At age 31, she’s going places

Paula de Jong’s Squamish adventure tour service is already a success

She’s charming, young – and driven.

Paula de Jong bought a home in Squamish at the age of 20. Now, only 31, she has a successful tour booking business, has already acquired a second piece of property and dreams of making a difference in international development.

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She learned early how to budget, find the right advisors and work passionately toward success. And if you talk with her, you’ll realize she has only just begun.

Over steaming lattes at the 1914 Coffee Shop downtown, de Jong told me about her journey so far, a story driven by ambition and a love of the outdoors. 

De Jong grew up in a rural village, Terra Cotta, Ont. near Caledon, where her parents would turn off the power so she and her brother would go outside to play instead of watching TV. She loved playing outdoors.

As a teenager, she visited Calgary, and the trip altered the course of her life. “That is when I fell in love with the mountains,” she recalls, sipping the coffee. “Canmore and Banff, they are just so stunning.”

She moved to Nelson, B.C. at age 17 to study resort operations and management at Selkirk College, then ended up at Whistler for a work term. Only 20, she decided to buy a townhouse in Squamish. “I always thought it was strange to pay rent,” says de Jong, the daughter of an entrepreneur.

People cautioned her that home ownership would tie her down, but she immediately proved them wrong. She rented out the rooms and travelled to Thailand, Cambodia and northern India. 

“It was a real eye-opener. I was young and naïve,” she recalls of the trip. “It showed how privileged I was to grow up in Canada, especially as a female. I didn’t realize how many opportunities I had.”

Determined to make a difference in the world, she returned to Canada to study international development, but she had spent all of her savings on the mortgage. For de Jong, however, that was no obstacle; she worked two jobs to put herself through Simon Fraser University. She often studied on the bus back to Squamish before starting her work shifts.

When she went to Fiji to complete her degree, she decided to stay there a whole year and managed it by renting out her own room in Squamish and eating inexpensively, sometimes canned tuna. 

De Jong’s greatest talent might be her ability to find a way to make things work. She was meant to be an entrepreneur.

Three years ago, she launched the tour booking service and has rarely taken a day off since. She has now introduced an app that allows customers to book tours easily on their phones. De Jong realized that smartphones have dominated people’s lives and she needed to make it easy for her customers. She already had a 24/7 call centre – “customers don’t sleep,” she says – and has added a chat function to her extensive website, which even includes interviews with tour providers.

A dirt-biker, snowboarder and surfer, de Jong loves to be outdoors, and the Sea to Sky Corridor is the perfect spot for her to help others embrace outdoor recreation.

She’s excited to be a leader in Squamish tourism, part of its growth and success. De Jong has been nominated as Best Emerging Entrepreneur for the Small Business BC Awards.

After the resource industry declined here with the closure of plants, “I saw tourism as the next logical industry that would come,” she explains. “I hiked up the Chief two years after living here and didn’t realize the ocean was so close. It really sparked me to think: How do you build more awareness of what there is to do in Squamish?”

She launched her business by offering rafting, mountain biking, hiking and flying tours and has since added other activities. Most of her customers find online and the majority of traffic is from Vancouver. Her company has a booking desk at Executive Suites and touch-screen kiosks at Executive Suites and the Howe Sound Brew Pub. And she’s really excited about the new app, which she developed with help from a few experts. She shows it to me on her phone, clicking through tour options and trail information.

She knows Squamish is on the cusp of being discovered by the world, and she’s keen to make it happen. “I like to think we are in this awkward teenager stage where people discover it’s a great place,” she remarks. She says the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish and Great Wolf Lodge resorts could be great for the town, as long as the developers listen to what the community wants.

De Jong, who is on the district’s branding committee, hopes to create success for both the town and herself. She’s succeeding, but her ultimate goal is not personal wealth. She says she’d love to be successful so she can return to international development work – and also make a difference overseas.

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