“How do you bring a region onto somebody’s bucket list?”
Glenn Mandziuk, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, asked the question as he addressed a crowd of tourism operators and business owners at a breakfast seminar hosted by the City of Vernon Thursday morning at the Village Green Hotel.
The Okanagan has never had an issue attracting tourism, at least for three months of summer. Mandziuk is more concerned about the shoulder seasons.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “The fact is 80 per cent of revenue is generated in three months (July to September) in the tourism industry in the region. That’s despite ($2.5 billion) of investment in the last 10 years in tourism infrastructure.
“What has changed is the size of the revenue that is generated.”
TOTA encompasses a massive area – from Valemount to Osoyoos, Princeton to Christina Lake and Cache Creek to Revelstoke – and represents 3,200 members. The region draws 3.5 million visitors annually, generating $1.73 billion in tourism revenue, and it has grown faster than any other sector in the province over the last 10 years.
In his talk, Mandziuk laid out the groundwork for a collaborative regional tourism strategy, the first of its kind in B.C.’s history. The “10-year road map” was developed through extensive research, including surveys, data analysis, inventory of regional assets and consultation with 1,500 stakeholders. An emphasis was placed on discovering what visitors look for in a tourism experience, while taking into consideration cultural and social trends.
“We’re trying to really be leaders in the province, in terms of tourism and what it stands for,” said Mandziuk.
“This is a key milestone of the evolution of tourism in our region. It really focuses on how we can create exceptional visitor experiences.”
What impresses Mandziuk the most is the strategy has been accepted across the board. It has formally been endorsed by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism B.C. and all tourism agencies in the 90 communities TOTA represents.
“It’s really hard to get agreement in the tourism industry on anything,” smiled Mandziuk.
However, for the strategy to work, he adds tourism operators have to become more open-minded, and more willing to work in collaboration with people they once considered the competition. Places like Scottsdale, Ariz., Napa Valley and even international destinations are the ones they should be worried about, not the vineyard up the road.
“The competition is not in the room,” Mandziuk told the crowd. “For tourism, this is kind of hard (to accept).”
From a regional standpoint, every time a tourist chooses the Thompson Okanagan over a ski holiday in Vail, even if they don’t come to their city, operators should consider it a positive. If the region gains a larger market share, it adds to its attractiveness as a destination, benefitting everyone in it.
“You won’t see a ski strategy or golf strategy on its own,” said Mandziuk. “It recognizes that visitors have multiple interests in multiple communities.
“All those are part of the overall package, rather than individual approaches to those industries.”
One of the key concerns the TOTA research highlighted is visitors’ limited perception of what the Thompson Okanagan offers. In their minds, they see a place with hot summers, nice lakes and beaches, and maybe some orchards. It’s a good starting point, but Mandziuk says there is a bigger message to tell.
“We need to create a deeper story of what we stand for,” he said. “We’re not effectively communicating that message very well.”
As an example, he uses a vineyard – if you grow grapes, you have a commodity; if you process those grapes into wine, you have saleable goods; if you hold a wine tasting, you offer a service; if you allow the visitor to meet the vintner and learn about the wine making, you create an authentic experience.
“We can own that and be the Tuscany of North America,” he said.
TOTA’s research also identified nine market segments, three of which are likely to be drawn to the Thompson Okanagan.
First, there are the free spirits, the ones with disposable income that are seeking luxury resort-style travel. Then there are the cultural explorers, the ones that venture off the beaten track to make local connections and learn about an area’s history. Finally, there are visitors looking for the authentic experience. They want cultural immersion and educational tours, and they aren’t afraid to sign on for multi-day adventures.
“We looked at the profiles of consumers based on what they want, rather than what we perceive.”