Experience PEI

PEI Island food at the heart of experiential tourism business

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly without fear for richer and newer experience.” Eleanor Roosevelt

For many Islanders, the prospect of doing farm chores or tonging for oysters is likely to conjure up some choice thoughts or words. But for a subset of the million plus visitors that find their way to PEI each year, it’s an experience unlike any to be found in the cities many of them are escaping. One they’re willing to pay for. Enter Experience PEI, a local outfit run by Bill and Mary Kendrick. 2017 is shaping up to be an especially notable year for the experiential tourism enterprise, as they establish a partnership with Toronto-based Culinary Adventure Co.

In June the two companies officially launched a Signature Collection of five new PEI-based food experiences with irresistible titles like Fisherman’s Floating Feast and Farmers’ Market Picnic.

“The key thing is interactivity, that there has to be some hands-on component to experience,” Bill Kendrick said. “There also has to be a connection with a local person…the most impact Islanders have on visitors is when they give them some of their time.”

Established in 2006, Experience PEI now offers more than 30 unique experiences, divided into three broad categories — Eat, Play, and Make. The company employs seven tour guides and works with 26 experience providers.

Night at the Track, Experience PEI//Submitted photo

Visitors’ desire to connect with locals was the revelation that first inspired the Kendricks, partners in business and life, to start offering hands-on experiences. At the time the pair were proprietors of the Briarcliffe Inn in Bedeque and searching for ways to differentiate themselves and encourage extended stays.

“Mary took the Experiential Tourism course at Gros Morne [Institute for Sustainable Tourism], she came home really excited about what we could do,” Bill Kendrick said.

At the same time, the couple was able to gather invaluable insights from their guest around the breakfast table. What they kept hearing were stories of chance encounters with farmers or other locals that had left an impression. Experience PEI was born from that nugget of insight, combined with Mary’s training at Gros Morne.

“We started that first year with six experiences,” said Bill Kendrick. “We recognized that food-related and seafood-related experiences, in particular, were of interest to visitors.”

Clamdiggers, Experience PEI//Submitted photo

The couple only had to go down the road to Salutation Cove in Fernwood to start developing working experience, Tong & Shuck. They paid a visit to the Lewis brothers, Brian and Erskine, of Future Seafood, with a proposition that was unusual to say the least.

“‘Why in the world would anyone want to pay to do this?’ was Brian’s first reaction,” Bill said. Once the couple convinced the oyster fishermen that people would actually want to pay for the laborious joy of tonging crustaceans, the Kendricks busied themselves transforming the oyster factory into a welcoming space and developing a memorable experience.  

“We laid out their kitchen to be a high-end cafe,” Mary Kendrick said, sharing details of the renovation, including the installation of a stocked bar, and displaying the Lewis brothers’ awards and collection of oyster labels. The Tong & Shuck experience itself was carefully crafted, with an emphasis on education and interaction. Guests would get instruction on everything from how to plate properly to how to clean and shuck the oysters and, of course, how to tong for oysters from the Lewis brothers’ dory.

The experience was a hit amongst visitors. So much so that the Kendricks found themselves regularly challenged with the task of accommodating more and more guests on each tour. “It was so successful, it became a victim of its own success,” Bill Kendrick said of their partnership with the Lewis brothers, which eventually ran its course. After four or five years the brothers decided to exit so they could focus on their livelihoods as oyster fishermen. “We parted as good friends.”  

Their success with Tong & Shuck was demonstrative of the couple’s ability to zero in on what visitors were seeking from an Island experience. They replicated this formula and with each passing year Experience PEI expanded its offerings and further solidified its reputation as a quality tourism operator. A milestone came by way of a relationship the Kendricks developed with Aquila Tours, which arranges shore excursions for cruise visitors. Today, the cruise market makes up fifty per cent of Experience PEI’s business.

Floating Lobster Boil, Experience PEI//Submitted photo

“We’re fate-drive people, very much jumpers-into things,” said Mary Kendrick, by way of explaining the decisions they’ve made throughout their lives – from moving to PEI at the request of Mary’s employer at the time to buying the Briarcliffe Inn to secure a documentary deal with HGTV.

Their propensity to dive into unchartered waters and willingness to start anew are surely key ingredients to the couple’s successful business ventures. In 2014, the couple took another leap of faith, putting the Briarcliffe Inn up for sale despite having built it into a popular 4.5 star country inn.

“Experience PEI had grown to the point where we couldn’t continue both businesses,” said Bill Kendrick. “Our involvement with cruise ships had grown significantly; the future growth potential was with Experience PEI.”

As their 11th operating season unfolds, the Kendricks continue to embrace a fate-driven and collaborative approach to running Experience PEI. “Kevin Durkee [of Culinary Adventure Co.] approached us last year while on the East Coast and invited us to dinner,” Bill Kendrick said, explaining how their partnership with Canada’s largest food tour and adventure operator was born. “He asked us if we’d be willing to work with him [to develop new PEI-based culinary experiences].”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication’s inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon’s either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a holistic-nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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