Behind his desk, Bob Wright wears a white dress shirt and black suit jacket with “the company uniform” – blue jeans. “I don’t want to sit around in a tie all day,” he says gruffly, flicking the open collar of his shirt. At nearly 81 years old, Wright is in his office every day, keeping a sharp eye on his business.
Next week though, he will be in Ottawa being inducted into the Canadian Tourism Hall of Fame.
Wright began his working life in the newspaper industry. He moved through circulation to advertising and editorial at the Edmonton Bulletin, for the hefty sum of $65 a month. When the paper was bought by a competitor and closed, Wright’s boss transferred to the Times in Victoria. “I didn’t know where Victoria was,” said Wright. “He knew I liked the outdoors, hunting and fishing so he lured me out to work here. The first dozen times I went fishing I was skunked. After a while I became a reasonably good fisherman.”
His love of the outdoors and fishing led him to start a fishing charter business, now the Oak Bay Marine Group of Companies which includes 25 businesses in Victoria, the U.S. and the Bahamas.
Wright’s office at the Oak Bay Marina contains a collection of memorabilia from a career that now spans six decades. A shelf across from his desk is a hodge-podge of photos, awards, scrapbooks and mementoes, including an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Victoria. The desk itself is covered with an array of papers, knick-knacks and photographs, most of which include fish. What you won’t find on Wright’s desk is a computer; he doesn’t carry a cellphone either. “At my age, I don’t have time to figure out that stuff,” he said.
Wright’s businesses cover a variety of aspects of the hospitality industry including hotels, resorts, eco- and adventure-tourism, spas, restaurants, campgrounds, marinas and of course, sport fishing.
“The success of the sport fishing industry in British Columbia which attracts thousands of tourists each year is due in no small part to the vision, passion, and tenacity that Mr. Wright demonstrates each and every day of his life,” said the Canadian Tourism Hall of Fame in a press release.
Wright was one of the first commissioners for Canada on the Pacific Salmon Treaty; he earned the gold trophy marketing award from Industry, Science and Technology Canada for business excellence; the B.C. Ambassador for Tourism award and the Leadership award from the B.C. Marine Trades Association, among numerous others.
“I spent six years (as alderman) with the city of Victoria and did the Chinatown Gates of Harmonious Interest. That was my baby,” he said.
Wright built Sealand in Oak Bay in 1980. The attraction was a huge success.
“When I started it the Canadian government was sending out these fisheries guys with machine guns to Estevan Point, north of Campbell River, to kill the killer whales coming down because the commercial fisheries said they were wrecking their nets. I was going snake over that.”
Controversy over the captivity of whales, along with the death of a part-time trainer led to Sealand’s closure in 1991. Kelti Byrne, 20, a UVic marine biology student, fell into the whale pool after a show. The orcas dragged and submerged her until she drowned, despite rescue efforts by other trainers. Wright remembers her as “a beautiful young lady.”
Byrne’s death aside, he doesn’t regret opening Sealand of the Pacific.
His experience with the mammals eventually led him to donate $11 million to UVic for scientific research on climate change and the creation of the Bob Wright Centre for Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
The Canadian Tourism Hall of Fame recognizes individuals whose actions have had a positive impact on the industry they serve. Wright will be honoured at the Hall of Fame luncheon in Ottawa on Nov. 23 along with another local, Rod Harris, former president and CEO of Tourism British Columbia.