Making Waves

Land, Ho!

Wilson set his opening day for October 4, 1994--almost two years after he was struck by the idea of starting a Duck tour company. His crew began the final preparations for the grand opening. All seemed good to go...until the government stepped in once again.

Months before, the city of Boston had told Wilson he could slowly work on equipping his Ducks to be wheelchair-accessible after opening. Just two weeks before launch date, however, they reneged, telling him he wouldn't receive his sightseeing license until the Ducks complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He scrambled to order custom-made lifts for the Ducks, and they arrived on October 3--the day before Wilson was set to open.

"Literally the morning of our grand opening, I demonstrated that we were wheelchair-accessible," Wilson remembers. "A half hour before my opening speech, the city issued my sightseeing permit. It was a rush."

Wilson doesn't begrudge the city their last-minute change. Since then, he's carried thousands of wheelchair-bound passengers and received numerous letters from families who take the tour annually with disabled relatives. Looking at Boston Duck Tour's phenomenal rise since it's been open, it's understandable that Wilson would be beyond such grievances.

Wilson was only open for two months his first season, but he carried 9,000 passengers. During the first full season in 1995, Boston Duck Tours carried 130,000 passengers and sold out every day. "The tide really turned by 1996; everybody seemed to be embracing us," recalls Wilson. "I can't think of a single person who was my adversary who right now isn't my friend."

Wilson has strengthened his presence in the community by getting involved in local environmental groups and by getting the community involved in his business. He sponsors a contest in which local schoolchildren name new ducks, donated one million pennies to his one millionth passenger's charity of choice, and gives veterans free tours during the week of Veterans Day in honor of his father, a World War II veteran. And, not least of all, his tour guides mercilessly goad Bostonians to get into the act by getting full Duckloads of tourists to quack at them--expecting a quack back, of course.

"I realized all along that if this was going to succeed, it was because Boston existed," says Wilson. "It's a wonderful city. So I've done everything I can to be a responsible citizen."

And Wilson's efforts have paid off. The recipient of the 1997 Small Business Person of the Year for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts award from the Massachusetts SBA and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau's 1997 "Spirit of Enterprise" award has proved to past detractors that he's not only sane, but an asset to the city. "I went from somebody who was nuts to having a successful business that we operate responsibly [by] giving back to the community," Wilson says. "It's like I've been reborn. I went from being a social outcast to being a local hero."

Contact Source

Boston Duck Tours, 790 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02199

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Making Waves.

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