Tourism business operators from across the Thompson Okanagan gathered in Kelowna last week to talk about the growth of their industry.
Called the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association Annual General Meeting and Tourism Summit 2015, most of that talk around the Manteo Resort conference room was positive.
Revenues for tourism businesses is up in our region, five to 10 per cent over previous years. Many saw business pick up in the months of May, June and September, something that wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.
The tourism industry pumped $1.75 billion in spent dollars into the Thompson-Okanagan region, and attracted 3.5 million visitors.
“Some areas felt the impact of the forest fires and the smoke in the air towards the end of summer,” acknowledged Glenn Mandzuik, chief executive officer of the Thompson Okanagan Tourist Association.
“But even with that, there is a very positive attitude within our industry across the region.”
Not that there are not challenges on the immediate horizon – marketing awareness, labour shortfall and the potential impacts of climate change – but Mandziuk said the industry is positioning itself to continue to prosper.
In recent years, TOTA has began to tout the concept of a regional marketing to its members, that a collective marketing approach is better for business, and offers greater attraction options for tourists, rather than directly competing with each other.
“There has been an evolution in how we market ourselves as a region, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said.
Mandziuk also cited the importance of establishing Destination BC, a provincial tourism marketing arm of the government that is overseen by the industry rather than politicians or political appointees, to help market tourism both within and outside the province.
“It has been two and half years since Destination BC was started and we’re starting to see results now from that effort, “ said Mandziuk, who noted it also complements the Destination Canada tourism promotion initiatives launched by the federal government.
“I think we all now realize the only way to get our province on the map from a tourism promotion perspective is to raise the level of awareness,” he said.
Mandziuk points out how some pockets of the Lower Mainland still don’t realize the Okanagan has a wine industry, and the need to combat the focus on B.C.’s “golden triangle” for tourism – Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler.
Walt Judas is the chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. and one of the guest speakers at last week’s summit.
Judas said his message was largely positive, in particular pointing out what a fabulous year it’s been for the Thompson Okanagan.
“There is a tourism product here that continues to grow and mature, case in point being the wine industry, where generally operators and tourism businesses have done well to market the attractions here,” Judas said.
“It’s not just the weather or drop in the Canadian dollar bringing more Americans here, but a buildup of a lot of hard work by destination marketing groups like Tourism Kelowna and (TOTA) for several years.”
But Judas said the industry can’t let up on the need for marketing awareness initiatives, and will have to address labour shortages and climate change.
On the labour front, Judas said tourism operators have difficulty filling the job openings, particularly those which are seasonal.
“Finding seasonal employees is always a challenge, and providing accommodation for them is problematic as well,” Judas said.
“Sometimes foreign workers are willing to come here and work, sharing accommodation with others in order to send money back home, while for people here they have higher expectations for the type of work they desire to do.
“They are looking instead for jobs with higher wages and for jobs that are personally more career-oriented.”
It is a similar challenge to what the local agriculture industry faces, where nobody locally wants to pick the fruit leaving orchardists to increasingly rely on other labour options, such as bringing in workers from Mexico.
Like agriculture, for the tourism industry there are no easy answers to that issue, but Judas said the industry has to continue to build a marketing case for how tourism-related jobs are a great resumé builder and a way to learn more about the career opportunities that tourism might hold.
“There is also the opportunity to enjoy some of the resort areas and cities around or province to experience the amazing amenities that draws tourists there, whether it be skiing in the winter or summer activities,” Judas said.
Mandzuik said TOTA estimates that by 2020, there will be a shortfall of people to fill 1,600 full-time jobs, one that his organization wants to address “head-on” now rather than waiting till it reaches a crisis stage.
“We already hear about labour issues in our region. I know of one hotel property that has to close down half the hotel because they can’t find staff to support keeping the rooms open,” Mandziuk said.
“Those issues are important for us because it is the tourism employees that play a key role in delivering a positive tourism experience to our visitors.”
He said if you don’t have enough staff it will diminish the experience, one of the best marketing tools for bringing people back again and again.
To that end, Mandzuik said TOTA and a provincial human resources initiative called GO TO HR have joined forces on a $250,000 investment over the next two years to put a tourism industry labour recruiter on the ground in the Okanagan.
That person’s role, Mandzuik explained, is to develop awareness on both a local and international level of job opportunities that exist here.
The mandate will be to reach out to local high schools and post-secondary institutions to educate students on those job opportunities, to work with smaller tourism operators who don’t have human resources management staff to attract workers and to spread the recruitment message on an international level as well.
“This is a big movement for us, but we want to raise the level of awareness for job opportunities in the tourism industry starting now and not wait until those challenges arise in 2020,” Mandziuk said.
As for climate change, Judas said it remains an issue that “is hard to get a handle on.”
For the tourism industry, it’s important to understand the potential impact of climate change and where it could lead down the road.
“Adjustments have to be made for certain tourism businesses, certain sectors and products that might feel a negative impact,” he said.
Judas cites the ski industry as one example, where changing weather patterns impact the amount of snow a ski hill may expect to receive in future years.
“The ski industry is a good example because if there is a lack of snow, how do those resorts adjust to that given the huge investments in infrastructure, marketing and staff that are made? What do they do to adjust to that reality?
Judas said Whistler is an example of a ski resort evolving into a year-round tourist playground, to where summer revenues out-pace the ski season.
“It can be an issue with a fishery, with weather and storms, forest fires. As an industry we have to be aware and prepare for the inevitable, and try to mitigate the impacts,” he said.
Judas thinks one key, given that few resorts have Whistler’s marketing resources, is that they have nature that will attract tourists.
Mandziuk said TOTA is placing a lot of emphasis on the development of the Kettle Valley Railway, from Christina Lake in the Kootenays to Hope, as an outdoor experience that tourists are looking for.
He said that rail corridor offers potential tourism benefits to all the communities along the Kettle Valley corridor, and is an outdoor experience that tourism surveys indicate consumers want to have.
For that reason, the efforts to develop the CN Corridor between Vernon and Kelowna, also has the attention of TOTA.
“That project is on our radar as well, although not as far along at this point as Kettle Valley. But we are a strong supporter of the (CN Corridor) trail because that is what consumers are telling us they want,” Mandziuk said.
“The beautiful thing about the (CN Corridor) is it is easily accessible.
“Being an old railway the trail is relatively flat, it’s not treacherous to walk along and it gives people walking a chance to get immersed in nature, to have that experience.”
Mandziuk cited the example of the famous El Camino de Santiago trail in Spain which generates millions in tourism benefits for the communities connected to the historic pilgrimage route.
“People walk that trail for spiritual or health reasons, but many communities along that trail wouldn’t exist today without it and the tourism it brings.
“When I look at the potential of the (CN) trail, I think of what a shot in the arm it could be for a community like Oyama to build tourism industry growth.”