The Butterfly Effect: A Haliburton Sculpture Forest Success Story

Sometimes small changes can lead to great rewards. When this happens it’s virtually impossible to predict, but there’s an important lesson to be learned here: If you don’t make the change, then it’s guaranteed there won’t be any rewards.

This is something the Haliburton Sculpture Forest experienced first-hand in 2020.

When the pandemic struck indoor activities were restricted, once people were allowed to travel within the province the folks at the Haliburton Sculpture Forest noticed an increase in visitation from the Greater Toronto Area as people flocked to the countryside looking for unique outdoor and cultural experiences that conformed to COVID-19 protocols. People were driving for hours specifically to visit the Sculpture Forest, and the folks at the Sculpture Forest brainstormed how they could capitalize on that.

“We decided we wanted to increase our social media presence so we could have more impact for the things we were sharing,” said Haliburton Sculpture Forest curator, Jim Blake. “We wanted to create a series of short videos called “What’s your story?” which asked people to talk about their experiences at the Sculpture Forest and which sculptures they liked best.”

Even more importantly, the crew at the Sculpture Forest wanted to share the love a little bit. They recognized that people were driving all the way to Haliburton, sometimes several hours each way, just to visit the forest before heading back home and felt there was a missed opportunity there to entice visitors to explore more of Haliburton and get to know the region.

“We wanted to take advantage of the attraction of the Sculpture Forest to boost local restaurants, stores, accommodations and other outdoor experiences. Really, it’s marketing for the region,” explained Blake. “What happened before the pandemic was people would come to their cottage or a resort and say ‘What is there to do?’ and come to the Sculpture Forest but now the Sculpture Forest has become a destination, attracting people to the County. Now we have people asking, ‘What else is there to do?’”

To capitalize on the increase in traffic, Blake applied for the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization’s (OHTO) Digital Marketing Support Grant to boost their Facebook reach, increase followers, record videos, create a map of the forest, and effectively bring more visitors to the area.

The results speak for themselves – after creating 10 videos and increasing their social media posting the Sculpture Forest saw an increase of 100 percent in engagement on social channels over the previous winter and a 50 percent increase in spring engagements. They also were able to increase their social media followers by 40 percent. 

These numbers are fantastic, but even more amazing was the amount of engagement they saw as a result of the funding for social media.

“There was an increase of 5,400 percent in engagement on Facebook between January and April 2020,” Blake said. “We also had a dramatic increase in people posting and viewing photos on our Google My Business page. We had 1 million viewers from June to August. 

The unexpected rewards didn’t end there. The Sculpture Forest noticed a change in the demographic of its visitors since the beginning of the COVID restrictions and reached out to multicultural organizations and media outlets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and they had three different television stations come to Haliburton to do specials. 

“Our momentum kept growing, so much so that our visitation from before COVID until now has tripled or quadrupled…we have had approximately 40,000 people visit this year,” said Blake. 

The icing on the cake was when the Sculpture Forest was chosen by Cottage Life Magazine as well as Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve as the top two places in Ontario to go see fall colours, a feat which Blake called “kind of crazy.” There are a lot of wonderful places in Ontario to see the fall colours. I think that our social media presence attracted their attention. Although it is a wonderful place to see art and the fall colours at the same time.

“That $2,500 from OHTO made a big difference,” noted Blake, who was quick to point out that the application process for the Digital Marketing Support Grant was not a complicated process, and OHTO staff were there to help talk through the project plan. “OHTO is a joy to work with…as a non-profit, with no ongoing source of revenue, when you have an opportunity like this it’s an incredible gift.”

Take a look at some of the Share Your Story videos:

About OHTO’s Digital Marketing Support Program

The Digital Marketing Support Program offered up to $2,500 in financial support to tourism operators and organizations to go towards the costs of activities ranging from website enhancements, digital advertising campaigns, photo and video shoots, and more. This funding program is now closed and all funds have been fully allocated.

For more information about other available OHTO funding programs, please visit comewander.ca/programs. To apply to one of the TRIP streams, please visit comewander.ca/trip.

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