Meet the new owners of the Edmonton Riverboat

Rob Davy and Eric Warnke met in the early 2000s as teenagers working at Nexopia. Nearly a quarter-century later, the two serial entrepreneurs are the new owners of the Edmonton Riverboat.

Davy, co-owner of Laser City, and Warnke, whose startup Mover was acquired by Microsoft, are working to finalize a purchase deal with Jay Esterer, who bought the boat in 2016. The two told Taproot they want to take the Edmonton Riverboat to the same level as attractions like the Muttart Conservatory, Fort Edmonton Park, and West Edmonton Mall.

"I think we can do a really good job of making sure that this vessel is added to the top-of-mind things that people should be doing in Edmonton," Warnke said.

The Nexopia connection has never left Warnke and Davy, who remain close friends. Both said what they did during and after Nexopia is informing how they will approach the business of buying and operating a floating Edmonton icon.

Nexopia was Canada's first social network, before Facebook and Myspace. It was founded in 2003 by Timo Ewalds. Davy was around 18 when he made Nexopia its first dollar. "I put the first ad on it, and we were like, 'Oh my God, you can make money on the internet?' That was not a given," Davy said.

Warnke was at a similar age when he joined. He moderated pictures for the site, which had 1.2 million active registered users at one time. The team ran Nexopia out of Ewalds' parent's house in west Edmonton, and then an office on Rice Howard Way. "We were all still, like, 20 years old," Davy said. "Timo's mom was kind of the token proper adult involved in the organization." Davy and Warnke worked at Nexopia until 2008, when Ewalds sold the business. Six months later Nexopia's competitor Facebook blew up and users started migrating.

Years later, Davy tries to see the silver lining in the different successes Nexopia and Facebook achieved. "You either let it keep you up at night, virtually kicking yourself, or you realize that the experience that you have there is what has got you where you are now," he said. "We were really lucky — we had an opportunity there to learn about things at age 18, 19, 20, that you don't get to in university."

Davy left Nexopia and started a horseback riding stable in Ardrossan, and then a paintball arena with his partner. They added laser tag to the paintball business, and now it's become Laser City. While the core clientele for laser tag (eight-year-olds hopped up on sugar) may differ from the Edmonton Riverboat's, he said both are in the business of offering people a good time. "That's what we do in our business, we make memories. And this is another one of those memory-making experiences."

Warnke stayed in the startup and tech world after leaving Nexopia. He purchased and operated an internet café on Whyte Avenue, and then started Mesh Canada, a company that offered wireless hotspots in restaurants and cafés. "Back then, you still paid 10 bucks an hour for the hotspot, Boingo, or whatever they had at Starbucks, and I hated that," he said. Mesh was in all Original Joe's restaurants and about 100 Boston Pizzas, Warnke said.

Roughly 15 years ago, Warnke took Mesh Canada to a startup accelerator in Chile. And it's there, in a way, where his journey to the Edmonton Riverboat began. At the accelerator, he met Matt Beaubien, who years later became the boat's administrative manager under Esterer. "That's what happens in Edmonton — everyone knows everybody, everyone has some kind of connection," Davy said recently, sitting on the boat.

Two men stand by the paddles of the Edmonton Riverboat.

Rob Davy and Eric Warnke, who met at Nexopia in the early 2000s, are the new owners of the Edmonton Riverboat. (Stephanie Swensrude)

After Mesh Canada, Warnke started Mover, a web app that started as a way to back up websites by acting as a conduit between web servers and Dropbox. It then transitioned into a data migration app. "(Mover was) objectively one of the best ways to move files between cloud storage," Warnke said. Microsoft acquired Mover in 2019.

After a few years working for Microsoft, Warnke itched to have full ownership over something again. He says he tried a couple of different ideas that "kind of failed to launch," and then he received a message from the Edmonton Riverboat mailing list. It said the boat was back on the market. He reached out to his old friend Beaubien.

"I messaged him immediately and said, 'Tell me more,' and we just kept saying, 'Tell me more' for a month and a half," Warnke said. Davy soon got involved. The two have been best friends for years and often ask each other to tag along on adventures. "This time, I asked Rob to come see this cool boat I was going to check out, and we just kept going from there," Warnke said.

Using the skills they've built over the years, they thought the boat was something they could pour their passion into.

"I want to run this for the rest of my life," Warnke said. "My kids, I want them all to work on the boat when they're teenagers."

Warnke and Davy said the previous owners have gotten the business to a point where it doesn't have to focus on staying afloat, literally and figuratively. When the boat underwent repairs in 2021, the previous owner replaced or serviced many of its inner workings, Davy said. Warnke said the boat is in better condition now than when it was built, in 1995.

The new owners can now focus on improving the guest experience. And after being taken on an impromptu river tour by a passing fisherman, they say they are inspired to add interpretive elements that explain the geographic and biological history of the river to the experience.

"That's one of the things we think is kind of a missed opportunity in previous years," Davy said.

"I think the boat has only scratched the surface of its potential," Warnke added.

Still, Davy acknowledges that a business that runs about 20 weeks a year and is dependent on good weather, decent air quality, and adequate water levels isn't as stable as, say, an indoor laser tag facility. He's also aware that the boat "has been through some things in some years."

Wildly fluctuating water levels caused the boat to become "half impaled" on the large piles used to moor it in 2020. It was dry-docked at Whitemud Park, which is where it underwent the aforementioned renovation. In late 2019, the boat sustained damage after it was pushed upon some ice along the river's shore. In the summer of 2019, 300 passengers were stranded on the boat when the river's current became too strong for the vessel to return to its dock. The boat did not sail in 2016 or 2017 due to low water levels.

The Edmonton Riverboat docked at Rafter's Landing in May 2024.

The new owners of the Edmonton Riverboat hope to set sail on June 1. (Stephanie Swensrude)

Davy said the riverboat has in the past operated as more of a tourist attraction, where you pay $10 to zip around the bridges, not unlike the train at Fort Edmonton Park. "We want to elevate that experience," he said. "We're not trying to be an Earls, where you just, like, show up. It's a special occasion."

Warnke added: "We want people to think 'How do we celebrate that event?' And then delight them when they come through the door."

The two said patrons can expect theme nights, duelling piano performances, and special long weekend cruises.

The new owners are currently hiring staff, and said they intend to set sail for the first time on June 1. Tickets are set to be available on the Edmonton Riverboat website on May 6.