has always been a big part of her life; she even taught it recreationally while in high school. But she is also a champion of customer service, delighting in providing her customers with memorable and fun experiences. 

Canoeing the Grand was the recipient of this year’s tourism and hospitality award at the KW Chamber Awards, something Holmes says she’s incredibly proud of. 

“I never win anything,” she laughed. “It’s an absolute honour. I think customer service is something, as a business, that you just do, you never think it will get noticed. So I’m grateful for the recognition, and it makes me even more grateful for the extra effort the staff had to put in during the pandemic.” 

Located on King Street East in Kitchener, Canoeing the Grand rents canoes, kayaks, tubes and river rafts, with shuttles that transport everyone to various drop off locations. But for Holmes, it’s more than just providing rentals. 

“I want them to come and feel like anyone can kayak,” she said, adding that people often think they can’t, that it’s too dangerous.

“You don’t have to be afraid of those things. There’s very little danger as long as you’re sensible,” she said. “I get to see a person that thinks they can't do those things, do them. So I get to sort of be a part of that experience for them.”

“I love the people, I love my staff,” she said of the 25 part-timers they have during the season. 

“I love making [customers] feel like they won't remember me or they won't remember my face, but they will remember how they felt when they were here: that we've made them laugh a little bit, we've made them feel comfortable.”

If you’re scrolling through their website, you’ll see the phrase “The Best things in life aren't things at all!” in big, bold letters. 

“When people give gifts, you [usually] give something that can end up in a landfill, or a garage sale,” she said. “An experience… is buying time together. I always say that we provide the boat, you provide the story. But they're going to spend their day making memories and there's no price that you can put on that.”

Canoeing the Grand opened for the season on May 1 and will stay open until November. 

You can learn more here

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