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How Nancy Stibbard Conquered Western Canada’s Tourism Industry

You may not know Nancy Stibbard by name, but if you’ve visited the West Coast, chances are you’re very familiar with her work. As owner and CEO of the Capilano Group of Companies, she is the woman behind numerous BC-based destinations, such as Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Moraine Lake Lodge, Cathedral Mountain Lodge in the Canadian Rockies and Stanley Park. Her magic touch has transformed stunning locales into incredibly successful ventures encompassing tourism, restaurants and retail ‘ and all without an MBA, no less. Here’s how she conquered an industry.

All in the family

In many ways, Capilano Suspension Bridge Park has long been Stibbard’s home away from home. She worked there during grade school and university after her father, Rae Mitchell, bought the location in 1953. But she never intended to take on the family business, choosing instead to complete a master’s degree in psychology and social work before landing in a Vancouver clinic working with parents of autistic children.

But when the opportunity to purchase the park became available in the early ’80s, she didn’t hesitate. ‘Because I’d been brought up with it, I thought I must know something about it and I hated the idea of it disappearing from our family,’ she says. ‘I took a plunge and went for it.’

With a large bank loan in her name, along with the high interest rates of the decade looming, Stibbard quickly sourced out a strong legal and accounting team. ‘They supported me and made sure I was going in the right direction.’ Then she wasted no time getting hands on (translation: nose to the grindstone, 24-7).

‘The very first thing I got involved in was the retail department because that was something I felt comfortable with and knew something about.’ Her vision included an expansion of the types of goods available and a transformation of the store interior. ‘I brought it back to its former historical look: a beautiful mahogany 1913-era mercantile. That was the beginning of things.’ From there, it was all about building a strong team. ‘For me to expand, I couldn’t do everything, and I wasn’t really good at everything. I took a lot of care in drawing a team together that was like-minded, motivated and competitive.’

Stay curious

On Stibbard’s company website, potential employees are welcomed by the following: ‘We believe in providing opportunities to people with passion and enthusiasm. For most of our jobs, we are prepared to train those with little or no experience.’

There’s no greater proof of this than Stibbard herself, who has parlayed her own transferable skills into successful results. ‘I knew I wanted to improve Capilano and make it a better experience for our visitors. Being a psychologist, my first step was to survey them and find out what they would expect and enjoy. I learned right away that they wanted to hear the story of the bridge.’ This discovery led Stibbard to build the Story Centre, a place that details the history of the landmark.

‘I’m a good listener, and that has helped me with our guests but also with my team. I take into account what they say and realize that, in many cases, they are more expert in certain areas than I am.’ With a team that is now 400 members strong, listening continues to be a top priority. ‘We do a mid-season survey to find out how the team feels about their experience and what they think we should be doing.’

Refuse to know everything

Self-assurance is essential to entrepreneurial DNA, but if you want your start-up to blossom, learn to walk the line between knowledgeable and know-it-all. ‘The best advice I’ve ever received is to assume that you don’t know the answers to things. This leads you to speak to people that you have high regard for.’ Stibbard has found that exposure to alternative ways of thinking can prove invaluable. ‘A new spin on things can cause you to think out your path a little more clearly before going down the road.’ To make connections, she suggests tapping into industry associations. ‘Particularly when you’re new and to help in decision making, you’ll find a lot of people with great experience willing to share that experience with you.’

Stibbard is an inspiring example of leadership and initiative in such circles, from serving on the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Board of Directors to chairing the Board of Tourism Vancouver and creating noteworthy co-operative organizations.

Always improving

With BC’s breathtaking landscapes as her clay, Stibbard is never at rest. ‘I think BC is truly an amazing place, and I want to show off what we have to the world.’

She credits her strong work ethic to her father. ‘He had extremely high expectations, even if sometimes that wasn’t quite good enough,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I feel that way as I’ve moved through life and evolved my business. Our team thinks the same: Even when we’ve done a really good job, we’re always trying to make it better.’

Cliffwalk, the latest addition to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, is in keeping with that approach. It’s a thrilling outdoor experience that features thick glass walkways in portions to deliver on its name.

Best days ahead

Stibbard has plenty of professional highlights to reflect on. ‘I’ve had a few nice awards in my career,’ she says, ‘but one day that always stands out in my mind is our 100th birthday,’ referring to the bridge’s milestone. ‘It was pretty exciting, a monumental birthday party. We all dressed up in historical costume and had many thousands of visitors.’

With more than three decades of experience under her belt, she isn’t slowing down any time soon. ‘I don’t like to think about retirement. I enjoy what I’m doing every day. I can’t think of anything better.’

In the upcoming year, she’ll be focusing on the latest additions to her roster: two locations in Stanley Park. The first, called the Pavilion, has been renovated and restored to its former glory, complete with an elegant event space and a bustling bar and grill. The second, Prospect Point, is still a work in progress. For now, she’s sticking to her tried-and-true formula, starting with guest surveys to determine expectations. The park itself has been recognized for its beauty by TripAdvisor and Travel + Leisure, but with Stibbard’s visionary efforts, we should prepare to be amazed all over again.

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