The Rise of Responsible Tourism and Pandemic Response: Looking Back at 2021

If year one of the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that you have to stay on your toes when responding to the constantly changing world around you. This is something Nicole Whiting, Executive Director for the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization understands full well and put into practice in year two in 2021.

As executive director of a tourism organization at a time when tourism is facing complex challenges due to the pandemic, Nicole has the responsibility of guiding and reshaping our region’s approach to meet a rapidly changing landscape.

“Before the pandemic, our focus was on how to attract outside visitors to the region,” Nicole explained. “When travel restrictions came into play we realized that we had to completely change our strategy, and quickly.”

Accordingly, 2021 was a time for Nicole, OHTO staff, and the board of directors to reflect on lessons learned in 2020 and assess a new vision and approach.

“We realized that our industry needed our support more than ever; revenues were down, availability of staff was limited, incorporating regulations was a huge undertaking, and the clientele was totally changing.  The focus was going to be local, and we were really going to have to engage with and connect with our local communities.”

To further complicate matters, Nicole explained it quickly became clear in the early days of the pandemic that many tourism offerings in Ontario’s Highlands “were in really high demand” and as a result, there were new challenges to deal with, like over tourism and an influx of new investors purchasing properties and generational businesses.

Nicole and the Board of Directors recognized that the 2021 business planning needed to address these growing issues, so the organization could focus on offering support, connecting with locals, and strengthening communities through responsible tourism.

“The challenges we are facing are greater than any one business or organization can tackle, a community-driven approach that balances prosperity and preservation of our rural quality of life is what has become our North Star,” explained Nicole.

Turning to principles of responsible tourism made sense and was a clear-cut way of responding to the challenges the industry was facing in Ontario. Shifting the focus to introduce responsible tourism principles into the operational plan was a trial-and-error process, but one with tremendous reward potential and is continuously evolving.

“Our approach has been one of continuous learning and experimenting on the ways we can follow through on our guiding principles, and how we can educate our industry and our visitors about this journey,” said Nicole.

A journey is an apt description of the responsible tourism approach embraced by OHTO. In essence, responsible tourism invites visitors and operators to look at long-term sustainability through a variety of lenses, through inclusivity, community stewardship, and health and safety.

Looking ahead to 2022, Nicole is excited to be continuing OHTO’s journey into responsible tourism and committing to learning more about what that means for the organization. Educating herself, the board and the OHTO team was the first step, but next up is extending that education to communities and stakeholders.

“We feel really good about where we are right now,” said Nicole. “We’re still in a recovery and rebuilding stage but through engaging with our industry we’ll know when we need to revise or change course.”

The future in tourism may be uncertain in Ontario, but Nicole sees the silver lining in the changes brought by the pandemic.

“It’s exciting to see how much Ontarians enjoy our tourism offerings, and how they are developing a really strong connection to what the province has to offer,” said Nicole. “I think when things start opening up and we start attracting visitors from further afield we’ll see even greater demand. I’m excited about that, and the longevity of local support for tourism.”

For Ontario’s Highlands’ tourism operators, Nicole feels even greater optimism for 2022. Over the past two years, Nicole has been inspired by the resiliency and innovation demonstrated by Ontario’s Highlands’ tourism operators, particularly in the face of such complex challenges.

In particular, seeing the way businesses have come to lean on one another is encouraging, and a trend Nicole hopes will continue into the future.

Her advice for business owners heading into 2022 is clear cut and simple:

“Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s difficult but it’s working, and OHTO is here to help along the way.”

Success Story: TRIP funding brings together three brands on the Ontario Water Trail

Bringing business together and encouraging partnerships is one of the hallmarks of the Tourism Innovation and Recovery Program (TRIP), and nowhere is this more evident than with a recent TRIP project that brought together three renowned water experience brands: OWL Rafting,  Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC), and Le Boat.

It was in early 2021 that the folks from OWL (in Renfrew County), Le Boat (in Lanark County) and MKC (in Hastings County) began looking for a way to maximize exposure and assist with the recovery from the shortened season in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And so the Ontario Water Trail was born.

Claudia Van Wijk, co-owner of OWL Rafting, explained the Ontario Water Trail was a domestic alternative to the previously successful Canadian Canoe Routes, which offered an itinerary for international visitors to be introduced to Ontario’s waterways if booking through a tour operator. Ontario’s Water Trail brought together three renowned brands and get people excited about being on the water.

“We saw an elevated demand to get outdoors in 2020, and especially for guided or self-guided activities on the water,” Claudia explained. “So we said let’s create the Ontario Water Trail to bring greater awareness of the amazing water-based destinations that exist here in Ontario, and to get more people out on the water this summer.”

The Ontario Water Trail offers a one-stop website to introduce visitors to the three experiences, and encouraged people to book any (or all) of the three, with discount incentives for those who book multiple programs. LeBoat led the project in partnership with OWL Rafting and Madawaska Kanu Centre, and is anchored by the three experiences of paddling, rafting and cruising, which act as an entry point for visitors to learn how and what can be enjoyed on the water.

Significantly, all three brands were also celebrating 50 years in 2021, so there was that added incentive for visitors to book an experience in that year. In addition, the Rideau Canal, the Tay River, the Ottawa River, and the Madawaska River are corridors to world class outdoor water-based experiences.

Lisa McLean from Le Boat, the international boat rental company located in Smiths Falls, explained the partnership project just made sense from a marketing perspective.

“It was good, cost-effective way to reach a new audience,” Lisa explained.

For Le Boat, the incentive to be part of the project was to engage with and connect to other tourism operators, but it also helped them to reach a new target audience that many not have considered a boat rental holiday before.  Having multiple partners in the project means there was a much broader marketing platform and data base of new prospects to draw on.

“Each of us had a e-newsletter which helped created a multi-tiered marketing campaign,” Lisa said. “When OWL and MKC included Le Boat in their E-newsletter or promoted us on their social media channels we saw an increase in traffic to our website….it’s a good way to reach knew customers who don’t already know who you are.”

Significantly, the Globe and Mail picked up the story about the water trail, which increased brand awareness for all companies and for our unique tourism experiences, and the potential rewards. In addition, OHTO supported the water trail with additional marketing and story development, which added to the marketing reach.

As partners, the group worked together to submit their application to OHTO, and communicated with OHTO staff throughout the process.

“We took the application seriously…we built a beautiful presentation for them,” said Claudia. “All three of our businesses were at full capacity this summer and I feel indirectly or directly the Ontario Water Trail helped make that happen.”

About OHTO’s TRIP-Partnership Projects stream

The Tourism Recovery and Innovation Program (TRIP) Partnership Projects stream accepts applications for projects that strengthen the tourism sector and demonstrate consideration for the environmental, socio-cultural and economic impacts associated with growing the visitor economy. This program offers up to $15,000 financial support for collaborative projects that supports sustainable tourism. To apply for any of the TRIP funding streams, please visit: comewander.ca/trip.

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Success Story: Skills development funding teaches operators to fish

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides

When you launch something as important as a small business, you want to do it right. This is what Courtney Sinclair decided when she launched her business, Court Outdoors, offering stand-up paddleboarding lessons, meaningful outdoor experiences, retreats, and other opportunities for people to connect with nature.

Court Outdoors was initially a side business for Courtney, but in 2021 she jumped into entrepreneurship with both feet and committed to Court Outdoors as a more serious endeavour. Unfortunately, as she quickly found out, securing grants as a new business is not as easy as one might think. This is where the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization’s (OHTO) Tourism Recovery and Innovation Program (TRIP) – Skills Development Stream came in.

“It’s really tricky to get grants until you have time under your belt and a certain amount of financials,” explained Courtney. 

Courtney was checking all the right boxes; she had a website and social media presence and was doing what she could to promote her business. Still, she found tackling the learning curve for all the many moving parts of digital marketing overwhelming. 

To help her tackle these critical components of her business, Courtney applied for the TRIP funding to hire an online business management company, Peak Flow Online Business Management to teach her how to maximize her digital presence and online marketing. In essence, instead of looking for funding that would allow her to hire someone to do the work for her, she looked for funding to teach her the skills she needs to become sustainable. She needed someone to teach her how to fish.

“I felt like I was scrounging to get okay results and this funding allowed me to hire someone to teach me how to use keywords, to show me how to use website and social media analytics, to develop content pieces that help me find and capture my audience,” Courtney said. “It gave me the support to hire the people who can help me take the next steps forward.”

Now, Courtney meets weekly with her marketing specialists to discuss SEO, keyword implementation, Google analytics, email marketing, and more. Training will wrap up in February, but Courtney is keen to carry on implementing some of the pieces they have worked on together.

“We create training procedures that I can carry forward, they walk me through everything and then give me homework week to week,” Courtney said. “It gives me direction for sure.”

One of the first pieces they worked on was a website audit, which helped Courtney understand how to make changes to the website to rank higher on Google. This information will help Courtney be able to analyze data and learn what’s generating leads, who her audience is, and understand how people are finding her business, what social media efforts are working and what efforts are converting to sales, and what isn’t so Courtney can better direct her marketing dollars.

“It’s almost like coming out of the weeds, to step out and see the full picture and the scope of my business and marketing instead of getting caught up in the details without a bigger strategy,” Courtney explained.

When Courtney looked at the TRIP funding she wasn’t initially sure if she would qualify. A quick phone call later, and she learned she was in fact eligible and got started on the application process which she called “pretty quick.”

“They offered questions in the application process to help me clearly define my training project, and I heard back very quickly. I was pretty impressed by that,” Courtney said. 

Overall, the funding and training has made a big difference for Courtney and her business. For Courtney, the TRIP program not only helped drive her business forward, but it also gave her the time to really dive in and prepare for the next season. Money that wasn’t spent this year on the website and training can be redirected back into new equipment, the creation of new services, subscriptions for business tools and processes, and video and photography assets for her business.

“I feel like it has given me a leap forward in the business to be able to give that focused time towards elevating things to the next level.”

About OHTO’s Tourism Recovery & Innovation Program – Skills Development Stream

The TRIP-Skills Development stream is designed for projects that directly support tourism businesses and their employees to enhance their knowledge and skills in tourism and business development. This program provides up to $2,500 per applicant to support workforce and skills training projects that are to be completed by March 31, 2022. To apply to one of the TRIP funding streams, please visit comewander.ca/trip.

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