This morning's edition of the Chronicle Journal provided a little insight into the state of U.S. travel to the Thunder Bay area and offers a slice of optimism in what remains our closest large market. We are 45 minutes to a country of over 300 million, 35 million of whom live within a 15 hour drive of us. Ignoring this market because of the border crossing requirements and economy is foolish. We just have to work smarter than we have in the past.
Make no mistake, there are challenges, there have been declines and certainly for the outfitter markets offering the standard experiences, those declining U.S. numbers are still a reality. What we attempted to articulate to the industry in the article is that there are some encouraging trends to take advantage of and we need to adapt and evolve. In the north, we have to, as an industry, retire our traditional sense of entitlement and self depreciating negativity and start being positive, confident and aggresive because we do have world class outdoor experiences that should be on par with anything else on earth.
There is no doubt to any of us in the tourism industry that the U.S. market has declined in a post 911 security environment. Throw in an economic meltdown for good measure and you have a challenge. Fail to change your marketing tactics, research emerging trends or freshen up your product and you just add fuel to the fire. All of these things have combined to the reduction in the US market. One of the worst decisions we made as an industry after 2001 was curtailing our U.S. marketing campaigns and making generalized statements such as"why bother, they're not travelling." We simply, as an industry, didn't do our homework and we didn't shift our tactics and we didn't refresh our product.
However, a lot of U.S. residents are still travelling in general and although not in the same volumes as before, the fact that there are over 11 million passport holders in our key US border states and over 75 million nationally, one thing is certain....There are still a lot of people looking for experiences beyond their borders.
Its incumbent on us in the industry to reach these avid, affluent and educated travel markets more effectively than in the past. Selling the same thing in the same channels through the same marketing model as we did for the past 40 years doesn't work and we, as a region, have to make some changes to what we have, how we sell it and who we reach.
In 2009, when US travel to Canada was down 9.2%, U.S. traffic through Thunder Bay declined by approximately only 1%. In other words, we were largely unaffected. We lost some traditional hunting and fishing markets but gained new markets in touring and soft adventure. We did this by shifting tactics and focusing on avid markets in State capitals and being more aggressive in web and earned media through an experiential targeted approach. By reaching markets with higher percentages of government and supporting service employees - people who are less likely to lose disposable income in recessions - we were able to find some degree of success.
US traffic through Pigeon River remained steady this year for the first 4 months and while a dip in May has us watching closely, we've been told anecdotally by area hoteliers and attractions, that they are seeing the US market rebound modestly in the summer months. We can hope that this trend continues but it will require vigilance on our part in understanding the trends, knowing the consumer and reaching them effectively with good quality, high value trophy experiences that are relevant to their desires.
Some simple tips to remain successful in attracting the U.S. market.
1. Know Your customer. Who are they, where are they from and what they want to experience
2. Research - understand travel motivators. The Ministry of Tourism has some fantastic data for free on their website to help you identify the travel trends. www.tourism.gov.on.ca
3. Market effectively. In a digital age, you can reach markets globally and more cost effectively than ever before and its critical that those in the industry feel comfortable using the web, managing their content to keep it current, utilizing social media and it can start with simple things like responding to emails. Its also important to track your marketing to know what works and what doesn't.
4. Be Relevant. Offer people a experience that they seek. Times change and so do people's desires and expectations. It important to evolve with them.
5. Quality and Value. There is nothing wrong with charging what an experience is worth but make sure the visitor goes away happy, refers you to others and returns. Things like clean accommodation, good food, exceptional customer service and groomed properties go a long way. A gallon of paint, a lawn mower and a smile don't cost a lot but can have an impact.
6. Build critical partnerships. We're all in this together and we all play a role in encouraging visitors to choose our area for their experience. Even Thunder Bay, for its size and tourism budget, relies on effective tourism partners throughout the Northwest to help reach our markets effectively. Just look at the Canada's Great Outdoors program this year as an example. When we all work together and pool resources around a common goal or experience, we all benefit.
7. Be patient. Even modest gains in the beginning is positive and its important to build upon these successes year after year.