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MMSt ’76 grad hits his stride with popular walking tour company

Submitted on Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Museology graduate and owner/operator of Discover The Past Walking Tours, John Adams, says ghost tours are by far the most popular with visitors. Photo by Chad Hipolito

In a sense, John Adams’ career has come full circle. One of the things that first piqued his interest in museum studies was a summer job giving tours at historic sites. Over the decades, as he worked in the culture and museums sector for the British Columbia government, he kept on doing tours as a volunteer for historical societies. Then, in 2000, when he started seriously pondering his retirement, he opened his own walking tour company in Victoria to see if guiding tours was something he wanted to do full time. It turned out it was.

“By the time I did retire in 2004 I was actually a I was spending all my available spare time doing tours and once I did retire, I was able to devote all my time to the company,” he says. Adams now earns a living from his business, Discover the Past Walking Tours, and has nine paid employees who work part time including family members. He loves his job.

“I’m my own boss. We are taking the risks and we are building programs and activities,” he says. “Looking back, if I’d had a chance to start my own business earlier, I would have. I just never thought of it.“

Adams enjoyed his 25 years working for the government and, before that, a stint in the non-profit sector. He appreciated the steady pay check, but acknowledges some of the drawbacks of life as a civil servant. As much as he and his team tried to think “outside the box” when he managed a heritage site, it wasn’t always easy to do. “The government didn’t particularly appreciate novel ways of doing things,” he says.

While Adams originally thought he might stay on in Ontario after finishing his Museum Studies degree, he ran out of money before he could finish his thesis and returned home to B.C. to take a much-needed job as curator at the Burnaby Village Museum outside of Vancouver. The pay was minimum wage. “When I look back on it, I was I was probably foolish for having having accepted it, but in the end it turned out to be really good. It was one of those serendipitous moves for me. “

Not only did he finish his thesis and graduate as part of the class of ‘76, he was eventually promoted to museum director and received a healthy raise.  He learned a lot on the job, becoming a “jack of all trades” and making contacts in the B.C .museum community.  

After five years in Burnaby, he accepted a job as Provincial Museums Advisor with the B.C. Provincial Museum accepted a new position with the provincial government in Victoria. “The job was to basically be an outreach curator around B.C. to mostly small and medium sized museums, and it involved a lot of travel. I was on the road a third of my time.” The variety of work –  arranging for seminars, calling on curators, being out in the field – made the assignment a “dream job” until new time-consuming and less enjoyable tasks were added to the role, persuading Adams it was time to move on to another provincial government position at the Heritage Branch, where he remained until his retirement and his reincarnation as an entrepreneur.

While Discover the Past does a range of historical walking tours and regularly adds new ones, its website proclaims that it is best known for its spine-tingling Ghostly Walks, which Adams describes as its “bread and butter.”  He first caught on to what is now a tourism trend when he was still working for the government and the author of a book on ghosts in B.C. contacted him to ask for access to a historic house said to be haunted. As it happened, the author was going to be in town around Halloween and agreed to do a tour, which attracted more visitors than any previous tours. Soon, the ghost tour became an annual Halloween event and major fundraiser for a local historical society, which led to more ghostly tours.

At Discover the Past, ghost tours now outdraw history tours ten to one. ” It wasn’t planned that way but it’s the reality of the situation,” says Adams who laughs when asked if ever feels he’s sold out. “I’m truly interested in ghosts,” he answers, adding that the tours are classic ghost story-telling designed for a crowd that’s usually comprised fifty-fifty of believers and skeptics.  “We just say, enjoy the stories for what they are although we do emphasize that we don’t make them up. We rely on stories that people have experienced. We don’t have people jump out and things like that.”

Adams has also written a book about Victoria’s Chinatown, which is Canada’s oldest and a popular tour destination for both his ghost and neighbourhood historical tours. “It is a national historic site but it’s also a place of misunderstanding and mystery,” he says. “People are curious.”

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