How Heather Blenkiron turned her passion for heritage conservation into a business

Women

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CNH

Standing midst Pacific Ocean, at the confluence of three ocean currents, about a thousand kilometers from Ecuadorian coast, the Galapagos Islands are one of the richest known marine ecosystems in the world, where the native and endemic wildlife has never developed a fear of humankind (it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 by UNESCO). Heather Blenkiron is the Owner of Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours (CNH Tours) – a small and highly experienced tour operator. She has been organizing the “trip of a lifetime” exclusively for Galapagos travelers for the past 20 years. 

“Be true to yourself. Choose your mentors carefully. Don’t forget to reach back and lift up the younger women who are following in your footsteps.”

What sets CNH Tours apart from other international tour operators is the fact that they know Galapagos like few, if any others do. Heather moved to Galapagos in 1998 just three weeks after being married to Marc Patry. Marc had landed a job there to develop a plan to eradicate 170,000 invasive goats from Isabela Island. “The introduced goats were turning native Galapagos forests – home to many unique species such as the Giant Tortoise – into barren deserts before our very eyes,” says Heather, looking back. While Marc was busy with the goats, Heather was invited by the Canadian ambassador in Ecuador to be the Canadian warden in Galapagos – e.g. the embassy’s right-hand woman there should they need help with any particular issue.  She was also hired by the Charles Darwin Research Station to help in redesigning the visitors’ experience at Darwin Station, leading a local and international team of 10 under the guidance of expert designers at California Academy of Sciences. While in the islands, Heather and Marc decided to charter an expedition cruise ship and invite their friends to join them on a cruise. Between their work, and the positive experience chartering their first ship, and with the additional impetus from Heather’s fascination for geography and her passion for heritage conservation, CNH Tours was created. Founded in 2000 as an on-line only company, CNH Tours has grown organically by word-of-mouth ever since. They have reserved 30 active Galapagos charter tours for 2020, each with a capacity for 14 guests. Besides their very own custom charter trips, CNH Tours also helps an additional 200 or so people per year identify the ship that’s most suited for their interests and needs. “We began our company because we fell in love with Galapagos. We knew we’d be leaving one day, but we wanted to maintain real contact with the place. Organizing trips was a perfect way to do so. It’s very rewarding to help people fulfill their lifelong dream of visiting the islands, and we’re glad that in the process, we’re energizing a new group of conservation champions, while at the same time supporting the local economy and community,” says Heather. “We measure our success by the degree to which our guests assume the role of ambassador for the conservation of Galapagos for future generations. Our boutique travel agency has intentionally chosen to avoid working with the big, international corporations that run the largest ships in the islands. The locally owned and operated ships offer a wide variety of comfort classes and are much more responsive to our guest’s needs and interests.” When you contact CNH Tours, you’ll be in touch with people who have lived and worked in Galapagos for years. This allows them to ensure that their guest’s dream holiday to Galapagos benefits from extensive knowledge of the destination, of the ships, and of other factors that could affect the visitor experience. CNH Tours offers both their hallmark ‘Active Galapagos’ tour, designed for people who want the absolute most out of an 8 day cruise (you’ll be expected to be snorkeling with the sea turtles and hammerhead sharks just after dawn) and the option to custom design a cruise on a ship better suited to your interests. Their guests are mostly in their 50’s and 60’s, but they also help families and charter groups. If you’re keen on exploring the region, they will also help you with extensions on continental Ecuador or Peru (Machu Pichu anyone?). CNH Tours has had guests from Norway, France, Canada, Malaysia, India, Singapore and beyond. The Canadian company is located in Ottawa, Ontario, with an operations team based in Quito, Ecuador and Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador.

Heather Blenkiron, Founder, Cultural and Natural Heritage Tours

CNH Tours primary goals are to adequately serve their guests, the conservation of the islands, and to provide support to the local communities against encroachment by international companies. “We created our first CNH Tours website with help from the Charles Darwin Research Station’s graphic designer, Mats Wedin,” shares Heather. “We are proud of the fact that the ship we charter for our ‘Active Galapagos’ tours are locally owned and operated by one of the most progressive ship owners in the islands. He focuses on environmentally friendly approaches to ship management, top drawer human resource management and is committed to the local community through the NavEducando program. Children from the local community, who normally do not have the chance to explore beyond the three human habitation zones of Galapagos, are taken out on a Galapagos cruise to help them understand why the islands are so special, and to instil in them the important role they play in the long term conservation of the Galapagos Archipelago. We are proud of the artwork you will find on our website. The art comes from local Galapagos artist, Magno Bennett. His art also graces the walls of the hotel rooms we reserve for our guests for their Galapagos land extension.”

Beyond this, CNH Tours, through Heather’s husband, was elected to the governing body of the Charles Darwin Foundation and to the board of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario – the governmental regulator for travel agencies in the province. The company contributes to the conservation of Galapagos through their membership in the International Galapagos Tour Operators and it’s Traveller Compensation Fund on behalf of their guests, promoting locally-owned ships, and through their Galapagos land-extension (which is designed to allow their guests to develop a deeper understanding of the conservation challenges facing the islands today.)  Heather’s husband was also elected to that board. They also work with charities to offer fundraising tours, most recently with the National Public Radio (USA) and Montana Natural History Centre (USA).

Reaching this point was anything but easy. According to Heather, there were several factors that contributed to it:

  • Taking risks: “Risk-taking was critical to our success. We started this at a time in our lives where we have very little financial resources – putting our own money down to charter a ship with no certainty we could sell it was a bit frightening.” 

  • Using the on-line model: “We initiated our Galapagos cruise business when e-commerce related to Galapagos was still in its relative infancy – we didn’t really understand the potential at the time.  It turns out that our early on-line presence as served us well – few others had done so and we stood out, creating a competitive advantage where we could highlight our expertise without much competition.”

  • Self-belief: “We grew our company through the height of the 2008 recession. We believed that we offered a quality product and service and were fortunate to ride the demographic wave of the baby boomers, who, as they retired, put Galapagos at the top of their bucket lists. Through word-of-mouth, they came to us to help them.”

  • Never losing the personalized touch: “As demand for our services grew, we had to develop management protocols and processes that improved productivity and efficiency while maintaining unparalleled personalized service for each and every one of our guests to ensure that from the moment of the first contact until their return home, every need was anticipated and responded to in a timely, appropriate manner. Essentially, I wanted all of our guests to be treated exactly as I would want to be. Not coming from a business background, I learned all of this simply through doing it.”

  • Finding suitable colleagues: “It took 7 years to find the right person: Kelsey Bradley. She came to us after having spent 8 years living and working in Galapagos. Finding a right-hand woman who has both a passion for, and knowledge of, the Galapagos Archipelago, and allocating the resources to take the time to train her to work with our guests, has allowed me to lessen my workload without compromising the quality service for which we are known.”

  • Its people: “I’m a firm believer in surrounding yourself with incredibly capable people and nurturing and caring for those around you. We are very fortunate to have an exceptional team based in Canada, Quito, and Galapagos. Our success stems directly from the excellent, long-term working relationships we share with our team on the ground in Ecuador.”

  • Right attitude: “I am very demanding of myself and I try to empower the women I work with– and it is mainly women –encouraging them to take full ownership for their work and develop their own unique styles, acknowledging when they have done their best – and appreciating them when they do!  My experience has been that people rise to the expectations you have of them.”

For those who plan to follow her footsteps and align their passion with their life purpose, Heather has this advice: “Be true to yourself. Choose your mentors carefully. Don’t forget to reach back and lift up the younger women who are following in your footsteps.”

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