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Keep the beer flowing and the buses rolling: Brew Donkey’s legal battle

By Courtney Merchand on May 22, 2015

If you’re a craft beer lover – and let’s be honest, over the last few years the local beer scene in Ottawa has exploded, making it extremely difficult not to hop on the beer wagon (or in this case, beer bus)  – chances are you’ve already heard about Brew Donkey.

Just last week, the beer-delivery service and brewery tour operator was selling out their meticulously put together excursions while expanding on what they already offer just to keep up with demand. But as if overnight, this small business has come up against their hardest challenge yet.

If you were quick on the draw, you might have snagged yourself a no-charge ticket to one of the seven tours offered on their website – that’s right, a free ticket. Within two days, all seven tours were sold out.

Instead, the company has launched a crowdfunding Indiegogo Campaign so that they can still offer their tours while at least covering some of the costs and financial loss they’re incurring.

The no-charge tickets are part of a drastic measure that Brew Donkey owner Brad Campeau adopted on Tuesday in response to a notice he received from the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO).

TICO is a provincial tourism regulator that believes Brew Donkey is in violation of their mandate “to ensure that anyone involved with selling travel in Ontario is doing so in accordance with the Travel Industry Act.” The Ottawa-based company was given four weeks to cease their operation and comply with TICO’s demands or face legal action.

That means Brew Donkey either has to become a registered travel agent or have all their business pass through the hands of a TICO registered travel agency first.

So far they’ve complied but that doesn’t mean they’re taking it sitting down.

“Becoming a travel agent is very restrictive and cost prohibitive from a business perspective. It would cost us anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to get started,” said Campeau.

With bus tours ranging from $85 to $100 a ticket, it’s an unrealistic price for a small business owner to fork over and still remain profitable. And working with a travel agency means a cut of the profits get pocketed by someone else.

To breakdown the fairly low-risk fee, a portion goes towards paying: the bus and driver, the budding microbreweries for tours and taste tests, the local tour guides and the catering company that supplies delicious sandwich and salad options.

There’s no question that Campeau’s company is grounded in supporting and promoting other local businesses.

So why does it seem like TICO is picking on the little guy?

The issue seems to boil down to the use of outsourced transportation (i.e. renting a bus).

“If I purchase a bus, it’s a waste of resources when there are already companies like our travel partners 417 Bus Lines and Roxborough Bus Lines that have staff that are in need of work and have buses that need to be on the road.”

Being a small business with low monetary risks, Brew Donkey believes they fall under an exemption to the law. Campeau is pleading his case, but until a decision is reached by TICO the company will forge ahead with their sold out, no-cost tours while financially relying on their Indiegogo Campaign.

“For the next month, the campaign will be our only source of income when it comes to bus tours.” The campaign goal is set at $15,000, roughly the equivalent to the amount of tickets they’ve already given away. “This isn’t a project that may or may not go ahead if it doesn’t reach its goal, it’s not about reaching it. Anyone who is donating money is doing so to support our campaign.”

So far, the campaign has reached close to $3,000 but the call for justice has taken over their Twittersphere. An outpouring of support for Brew Donkey has Campeau’s cellphone buzzing uncontrollably. In fact, it was even a trending topic in Ottawa when the news first spread.

I strongly encourage everyone to check out some of the amazing perks of donating to their campaign and support the little guy who is really turning heads in the tourist industry, local community scene and championing microbreweries citywide. But don’t just take it from me, it’s always better coming from the horses… er, donkey’s mouth:

“I’ve built this business over the last 1.5 years. People are coming to my site expecting to find both deliveries and brewery tours. If they come to our site and I can’t sell them a tour, that would be worse in my mind because they may never come back. But if they get to our site and they not only find that we’re continuing to offer tours but that they’re no charge, they’re definitely going to come back. We want to build our customer base, not destroy it.”