Clash of the Quackers

The Bay Quackers tours were a big duck in a small pond until a bigger flock showed up.

"You can do one of two things," he says he told Herschend. "If you're going to clobber us, buy us out. We'll give you the keys to the city and make sure everything is okay. Or we will make sure you will never operate in the city again."

At the time, Scannell figured Ride the Ducks, with its Southern values and links to the Christian right, would be duck sauce in a city like San Francisco. He imagined protests in the street, bad press, and Ride the Ducks fleeing with its tailfeathers between its legs.

According to Scannell, Herschend asked how much he wanted for Bay Quackers. "We gave him a price in the millions," Scannell says. "He gave us a price in the hundred-thousand-dollar range. That's less than what we used to restore one duck." He refused the offer, and says he'll never forget Herschend's last words: "I'll see you on the field." Herschend meant the streets of Fisherman's Wharf, where the two companies would be competing for business with more than 25 other city tours.

Captain Ingemar Olsson gives quacking orders.
Captain Ingemar Olsson gives quacking orders.

Visitors walking down Jefferson Street are ambushed by tour opportunities. Party boat operators announce daily trips around the bay. Double-decker buses and hop-on-hop-off tours seem to rumble past as often as stoplights change. Walking tours, Segway tours, cable car tours, Alcatraz cruises, wine country tours, fire engine tours, and tours in 1930s cars that now run on propane all line the streets, as do salespeople handing out glossy pamphlets. It seems there are two of every kind of tour these days, and sometimes four or five.

For the manager of City Sightseeing — one of several red double-decker bus tours in San Francisco — the competition is so fierce, the industry so steeped in subterfuge, that he refused to discuss the duck situation with a reporter over the phone. "How do I know that you are who you say you are?" he asked in all seriousness.

In many cases, though, the tour entrepreneurs treat each other with respect and sometimes forge friendships. But that certainly didn't happen with the competing duck tours.

When Scannell noticed that the Ride the Ducks vehicles didn't have the appropriate license stickers, he reported them to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates passenger transportation companies. It turned out that for about the first three months Ride the Ducks was operating, its vehicles were unlicensed. But Ride the Ducks and PUC worked out the kink, which marketing and sales manager Salmon said was a mistake due to confusion over the company name.

Scannell is also quick to point out that there's been confusion around town about the existence of two duck tours. He says he's gotten angry calls about recklessly driven ducks. He now knows to ask what color, he says, and the answer always seems to be "white."

Ride the Ducks seems less interested in that kind of direct trash talk. "We've gotten noise from the Bay Quackers in terms of the things they feel like they needed to report us on, or whatever," Salmon said. "Our focus is trying to make a good product for the guest, and that's it. ... The last thing I'm concerned about is the Bay Quackers."

The relationship might not have been so contentious if it weren't for what Scannell considers Ride the Ducks' worst offense. One hot day in late June, office manager Lyseen Jiang remembers Captain George Adams coming upstairs to the main office, where she was working at her desk. He asked to see his file to ensure his CPR certification was current. Jiang recalls hearing the sound of crinkling paper, then in her peripheral vision she noticed Adams folding something into his pocket. He then asked her a strange question about the whereabouts of a co-worker. "He was trying to make me not think about the sound that I heard," she said. "It was tricky."

Adams then allegedly headed downstairs to the Bay Quackers tour office and went behind the ticket counter. According to Scannell, a ticket saleswoman returned from a break to find him there and heard the paper shredder start up. Scannell says he fished out the scraps and laboriously taped them back together. When he holds up the finished product, there's no mistaking its identity: Adams' noncompete agreement.

The agreement was meant to protect the Bay Quackers' business and trade secrets — in particular, how the company restored its vehicles for use in the bay. To this day, Adams denies shredding the agreement and says he never signed one, though the signature matches his signature on other documents.

About a week after the alleged shredding, Adams left Bay Quackers for Ride the Ducks.

He now says he was never treated differently in Philadelphia, and that he believes the company, though steeped in Christian values, has nothing against gay people. Adams took with him all he had learned about San Francisco, along with intimate knowledge of the tour route and Bay Quackers' operations. Of course, Ride the Ducks didn't need a Quackers insider to learn about the tour. Its corporate bigwigs had ridden Scannell's ducks and every other tour in town to become familiar with the marketplace. But hiring a fully trained local employee certainly didn't hurt. Scannell sent Adams a cease-and-desist order, which he ignored.

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