Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Looking Back on a Great 2010 - 10 Big Things That Defined our Tourism Industry

Yesterday, I made my predictions for our local tourism economy for 2011. Today, I want to reflect on the past year and some of the high points with respect to the City's tourism economy. The good news stories came from many sources and many partners and demonstrates how everyone has a role to play in growing the industry.

1. The Regional Tourism Organization Framework is perhaps the most significant and fundamental change to how we manage the tourism industry in Northern Ontario in the past 40 years. The Ministry of Tourism responded swiftly to the recommendations spelled out in the Ontario Tourism Competitiveness Study a year earlier. The first order of business was the implementation of the thirteen new tourism regions and $65 million Province wide in annual transition funds being made available to our industry if we all played nice in the sandbox together. It also meant we all begin focusing on the consumer and not our individual organizational empires. There have been far too many organizations duplicating each others efforts and this new regional approach to tourism management will see more financial and human resources aligning and coordinating marketing, product development, skills development and investment attraction to bring more experiences to market that consumers seek.

2. Sport Tourism continued to thrive in Thunder Bay in 2010, with the city hosting a number of Provincial, National and International events. Perhaps the one that received the most attention was the World Junior Baseball Championships that brought over $1 million in economic impact to the community, leveraged sport tourism capital investments and solidified our reputation for hosting word class events flawlessly. However, it was much more than that. It was the Cavendish Cup Canadian Men's University Hockey Championships, it was the North American Ice Yacht Races and it was our city's very own home grown fall sport tourism investment in the inaugural Thunder Bay Marathon - Miles with the Giant. Thousands of local residents all made these things happen.

3. Hotel performance. With summer occupancies hitting close to 84% and strong spring and fall performance as well, we saw our annual hotel performance jump significantly over the past year by over 6%. It was leisure, corporate and sport all growing simultaneously to feed the accommodation sector. This resulted in a number of properties undertaking massive capital renovation programs to modernize their guest's experiences as well.

4. Airport Performance - The arrival of Porter to Thunder Bay in 2009 helped improve an already strong air corridor with Toronto - and the rest of the world. However, the summer and fall of 2010 saw airport passenger traffic records shatter as more passengers utilized Thunder Bay Airport. This really drove home the role the Airport authority plays as a economic development driver in the community and how important air connectivity is for Thunder Bay to position itself as a regional hub for leisure, corporate, sport, education and medical tourism markets.

5. We continued to see our cruise shipping industry grow with more capital investments made in our Pool 6 Cruise Terminal, notably landscaping, security and dredging improvements. After declaring in 2009 at Seatrade's Cruise Shipping Miami that "Lake Superior was as exotic as the Galapagos", interest in our area continues to build from the international cruise shipping and touring industry. We are still in our infancy with this but given the growing interest from north shore communities to help grow expedition cruising and the catalyst potential of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, Lake Superior can certainly be the next big expedition and discovery cruising hot spot.

6. Thunder Bay and the bigger picture. We're a gateway to some of the planet's best outdoor experiences - angling, kayaking, birding, wildlife viewing, hunting, skiing, back country snow mobiling, sailing....you name it. In January we ramped up our gateway positioning and regional partnership philosophy to launch "Canada's Great Outdoors begins in Canada's Great Outdoor City", a half million dollar campaign targeting Illinois with OTMPC, Thunder Bay International Airport Authority, Porter Airlines and dozens of local and regional outdoor tourism partners. The premise was simple. Give consumers information on how to get to their trophy experience effortlessly and maximize the opportunities for our urban tourism partners to be part of their experience through accommodation, food and outfitting and supply.

7. 2010 was a great year for travel media exposure for the City. From KSTP's great online and television series on the Gems of Thunder Bay to having our winter experiences featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, sailing in the Toronto Star, profiled on the Ron James Show, and Mantracker filming two upcoming episodes here, our name continued to resonate with consumers at every turn. We call ourselves Canada's Best Outdoor City for a reason.

8. Waterfront Redevelopment. Construction at Prince Arthur's Landing was in full swing in 2010, reclaiming and transforming a nice but massively under performing public space into a spectacular world class waterfront. We live on the world's largest freshwater lake and the fact that until now, we never fully connected ourselves to it properly or celebrated our connection to this huge part of our natural environment was, to be polite, unfortunate. Once completed, hundreds of people will live and stay in our downtown waterfront district daily on a year around basis, better cultural and recreational facilities will abound, new unique gallery space will welcome visitors and expanded and improved marina facilities will bring more local and visiting boaters to the waterfront.

9. Preliminary public consultations began on the potential to develop a new multi purpose facility in the city to replace the aging and capacity limited Fort William Gardens. An investment in strategic capital infrastructure that increases our potential to attract larger conventions and sport tourism events will benefit the majority of our local tourism industry. Stay tuned in 2011 as more research is undertaken on this potential new tourism catalyst.

10. Sustainable Tourism Embraced. You all know that despite my love for old cars (I think of it as recycling), I am a huge advocate for making sustainable tourism a key element of our community's core tourism values statement. In 2010, we saw a new partnership with regional municipal economic development partners and the Trans Canada Trail organization to begin the investigative process of converting the old CN Kinghorn line to a new multi season destination trail. The community saw the development of new bike lanes, 24 km of newly paved recreation trails, new locally themed culinary attractions like the Growing Season emerge and our Farmer's Market continue to grow and welcome an expanding visitor segment.

Here's looking to see these ten milestones continue to grow upon their successes and redefine who we are as a tourism economy in the coming year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nine Local Tourism Predictions for 2011

With 2010 quickly making its way into our rear view mirrors, we've begun to deconstruct the past year's performance, looking at the emergent trends, decreases and shifts of the past year to predict what lies ahead of us.

Here's my predictions for the 2011 tourism year for the Thunder Bay area.

1. Partnerships are king in 2011. with over $1.5 million in new Provincial regional tourism funds available to the tourism industry of the Northwest for partnership based initiatives, communities, industry and regional tourism organizations are going to have to focus on experiential tourism initiatives versus the old destination based models that saw a lot of duplication of marketing and product development efforts that frankly, only confused the consumer. We're going to be working a lot more together as industry and communities.

2. We're going to hear the words "product development" a lot more. Good quality relevant experiences are easier to market and in our new regional tourism model, product development, capacity building and investment attraction are more important than marketing. Now is the time to refresh aging product, find new markets and build new visitor experiences people actually want to travel for.

3. Continued modest gains in the domestic markets. The Canadian economy has remained stable in the past year and we're going to continue to see Ontario and Manitoba lead our domestic markets, primarily in the summer leisure segment. They will be drawn here primarily to visit friends and family, touring, angling, hunting, and soft adventure. We're going to continue a strong focus on the domestic trade.

4. We're going to continue to see a shift in the US travel demographics towards the touring and to a lesser degree soft adventure segments. The US economy is still tender and the U.S. midwest is no exception. This tender economy will have its most significant impact on the tradtional angling and hunting markets.

Touring is the emergent trend in US travel to our region and those seeking to explore the lake basin will continue to grow, following urban gains made in 2010 around this segment. There are 75 million plus passport holders in the US and looking at motorcycle, auto (AAA and specialty auto sport groups) and RV clubs will be a smart investment for all of us in the industry. The north Lake Superior coastline is one of Canada's top 3 scenic motorcycle destinations.

Don't write off angling, however. Its still the single largest tourism segment for the entire region and the experience here, particularly the remote trophy experience, is pure world class Canadian iconic wilderness and this segment can flourish by investing in reaching new markets domesticaly, in the US and globally. Also, remember how many hundreds of thousands of our US friends are serving overseas? As they start returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, they and their family members will want relaxing experiences and we could see that segment play a role in rebuilding US traffic to the area beginning in 2011. In the meantime, the angling segment should look east and west - GTA and Alberta - for new angling markets as well as affluent US avids outside of the traditional border state markets.

5. MC and IT. We'll see continued strong performance in corporate travel to the city, largely driven by the mining and health sciences sectors and increased air corridor options such as Porter. We're going to see the awareness of the city as a business hub continue to be seen be meeting planners as a advantage for those seeking something out of the ordinary. Our corporate segment will continue to be dominated by the domestic market. Canadian organizations and firms are travelling for conferences again after some contraction in 2008 and 2009 and they are hungry for unique destinations. Cue our "Unconventional Convention" destination positioning.

6. Sport tourism will continue to play a healthy role in our tourism economy with traffic similar to 2010. This is easy to predict because a lot of our events are secured 2 years out. The World U23 cross country ski time trails and Ontario Winter Special Olympics will bring a welcome increase to local hotels in January (generally a tough month in accommodation sectors)

If our winter stays cold and snowless, we can expect a shot at hosting the North American Ice Yacht Championships again as we did at the eleventh hour in 2010. $155 000 in local economic impacts were generated in an event we had 48 hours notice of earlier this year as over 100 racers scrambled to find clear ice. We'd love to welcome them all back.

7. Group travel. What can I say about this other than we are rethinking what group travel is in recent years and a lot of the potential growth in this segment ties into the trends in touring by looking at groups "beyond the bus" Motorcycle groups, sports car clubs have the potential to drive this segment's future and our hosting of the 2011 Ontario Harley Owners Group will see over 800 avid motorcyclists descend on the city in late July, bringing a lot of attention to the spectacular touring route around the lake. This could very well become a catalyst for an annual motorcycle gathering in the city. Now, lets start adding up the corvette, porsche, miata, vintage clubs around Canada and the US midwest who travel in groups and you can see where the potential lies.

However, there are also thousands of special interest clubs around North America - be it canoe, hiking, birding or skiing-looking for group excursion destinations positioned around an experience of common interest. The nice thing is that these groups are easily reached through social media channels.

While we'll only be seeing two cruise ship visits in 2011, compared to ten in 2010, the C Columbus is larger than we've seen in the past two years and total visitor impacts will be approximately the same.

Motor coach travel is still in the mix and we will continue to see traffic. One of the potential growth areas with this segment ties into the expected growth of the Chinese market and I predict we're begin to see more trans Canada motor coach packaged tours than recent years as this new market wants to explore Canada's geography, bookended by Vancouver and Toronto due to their air connectivity and large Chinese communities.

8. Sustainable Tourism is going to be embraced by more consumers and more industry partners. local culinary and cultural attractions that give visitors an authentic experience are only growing in demand. Keeping in mind that the definition of sustainable tourism is "the promotion of experiences that conserve the environment and bring economic benefits to local populations", there is no reason why every single tourism operator in the region shouldn't embrace some level of sustainability in their operation. Expect to see a green touring program evolving in the next 12 months.

9. Social Media. Yeah, its been around for the past 4 years but digital media and two way conversations will continue to dominate our marketing and communications strategies with up to 1/2 of our media programs being delivered electronically in 2011. Expect to see more content generated online to feed the search engines. My advice to tourism partners not using digital social channels in 2011? Call an realtor.

10. We're going to have fun doing what we do and share our positive attitude with our clients and guests. I've been privileged to work with some of the best in the local tourism industry in the past 4 years. These are people who are passionate, fun and collaborative. As an industry, we've weathered some pretty significant environmental challenges in the past few years and our 2010 performance showed we overcome them with creativity and entrepreneurship and a lot of camaraderie. We're going to be positive, innovative and self confident in 2011. Remember, Success begets success.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

RTO Development Continues to Build Regional Support

The Regional Tourism Organization framework continues to develop throughout the Province and Region 13, the area encompassing most of Northern Ontario, is no exception.

The regional approach to tourism in Ontario is a long overdue change in thinking and reflects the need for the industry to begin to collaborate, coordinate and align with one another and the Provincial strategy to maximize resources and deliver services that have the consumer in mind. There have simply been far too many independent tourism organizations duplicating each other's efforts and at the end of the day, not really using their given resources effectively in reaching consumers.

What I personally like about the regional approach is two fold. It reduces the duplication and silos created in the past among organizations and it focuses on the entire management side of the tourism industry. The four pillars include marketing, product development, capacity building and investment attraction. There is more to tourism than marketing. Its about making educated research driven decisions that match product to the consumers needs and desires. This regional process begins that trans formative journey.

As many know, Thunder Bay is one of 19 signatories to the Region 13 Transition Plan and I am the executive lead for region 13C, Northwestern Ontario, working alongside Tom Pearson (Lodge operator and Sunset Country President), Don Pearl (North of Superior Tourism), Heather Paterson (Tourism Kenora) and Harold Lohn (Lodge operator and Northern Committee member)

We've been busy working on the draft bylaws, terms of reference for the regional strategic plan and solicitation of priority projects. As has been previously announced, of the $65 million in annual transition funding for Ontario, $4.2 million is earmarked for region 13 and $1.554 million for 13C, the region stretching from White River to the Manitoba Boarder and from the US Border to Hudson's Bay. This is a massive territory with dozens of communities and thousands of tourism stake holders. Reaching out to everyone in the past 6 months has not been a quick or easy task but we're making our way around.

To date, we've received approximately two dozen projects ranging from marketing to product development and capacity building. Some are under way and some are in the planning stages. One of the first successes of the transition process however, has little do to with any one specific process but rather, the fact that it has communities in the northwest opening up discussions with each other more than at any other time in my memory of the industry. We're collaborating more, sharing information and resources and looking for ways to capitalize on each other's strengths to reach new markets.

We've established several online communications tools to help the industry keep pace with the process as we move towards the establishment of the permanent office and inaugural board of directors. The Transition team website, RTO13.com and twitter.com/rto13 are up and running and provide meeting minutes, transition information and other relevant information to help the tourism industry understand the process.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bringing Sustainability to the Culinary Industry Helps Raise our Standard

Growing a tourism economy begins with establishing a higher standard for ourselves.

For me, raising Thunder Bay's standard includes sustainability. Sustainability goes hand in hand with our vision to position Thunder Bay as Canada's Best Outdoor City around a strong "Superior by Nature" image.

I've spoken before about sustainability, both in financial and environmental terms and both are equally important. The financial sustainability is what the industry desires and goes to what I spoke of a couple of weeks back about our need to redefine what an attraction is and should be in an accountable environment. However, when we talk about the city's tourism image, its the environmental sustainability and its connectivity to the brand that consumer sees....and folks, that's who has to see us first.

The definition of sustainable tourism is simple. The heart of it is "to promote visitor experiences that conserve the environment while bringing positive economic impacts to local economies." I've said it before and I've repeated it again. Its not that we have to give up promoting the visitor experiences we are known for but about doing so in the most environmentally responsible methods we can.

I spend a lot of time, seven days a week, looking for tourism industry news, looking at best practices and searching for new and innovative and provocative ways to promote the city to the target markets that match our visitor experiences.

Today I came across a fantastic online video showcasing the sustainability philosophy of Arthur Potts Dawson, a British restaurateur, where he discusses achieving sustainability in the culinary industry. Our city's culinary culture has blossomed in recent years and has become woven intimately into all we promote. We have some great examples of sustainable culinary experiences in the City. Growing Season Juice Collective, the Thunder Bay Country Market and the Thunder Oak Gouda Farm are just some that provide culinary experiences based on locally produced ingredients and create local employment. We need more, however. In fact, what if our entire local culinary industry embraces environmental sustainability to some practical extent?

I'm not going to say much more about the video or topic than the fact that it was absolutely enlightening. Watch it for yourself and if you're in the local culinary industry, you'll to come away enlightened too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thunder Bay Being Promoted at the 2010 Toronto Motorcycle Show

2011 is going to be a big year for the motor cycle touring market in the Thunder Bay area.

Thunder Bay has been chosen to host the 2011 Ontario Harley Owner's Group (H.O.G.) Rally.

Organized by the Thunder Bay Chapter of the Ontario Harley Owner's Group, the event, aptly named "Thunder in the Bay", will take place from July 28-30 and is expected to see hundreds of enthusiasts descend on the community to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow riders and experience some of North America's best scenic touring routes while getting here.

This weekend, local event organizers are at the Toronto Motorcycle Show promoting the event to Harley Davidson enthusiasts in the GTA area, encouraging them to plan their summer road trip to Thunder Bay and register early for a chance to win free accommodation at the event's host hotel, the Victoria Inn, during the rally.

We're thrilled to be helping out with the event and visitors to this weekend's show will see our Thunder Bay visuals around the booth and be able to pick up a copy of our Experience magazine, promoting all there is to see and do in and around the community while they are here.

Also, a staple at this year's show are our friends from the Algoma Kinnewabi Travel Association, promoting the Lake Superior and North Channel areas to riders. For many Southern Ontario and Michigan touring riders, they will likely travel through that region to reach us and Carol and company from AKTA do a great job promoting the region and are progressive thinkers with respect to the regional approach to visitor attraction.

Motorcycle touring has seen significant growth in recent years and sales statistics on new bikes in Canada demonstrates the popularity of this form of transportation. We live on the shore of the world's greatest lake, ringed by one of North America's most scenic ribbons of highway. While promotion has been increasing in recent years, we are only really scratching the surface to reach out and attract new riders to the region. A big part of increasing awareness is the role local enthusiasts and clubs play in hosting rallies and events and promoting the region by speaking the language of the motorcycle enthusiast.

Motorcycle tourers travel light, like to stop often to take in scenic views and attractions and embrace comfortable accommodation, great food and safe and secure parking for their bikes. Our goal is that this event galvanizes the Thunder Bay motorcycle and tourism community to continue to work together to develop some sort of annual event and general tactical strategy that will increase opportunities for accommodation, culinary and cultural attractions to grow new markets.

If you're in the Toronto area this weekend, stop by the Toronto Motorcycle Show and look for the great folks at the H.O.G. display. They'll whet your appetite for planning your 2011 summer road trip to the Lake Superior area.

(Harley Davidson and H.O.G. are registered trademarks)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Maximizing the Unconventional Convention Experience

The convention market is a significant contributor to Thunder Bay's tourism economy, particularly driving our accommodation, car rental and airline partners throughout the fall winter and spring when leisure markets are traditionally slower.

When we began our strategic Renascence several years ago to position Thunder Bay as Canada's Best Outdoor City, we looked at the challenge of integrating the convention and sport tourism segments into that brand position. Marketing those two segments in Canada can be a very generic process for most communities our size and its important to find a way to stand out.

We have woven the nucleus of the local convention industry - meeting and accommodation space- with the connection to the natural environment around the community to create the "unconventional convention destination"

Its about communicating to convention planners, the plethora of cultural and recreational activities that exist in and around the community that create exceptional value added opportunities to create unique convention itineraries. Its about getting participants away from the power point presentations, out of the meeting rooms and exploring the community, as either part of the meeting itself or "personal time"

In testing our new direction back in 2008, we created a series of value added side trips for participants in the city for the Canadian Armed Forces SAREX Operations (Search and Rescue) They could take a side trip to the Fort, play a round of golf, go kayaking or charter fishing on Lake Superior during some structured downtime built into the conference. It got conference participants out into the community, exploring cultural and recreational attractions and maximizing both positive reflections of the city and economic impacts. I still hear from participants of that conference that it was the most memorable for them because of that feature.

It can be a side trip to the Fort or the art gallery, a dog sled excursion, an hour of trying cross country skiing, salmon fishing, a flight seeing tour, some golf or a reception at a unique local venue integrating local culinary icons and live local entertainment.

Its also about capitalizing on unique local meeting spaces including Fort William Historical Park, the college and University, and the Hazelwood Lake Centre that are enveloped by the natural environment around them.

For conference planners, its easy to integrate side trips to local galleries, cultural attractions and our parks. For individual conference participants wanting to slip out after supper and explore on their own, its essential that they have the information in their hands to find what they want. We provide over 30 000 visitor magazines and delegate bags to conference participants annually but there is also an opportunity for hotel front desk staff and taxi drivers to know the range of experiences constantly available in the city and this can be achieved by keeping the visitor magazine in the cab or having our website bookmarked on the hotel front desk computers.

The bottom line is that the convention market for Thunder Bay does not need to exclude our cultural and natural resources and in fact, integrating them into our strategy and that of local conference planners gives us a competitive advantage to winning bids and attracting corporate events that leave participants with a more positive impression of just how sophisticated and eclectic our urban environment has evolved into over the past five years.

If you want to know more about making your convention bid that much more competitive or want to discuss ways your tourism business can play a role in growing our convention industry, contact our Meeting and Convention Coordinator, Rose Marie Tarnowski @ rtarnowski@thunderbay.ca

Star Tribune Offers Great Insights in Thunder Bay's Winter Experiences

Earned media exposure in key experiential and geographic markets is a enormously critical part of positioning the city's tourism brand and we've recently scored more great Minnesota based media.

This weekend's Minneapolis Star Tribune travel section includes a great article on Thunder Bay's outdoor winter experiences with a focus on both the downhill and cross country ski venues as well as the local dog sledding scene. A second article, entitled "Thunder Bay Geography Lesson" explains the city's location with respect to the Twin Cities and a bit of back ground. This double helping of media coverage in both the print and online editions of the Star Tribune, continues to align with our positioning of Thunder Bay as "Canada's Best Outdoor City"

We've got some great winter experiential product being developed in the city in the last few years, catering primarily to niche outdoor enthusiasts, the group that will travel, are not turned away from snow and cold and want to experience something authentic and unique.

While the U.S. economy is still somewhat tender, the mid west remains a vitally important market to Thunder Bay. With over 30 million US residents, 8.5 million of which hold passports, living within a 12 hour drive of Thunder Bay, its a market we intend to keep pursuing with well researched, strategic focused programs speaking directly to those travellers looking for the experiences we excel in offering.