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Westcoast Sightseeing sees future in social purpose

One of three electric buses currently in service with Westcoast Sightseeing. The company plans for 80 by 2023.

You’ve probably seen Gray Line Westcoast Sightseeing’s Hop-on Hop-off buses filled with tourists and locals alike across the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Whistler. These bright blue, and soon to be green, buses are just a small part of Westcoast’s fleet, which includes The Vancouver Trolley Company, and serves over half a million visitors annually.

This local company has come a long way from its start in 1984 as a family business delivering minibus tours. After many years of rapid growth, they wanted to take the opportunity to step back from their business and think about how to maximize their contribution to society around them.

A difference that matters for business and community

So, several years ago, they began considering a developing a social purpose. That’s because Westcoast’s President Stuart Coventry understood that more and more businesses are being judged by consumers and employees for values they hold and by the effect they are having in the larger community. Good business means being a good steward of the community and world we live, work and play in.

While Westcoast was invested in developing a social purpose, they couldn’t move past the initial stages. They wanted to future-proof their business by articulating a social purpose that would differentiate them and enable innovation. But they needed support to do it. That’s because unlike a short-term or one-time CSR tactic, establishing a social purpose takes time and effort to implement  into a business in a way that can guarantee long-term, sustainable impact.

“Unless you have a particular focus and you’re dedicated to the cause, it can be difficult [to do] during the course of business operations,” Stuart says.

 SPI helps

Enter the Social Purpose Institute at United Way and the Social Purpose Innovators program, which helps companies uncover or hone their distinctive, ‘best fit’ social purpose. Westcoast was a member of the inaugural Social Innovators program in 2018. By the end of the program, they had developed a social purpose statement: to guide shared experiences that foster social awareness. To that end, they have committed to converting their fleet of over 80 vehicles to zero-emission, electric buses over the next five years.

SPI moderator, Coro Strandberg with four companies, from our first Innovators cohort, presenting at our Critical Friends Hot Seat. The Hot Seat helps companies ’stress-test’ their draft social purpose to be sure it resonates clearly.

“Westcoast Sightseeing has done an amazing job in defining their social purpose,” says Mary Ellen Schaafsma, Director of the Social Purpose Institute at United Way. “Their capacity to help build a better world increased exponentially by adopting a a social purpose lens on their business.”

Want to learn more?

Social Purpose Innovators is a part-time intensive program that includes a mix of expert and peer-to-peer learning, collaborating, and hands-on work – both in and between five 4-hour lab sessions in which companies research, ideate, define, test and create their organization’s social purpose.

In the research phase, the SPI team helps organizations like Westcoast uncover their distinctive strengths, key stakeholders’ needs and the social issues they can address their core business. During ideation, organizations set priorities and test ideas to refine their social purpose opportunities and prepare to draft their company’s core social mission. The defining phase consists of developing a statement, determining an organization’s business model, drafting a narrative to help determine the company’s higher purpose and how it creates financial and social value.

Gray Line Westcoast Sightseeing President Stuart Coventry.

For Westcoast this means the ability to share not only BC’s beauty and stories with visitors, but also how, through its social purpose, it can make a difference at home.

“As a tour company, they have the opportunity to promote social cohesion by creating connections among people from all over the world while also taking care of our precious environment through good practices,” says Mary Ellen.

“The electric bus program is just one way that the people of Vancouver can tangibly see what Gray Line Westcoast Sightseeing is doing to be more sustainable in our environment,” Stuart says. “The initial steps to launch such a program require a real commitment on many levels. We genuinely hope our example will foster further commitment from other businesses and partners in the greater community”

The organization now runs three electric vehicles in its local sightseeing programs and is working with the City and Port Vancouver to develop a charging infrastructure that will not only benefit Westcoast but many other companies that want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and climate impact.

Recently, Gray Line also received the first two of 80 zero-emission electric buses it ordered from Chinese automaker BYD. This is a huge step towards the goal of operating an all-electric fleet of vehicles. Once the full fleet is operational, they Gray Line estimates that it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 2,000 tonnes per year.

“You have to be able to think more than a day, a week, a month ahead. You have to understand that social impact, sustainability and business bottom line can be married together as one,” Stuart says.

Two cohorts of Social Purpose Innovators are offered per year (early Spring and Fall starts) to a limited number of participating organizations. Visit www.socialpurpose.ca/innovators  for more information on how to sign up for this program.

Updated: July 21, 2019

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