Three years ago I found out that LinkBC, the organization I helped build for 10 years, was closing. I was at a complete crossroads: on maternity leave, with a Vancouver-sized mortgage, and a sense I wanted to work in tourism and education but no idea of how to do it.
I took steps towards going back to university to become a high school teacher. I reached out for coffee with friends. I accepted a one-day-per-week contract at the University of the Fraser Valley, knowing there was no way I could get a post-secondary job closer to home.
Then on one of my coffee chats, an old friend from Royal Roads mentioned that BCIT wanted an instructor with a tourism background. She forwarded me the posting and I quickly hopped on the phone to the program head. A month later I was interviewing for the position. It was the most stressful interview of my life, but miraculously, I got the job.
That fall, I returned to the workforce with three jobs: teaching at UFV, wrapping up LinkBC, and teaching at BCIT.
I knew from day one that BCIT was my place. It’s my alma mater. It changed my life and gave me a career in an industry I’m passionate about. And to be walking the halls of SE6 felt right. I was home.
So why is it my last day at BCIT?
That’s an incomplete thought. It’s my last day at BCIT as a temporary instructor. I am thrilled to say that I competed for, and was awarded, a full-time permanent faculty position in the department.
Effective tomorrow, BCIT is officially my gig. I am over the moon grateful and very excited for what’s to come. Thank you to my students, my colleagues, my friends, family, and industry contacts. Your support has been, and will continue to be, greatly appreciated.
The program is a win-win for families and attractions alike, keeping kids busy on a budget while exposing parents to a world of activities in their backyard.
I was so intrigued by the idea, and the operation, that I had a chat with Brian Dean, the one-man-band behind Kidsworld. I’m going to share this with my entrepreneurship class this fall; it’s a great story of how tourism businesses are started and sustained with lots of hard work and passion.
We’ve been around for 25 years, ever since another man named Brian built the program slowly from the ground up. His background was in tourism and his wife was a school principal and they were passionate about meshing educational opportunities with a way for families to spend quality time together around the city. The program seemed to fill a gap with what was available.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine connected us – the ‘original Brian’ was looking to retire. I had been the Program Director of Keats Camps, and while I love the camp, it wasn’t sustainable because you have to move away to an island a few months a year. Before that I was a youth worker on the North Shore. I had been on the search for the right entrepreneurial activity for years. My passions lined up with Kidsworld … this was it!
You mention passion, where did the money come from?
The founding Brian grew Kidsworld organically over the long term, without investors, but also without any goals in terms of growing the business to a specific size or to turn a specific profit. That means the model of the business has the potential for growth in multiple ways.
I purchased the business for a reasonable sum of money that I had saved over the years (as I was looking for an entrepreneurial venture). This business doesn’t have much overhead, and I used my savings to get me through the first year without having to generate much income.
My desire is to learn the business through-and-through for a couple of years and then focus on healthy growth.
What’s your academic and business experience?
I have an undergrad degree in youth work and a Masters of Leadership – which was a great fit because it paralleled an MBA but focused on vision, leadership, and entrepreneurship rather than managing existing systems and people. My years at Keats Camps involved hiring over 100 staff, training them, running the summer operations (and being responsible for almost 400 people a week mostly under the age of 22). I am also on the board of a not-for-profit (church), and have worked as a consultant.
What’s a day in the life for you?
The thing with running your own one-person company is you’re responsible for everything! From the business side to logistics (registration, checking families in on site), to being the face of the organization, there are a lot of hats. With that said, I love that I work from home, and am flexible as my own boss. The hard part is that you never feel like you can leave work behind, because you’re the only one making in happen.
From September to June, my role is focused on networking with organizations to set up events. We have summer events, and weekend events throughout the school year. On event days I’m present to build rapport with the host organizations and the families.
What’s the biggest challenge about running a company like Kidsworld?
There are two major challenges.
First, as I’ve said, I’m the only person. Mentally that’s very draining – to have your livelihood in your own hands, to have the expectations of hundreds of others for you to do a quality job. It’s hard to take a couple of days off, as emails add up and you feel responsible to respond quickly. It’s also hard because I need to become good in the areas where I’m not naturally gifted; for example graphic design isn’t a strong suit but with my budget I need to learn to create good content myself.
Second, I’m constantly searching for new organizations to partner with. Between our two programs (Summer and school year), we work with closer to 100 organizations! That’s a lot for one person to network, arrange, maintain relationships, and be on top of. Very detailed notes are needed to keep it all together. There are a lot of organizations in Vancouver, but setting up partnerships with so many is not an easy task.
So then what’s the biggest reward?
I love many aspects of my job. I waited for this opportunity because I didn’t want to be motivated mostly by money. I want to make an impact in people’s lives and support families. So much of a healthy society seems to stem from having healthy families. Kidsworld allows me to build a business, which I’ve always wanted to do, while also making a tangible impact in people’s lives.
On the business side, the greatest reward is I have learned a lot and met a tonne of great people. I feel like I know everyone in Vancouver at this point, and each day I learn about how I can improve my own business.
Any advice for tourism students and future entrepreneurs?
Be passionate about your chosen area of work, whether it’s as an entrepreneur or otherwise. You spend a lot of your life at work, even more if you consider how much it can be on your brain. You have to believe in the importance of it. I strongly believe the best entrepreneurs are those who also make the world a better place as they build their business.
Entrepreneurship is 99% figuring it out as you go. It’s taking a step forward. You don’t need it all together beforehand, just a willingness to learn, ask for help, and to try your hardest.
Make sure you love it before you invest your life into it! There are a million different avenues that entrepreneurship can take you. It’s an exciting and exhausting journey, so invest yourself in something you’re passionate about.
Maik Uhlmann is a recent graduate of the BBA from Okanagan College, where he specialized in hospitality and tourism management and was a two-time Case Competition participant. Born and raised in Germany, Maik is now working as an admin for Cactus Club at their West Broadway location in Vancouver. I was lucky enough to catch up with Maik over coffee where we reflected on his education, his career, and where he’s headed.
Tourism Nerd: How did you end up in Canada?
I travelled around the world for four years and when I was in South America I thought “North America is the only place I haven’t been, I need to go there!”
So I applied for a working holiday visa to the United States and also for Canada, and … if I’m honest … Canada was quicker. I got the Canadian visa and now, eight years later, I’m still here!
TN: Did you ever think about going back to Germany?
After that first year in the Okanagan, having travelled the world, I hadn’t seen my family in four years. But going back to Germany I realized I’d changed, the people I grew up with changed. My hometown is old school: go to school, get married, have kids … I had other dreams I wanted to pursue.
I fell in love with Kelowna and wanted to stay, and the way that I could get back into the country was by being a student. If I’m honest, I never really wanted to study when I finished high school and getting a BBA was never my dream. But I did my research into UBCO and Okanagan College and when I looked at the reviews, considering the English programs are the same, why should I spend twice as much on the same course?
TN: So you became a full time OC student!
Okanagan College gave me a warm welcome. They have a good support network, and talking to advisors I learned more about the process (I had no idea how the school system even works here). After I finished my ESL courses, I applied for the diploma, which gave me two more years in my new community.
Two more years was all I could afford to do. But I was faced with the challenge of “this – the two year diploma – won’t be recognized back home.” So I talked to my parents and said “Mom and Dad, I’m sorry, I don’t want to come home” and after all those years of me being away, I think they realized that already. They said “ok, do a degree and then you will have an internationally-recognized credential.”
I was an ESL student, I had a good GPA, I was involved in the community and a number of different school aspects, and at the end of the third year my instructor was like “you should do honours!” and I think when I signed up I was the first international student graduating with an honours … at least I’d never heard of it happening before.
TN: What stands out from your days at school?
I went from being an ESL student to registering for the BBA, to committing to the honours program. This honours piece – in terms of doing a primary research component for an industry client – really sticks out in my mind. I did a project with Westside UBrew. Here we are in the wine region attracting tourists and a UBrew is competing for clients, wanting to know how to attract a younger demographic. It was a fascinating project, I felt like I was really contributing to the Kelowna business community.
Another course that stands out is Tourism Stewardship, doing a sustainability analysis for the Kelowna airport, and we were only three students and it was hands-on work, going out into the community and being involved in it, this was tremendous.
In every course (except for Intro to Tourism) I had the benefit of meeting key players in the local industry, which was great. And I loved Government Policy! Well, maybe not at the time … I never understood it until I studied for the test, and then it clicked. Now reading the paper, listening to current events, I understand why they are having this discussion.
TN: What courses were your least favourite?
I would lie if I didn’t say statistics! I would say the one that I least enjoyed … all classes were challenging, but you can work through them … I struggled with law. And it’s funny because I may still want to go to law school, but it was in the beginning of my whole degree, I was still learning English. Considering the vocabulary and knowledge I have now I think I would have been able to approach it differently than I did at the time.
TN: What is your day-to-day like now?
I was very selective when I started my job search, and I interviewed for a few positions, some that were way beyond my capabilities and I surprisingly got interviews for positions that were beyond, I mean … the people who won the positions had many more years of experience.
My life was taking me to Vancouver and I knew I didn’t want to go back to hotels and a friend of mine who works at Cactus said “we need an office manager” and the more I looked at it, the more I could see the opportunity there.
I try to think strategically about my career. Every time I didn’t get a job, I would ask for feedback and they’d tell me it’s because I don’t have admin experience. And I do need to prove myself – especially in a new community – it’s something I haven’t done. I’ve worked in hotels, restaurants, wineries … but never this type of ‘office job’ and I’m very grateful for it.
Now I can see it from the back-of-house perspective, I don’t face guests, I don’t have to put in crazy hours, I’m filling those gaps on my resume – and everyone I talk to respects Cactus Club as an organization. With a regular job I have the time to get to know the community more and volunteer, I have time to give back.
I’m volunteering with the Hospitality Foundation and increasing my networks, and getting to know the city. I don’t have money to give back but I have time and some knowledge to give back and would like to be more engaged in the community.
TN: What are your career dreams?
There are different avenues, I have a bit of scatterbrain … I’m passionate about tourism and travel and want to work in the industry, preferably in destination development. I think one of my key strengths is developing relationships and providing knowledge on how everything is connected.
With my running buddy we say if nothing else works out, we can go to law school. I think it might make sense, international law, immigration law – it still has to do with the movement of people and providing them the knowledge that I have. However, if opportunities come up at Cactus, I am definitely not saying no!
Ultimately the dream, what I want … I want to have my own business and I’m saving up to start it. I want to have multiple businesses. Riding my bike by the harbour everyday, seeing the boats and houseboats, I think to myself “a houseboat boutique B and B” would work, not an AirBnB, but a fully functioning part of the visitor economy that contributes back to the industry and community. A boutique B and B that happens to be right – right – on the water.
And I always dreamt of having a sports hotel. They don’t exist here, we have them in Europe. One of my favourite memories from when I was on the national team for nine pin bowling … we would visit these training camps in preparation for the world cup. The one I enjoy is at the top of a hill, called Sportpark Rabenberg, it’s a secluded area. All the guests who come there do sports – you are not there to relax, you’re there to train – it’s sports camp with accommodation together.
One of the great things about that experience is it brings together different athletes from different sports. We would be sitting in the dining hall and you could see into the professional dancers ballroom. Watching them train just as athletes do, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their training left an impression on me.
So it would be my dream to open one of these here. I want to see people succeed, I want to have people come to my place, cry, sweat, and then see them on the TV years later winning a medal.
Those are the things that get me up in the morning, and keep me up during the day, and this is what I want to work for.
TN: Any advice for tourism and hospitality students?
There are a few things I wish I had known before I started my program. I’d say:
1. Volunteer and be active in the community. Jonathan Rouse (dean of the hospitality program) was one of the people who encouraged me do more, trying to get a tourism club up and running on campus … trying to raise the profile of tourism on campus, we had 16 people at our first meeting and it was hard to break through and get people involved but I’m glad I tried.
2. Work and take on extra activities in your workplace. When I was working for Delta Hotels and I wanted to know more I participated in workplace related programs such as the Green Team or the Bike Ride for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. If you work, be involved in your work and get to know your colleagues.
3. Have a talk with your professors. I eventually realized, “hey my profs are connected and have the knowledge and different way of doing things”. They can give you extra perspective, they know what’s happening – Blair’s advice, Laura’s advice and Michael’s advice, it all contributed.
4. Get engaged in the industry. When I went to a restaurant, I would speak to the owner. Don’t be shy, get to know the tourism businesses around you.
5. Say yes to the extras. Participate in competitions like I did with the LinkBC Case Competition – my public speaking has improved drastically, I met people in industry. I don’t want to play the ESL card but it’s different and you stand in front of a room full of people, I don’t know the vocabulary and trying to wiggle your way around the language in front of a crowd and judges and industry … it’s tough. I competed in RRU and Queen’s competitions too.
6. Just fight for it. The first year at university was not easy, given my language skills weren’t there, my confidence level was low, I was dressing differently … I didn’t want to speak up because I was worried someone would make fun of me. At some point I said to my classmates: “we don’t need to get along, we just have one goal, and that’s to walk across the stage”. I’m glad I stood up for myself.
7. Be a contributor. Seeing brilliant minds coming out of post-secondary – we can innovate, innovation doesn’t always need to look like change or be threatening. Let’s focus on how can we help the industry make more money, collaborate more.
8. Learn the tourism language. Post-secondary helps you be confident with the language, remember those words, those terms your instructors are teaching you, you can go to a conference and understand what’s going on and connect with people working in the industry and make sense.
TN: That’s some great advice! Any parting words for our readers?
My idol is Walt Disney who said “if you can dream it you can do it”, and that’s how I live my life.