“Hello, how are you?”, “Hello! Beautiful day today!” The man coming up to meet us is Marc Cudia, one of the owners of the outstanding Voiles en Voiles park at the Old Port. Since he arrived for the interview a little bit before us, he spent his time greeting the employees at the reception desk and the groups preparing to welcome the public. Everyone crossing his path received the same genuine smile and greeting. And now it’s our turn.
As we settled into our wooden chairs at the heart of the park, we noted that it was still pretty quiet, but Marc remained optimistic. “From my experiences here, let’s just say that this isn’t the first challenge I’ve had to face,” he informs us. “The entire tourism industry is being impacted these days. Along with my associates, Jean-Philippe Duchesneau and Nicolas Gosselin, we have seen some nice growth these past few years, and now 2020 has forced us to take a bit of a pause. But it has been a good chance to stop and ask ourselves: “Are we on the right trajectory? Are we still relevant?” And our conclusion was yes. Even if travel and tourism is down, there are still visitors that choose to come see us.”
The presence of the company run by the three entrepreneurs can be felt throughout the Old Port. Alongside the likes of SOS Labyrinthe and Samuel Cadotte’s Zipline MTL, Écorécréo proposes an aerial obstacle course in the form of Voiles en Voiles, playing host to giant boats, inflatable structures, and water games. Aside from this, though, Écorécréo also deals in paddle boats for use in the Bonsecours Basin, as well as the unmistakable quadricycles. The bigger the company, the bigger the challenges. But there hasn’t been anything that this trio couldn’t face. “Being a partnership of three is a real asset, because when a situation arises and shakes everything up (like what we’re living through in this very moment), we can come together in order to take it on. And it’s also given a real shine to this company, a brilliance that I would not have been able to create by myself.”
Is it always easy for them, though? Marc explains: “We were friends before becoming business partners. Together, we know what each one can bring to the table and even if the end result isn’t exactly what we expected, at the end of the day, we know that everyone really did do their best.” As in any organisation, each person has his personality and way of doing things. But for Marc Cudia, making compromises is a small price to pay when compared with the end gains. “Of course, it occurred to me that I would need to change my vision on how to reach this or that objective, because I was no longer just on my own. But I knew that it was always for the good of the company, our shared top priority and all for the sake of our 300 seasonal and fifteen regular employees.”
For those that may not have seen his passage in Dragons, or who haven’t read his autobiography, Marc’s childhood was a whirlwind of moving from foster family to foster family, and consequently, he was often changing schools. But as he freely admits, he “turned out okay”. From his difficult origins, to the happier end results, he has been taken by the idea of sharing his encouraging story, notably as president of the administrative board of the Service d’hébergement St-Denis. “I got to know a lot of the young people at the hostels in the heart of Quebec. I want to express to them that they have the ability to change their trajectory. If they put all their effort behind it, they can improve their lot in life. It’s not easy, and I know it’s not the norm, but it is possible.” Marc insists upon doing his part and leaving a legacy. “Life is a multitude of meetings that help us all to progress. There is always someone you will meet who may be critical and could help you on your way.” And we have no trouble in believing that he may be that very person to many youths out there who are lacking hope or a role model.
“Once a project allows you to be happy, or doesn’t keep you from being happy, it’s a go! But, if a project is going to drag you down, rather than push you up, what do you do then? In my life, I haven’t always made the most lucrative choices. But conversely, I’ve always made the decisions that were most in line with my values: happiness, engagement, enthusiasm,” Marc states. We can tell that this businessman really has his professional life together. He further explains: “For example, we decided to reimburse those who no longer wanted to come this season. After all, everyone is in a difficult situation, we don’t want our customers to have to come see us against their will. Of course on a cash-flow level, it’s not the most apparent, but we’re convinced that this will be a good business move in the long run, because it’s good for the public.”
“Carrying out your studies gives a structure, a methodology. I’ve seen it with my associates, they’re very organised and pragmatic. I work a bit more through intuition and trial-and-error. They do things faster than I do, but I bring my own energy. I’m the heart to their reason and that’s what makes our trio work!” With years of entrepreneurial experience, Marc Cudia has acquired a businessman’s acumen. “Entrepreneurship is a great teacher. Even when we don’t know where it will lead us, it’s always a good source of lessons!” And Marc forges ahead, living out his motto: “Think big, but go through it step by step.” And of course when we bring up the subject of growing the company, he knows what he’s talking about. “I could have just stopped at the pedal boats and quadricycles. I would have had my little business and lived just fine. But I was just exploding with ideas. Jean-Philippe and Nicolas allowed me to take a whole new direction. Like me, they also wanted to make their mark. We created an organisation that could outlive us and had the DNA of all three creators. Occasionally, it was a stumbling block, but ultimately it became our biggest opportunity.”
The majority of their seasonal employees (though there aren’t as many as last year) are pretty young. For Marc Cudia, these brand representatives are out on the frontlines, interacting with clients. In addition to the respect he has for them and that the notion of customer service being top priority for Marc, he insists on the central role that Écorécréo can play for these young workers. “We want to foster a strong work ethic. Before, when you saw a young person wearing certain brands, like McDonald’s for example, you would instantly understand the implications. And we want that to be the case here, too. “Oh, you work with Écorécréo? That’s great!” Oftentimes, it’s one of their first jobs, if not the very first. It’s important for us to prepare them for life beyond this position, as citizens and future professionals.” When looking closer at his LinkedIn profile, we noticed that he switched his title from “President” to “Happiness Manager”, an innocuous little change that just makes you smile. “I feel like it’s a step up! To our partners, visitors, and on-site teams, I’m kind of considered the guardian of the business’ DNA. I watch over everything, tie up all the loose ends, and I make sure that everyone feels at home around us.”
“In our industry, Merlin Entertainements is a giant. They have, what, 29 attraction park brands across the world? Along with Jean-Philippe and Nicolas, we sometimes entertain the idea of becoming a Canadian Merlin! We have the expertise and we’re often solicited for consultations, so why not?!” This ambition isn’t as titanic as it might seem. We feel that it’s completely within Marc and his associate’s abilities, especially when you consider the combined force of these three men who are capable of building parks and concepts that exceed the bounds of industry norms.
Outside of the structures, scenarios, and knowhow, the trio has an obsession. “I attended a conference directed by a Zipline owner in Costa Rica, and he posed the question: who is known for the best customer service? We muttered some responses, but he finished by saying Gandhi and Mother Teresa, because they were literally “at the service of”. People have less and less time, and the world is a little scary. We have to make their time with us unforgettable with impeccable customer service.”
“At some point, when we just had the paddle boats and the quadricycles, we noticed a bit of a downturn in families around le Vieux. Like it had become a bit elitist to come here. But now, COVID notwithstanding, numbers are back up! With our neighbours SOS Labyrinthe, the zipline, and us at Voiles en Voiles, we have been able to create an attractive family destination,” Marc analyses. Reinforcing his hypothesis, families with young children and teens can’t ignore how fun these family activities are, how well they adapt to all ages, and how it allows families to make memories together. “We developed attraction scenarios, and we wanted to remain relevant to our environment. We just couldn’t detach ourselves from the history of Old Montreal and the Old Port. Hence, the Royal Ship. And then the nautical world of piracy just evokes this nostalgia for another era. With our boats and obstacle courses, I believe we’ve been able to successfully represent the place.”
“I first got to know le Vieux in 1987. But I’m still always moved when I see visitors on our quadricycles beside the boats, and it still sometimes feels unreal that I get to work here. I should be used to it by now, but for me, it’s a real privilege to work here,” Marc emphasizes. “Challenges are different, working conditions are different, this site has become highly-prized, and competition among other attraction parks has only increased. We just need to continue working hard and, above all, working together. For me, the Old Port/Old Montreal association is most welcome; we’re part of an interdependent community and each player is important.” Furthermore, Marc is integrated and well-familiar with the area. “Our offices are in Bonsecours Market, and I spend more time in the neighbourhood here than at home; I’m a true Gen du Vieux!” he boasts, before informing us of the businesses in town that he’s owned for a long time: Jardin Nelson, a paragon of ambiance, quality service, and hospitality; Les 2 Pierrots, quite the institution!; and the Dépanneur du Fiacre, whose 3 owners, Danielle, Joe, and Paul, “paid for their children’s quadricycle tours in exchange for popsicles,” he laughs heartily.
“My daughter Julianne has already worked two summers here. She wanted to go to New York with her aunt, and so she saved up her money. She worked here for three weeks, which allowed her to see the world I live in and what my daily routine looks like. My son can’t wait for his turn.” Marc Cudia is as happy as a clam. “Throughout my life, I thought I didn’t want to have children, even though my wife did. And I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t want children, but that I was scared, and I didn’t want them to have the same life that I did. Today, I think that they’re pretty spoiled and I’m continuing to pass on good values to them. I repeatedly tell them that you have to work hard to get what you want.” When we ask him what his kids think of his job as the head of an amusement park, he hesitates for a moment before smiling and saying: “I think they’re proud of their papa.”
“We are convinced that what we teach or pass on here can serve a young person throughout the rest of their life. Whether it be surpassing oneself, discovering a new passion, or becoming empowered. I myself have never run through any courses. I have a debilitating fear of heights,” the businessman confesses to us as we hear ambient laughter emanating from the royal ship. “Our patrollers constantly evaluate the situation. We don’t systematically evacuate people, but accompany them and help them to the end. One day, there was a mom who was so moved, and she came to me to tell me how she witnessed her son growing as a person after having finished the course. That right there is our greatest reward. As a dad myself, I was all the more affected.”
“In Buddhism, they say that if you are happy, you shine and people appreciate you. That’s what I want to do,” Marc explains. But beyond these wise words, it is evident how engaged and engaging this trio is by their complete devotion to philanthropy. “For us three, giving back to the community in which our businesses have grown is very important.” He ticks off some examples: “We have raised up to $398,158 for Leucan over the past 4 years, we have participated in some Leadership grants, we are often solicited by various organisations, and whenever it comes to helping children, it’s rare that we say no. With just my company alone, I was not able to give much. The sheer magnitude of these donations is only possible thanks to our association. With Nicolas and Jean-Philippe, we have been able to go much farther.” But this trio isn’t the only one doing the heavy lifting, and when Marc described their employee’s impact, you could feel a strong pride surging forth from him. “It also feels very uniting when our teams get together for a good cause. When Nicolas came up with the Leucan Journey, everyone helped out, even outside of their scheduled hours, treating it as one of their normal tasks!”
Through his journey, we can understand how Marc gained his great sensitivity and compassionate understanding. Documenting his life into a book at the beginning of the quarantine may seem ambitious, but that would be an understatement. “For me, it’s more of a lived truth, than an autobiography! After Dragons, I went on Pénélope McQuade’s show and the interview that was supposed to be about my company sort of veered off toward the subject of my life path and childhood. When they proposed the book project, I wasn’t so sure, but I did see an opportunity to take the time to look back over my life and maybe be able to inspire at least one person,” he reflects. “My experience on TV, and then with the book, made me speak a little more about Jean-Philippe and Nicolas, but my journey is in service of our business, and that’s exactly why I talk about them so much,” he reminisces, never ceasing praise for his two friends. “My journey sells well, it’s a good story. But that alone won’t be bought by our partners or the visitors we cross paths with here and who, more often than not, don’t even know who I am. They come for the park and to create memories, and that’s just how it should be.”