Lezlie Harper, a fifth-plus-generation Black Canadian, grew up in small border town Fort Erie, Ontario. Her first job was bus girl in a restaurant with attached motel that catered to Fort Erie Race Track owners, trainers, and staff who resided there during the season.
"I met wonderful people that first year clearing tables for the racetrack crowd. I had the best boss in the world: Tom Kays, a former CFL player. When the restaurant was super busy—and you don't know where to start—Tom would say, "Just keep moving, Lezlie. Just keep moving!"
Harper loves tourism. Despite trying nursing, event planning, and other careers, she always returned to tourism and has been involved in the industry more than 40 years, on and off.
"There really isn't a better industry."
Following a head injury and needing to work, Harper took a self-employment course and began her own business. She decided on tourism, thinking she knew enough about how it worked. "Live and learn!"
Harper was married when she started her "kitchen table housewife business." When her marriage ended, she worked hard to pay the rent. "Many times, to keep from having a complete meltdown, I'd tell myself, 'It's OK, Lezlie. Just keep moving!'"
Niagara Bound Tours was born March 4, 2004, one of few Black history tours. "People still call it a niche. That's fine with me: The African American tourist market spent roughly $70 billion in 2018. I'm happy to earn a bit of that!" The increasing awareness of Black history is "awesome." Requests from around the world make her smile.
"Many colleagues started embracing Black history for their destinations. When first attending shows for tours I hoped to do, some responded like I spoke a foreign language. Now, they find wonderful Black history stories and promote that area history. Can't get much better than that."
Tourism is a vehicle for talking about Black history—informing and inspiring with stories of people who came before and rose above. Harper loves seeing Black history tourism products elsewhere. "Other destinations telling their stories is icing on the cake!"
Though it's sometimes hard to perceive a tour's impact, the feedback is gratifying. She's had people cry on her tour. They offer books they've written; books about their families; their group T-shirt or hoodie. They recommend Harper's tour to others. Audiences come from around the world, crossing colors and cultures.
"I have to contribute to the heightened awareness of Black history as a tourism product. I'm also looking for that next little gem. There are so many. I wish I had many more years to explore. Not sure two lifetimes would be enough!"
Lessons from Lezlie
Just because you work in an industry doesn't necessarily mean you can run a business! I have such respect for the self-employed. We work all the time.
Make sure you have a passion for the industry. It asks a lot of you! Try to maintain balance in your life.
The tourism industry is people, not process. We want to give people a good, memorable experience they'll share with others. Maybe they'll come back again, too.
Written by Amy L Charles.
This article originally appeared in the May/Jun 2020 issue of Groups Today.