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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TRIP Success Story: Bonnie View Inn and Tinhouse Woodworking excel with OHTO funding program

If you’re looking for an easy-to-access grant that offers more than 50 percent cost-sharing, there is one that delivers on both counts.

 The Tourism Recovery and Innovation Program (TRIP) Capital Projects Stream from the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization (OHTO) is easy to apply for, contributes 80 percent of the total project cost, and is having a big impact on participating businesses in Ontario’s Highlands.

This spring, Bonnie View Inn and Tinhouse Woodworking were among the many tourism businesses that received this funding, and the impacts on their operations have been far-reaching.

The TRIP funding program launched in early 2021 and is an application-based program designed to strengthen resiliency in our tourism sector in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The program is separated into three funding streams: skills development, partnership, and capital projects.

The capital projects stream provides funding for small to medium-sized tourism businesses and offsets up to 80 percent of eligible capital expenses incurred to modify operations, up to a maximum of $20,000. It was to this stream which Bonnie View Inn and Tinhouse Woodworking applied and received funding.

June Wells and her husband, Jeff, are owners of Tinhouse Woodworking and Espresso Bar, and June explained the TRIP program provided much-needed funding at a time when things looked bleak due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Located in Coe Hill, Tinhouse Woodworking added in an espresso bar about six years ago and has been serving as a community gathering space and coffee hotspot ever since.

Tinhouse Woodworking & Espresso Bar in Coe Hill, ON – Hastings County.

In March 2020, everything changed for Wells’ and her operations.

“When COVID hit we did a makeshift take-out window for coffee, but it wasn’t ideal,” said June, who explained she wanted to create a gathering place, where people could sit and enjoy their coffee and so they could purchase without even having to go inside the store.

June applied for TRIP funding to create an outdoor patio area, complete with tables and chairs and awnings to protect customers from the elements while they sat outdoors.”

“I added a new deck along the side of the building and built a great take-out window and espresso bar and added tables for people to sit outside and enjoy their coffee,” said June.

The patio turned out to be a big success for the business. June explained that it was not only an added enticement for existing customers, but it attracted a lot of first-time customers because of the additional curb appeal it made for the business.

“It increased traffic by about 15 percent,” June said. “We got a lot of first-time customers, so that made a big difference.”

Tinhouse Woodworking’s success is mirrored by the TRIP project at Bonnie View Inn in Haliburton.

Bonnie View Inn has been operating since the 1940s and when COVID restrictions hit which eliminated indoor dining as an option, in some ways the inn was in good shape. A patio (previously a ‘boatel’) offered a place for diners to eat outdoors, even if spacing was limited.

Bonnie View Inn, Minden, ON – Haliburton County

“Bonnie View’s patio is a bit of a staple in the area, it’s definitely a place people come to in the summertime, and it’s the only one of its kind in the area,” explained Ryan Yates, co-owner of Bonnie View Inn.

The TRIP grant enabled the inn to increase patio space, improve the layout of the patio to free up additional space, and improve the quality of the food they were able to offer from the patio. In total, they were able to add space for another 30 people to dine outdoors.

“With the renovation, we were also able to stop cooking off two barbecues and have a proper cooking space where we could serve a better menu,” Ryan explained. “The added benefit for us is that with no indoor dining able to open this gave us a way to meet the needs of the guests who were staying here and who wouldn’t otherwise have a dining option.”

At Bonnie View Inn, the patio was hopping all summer long, thanks to the extra space and enhanced experience available.

“We were busy all summer long…unless it was poor weather, we didn’t have a slow day,” said Ryan.

Both Ryan and June found the TRIP application and approval process stress-free and easy to navigate.

“It was pretty straightforward,” said Ryan. “It didn’t make us feel like we were having to jump through a bunch of hoops and we received responses to the application quickly.”

June echoes Ryan’s thoughts on the grant process in general, but most importantly, the benefits of having access to those funds to improve business operations. “I would recommend others to go for it and apply…it does make a huge difference.”

About OHTO’s Tourism Recovery & Innovation Program – Capital Projects Stream

The TRIP-Capital Grants stream is geared specifically to small to medium-sized tourism businesses to offset up to 80% of eligible capital expenses incurred to modify operations to a maximum of $20,000 in non-repayable funding, including expenses incurred back to June 1, 2020.  Applications to this funding stream are accepted on an ongoing basis until Dec. 31, 2021, or until funds are depleted.

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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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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Bringing Together Food and Drink Operators in Lanark County Success Story

In 2017 when it came to food and drink, Lanark County had a problem, and surprisingly that problem wasn’t a lack of food and drink operators. In fact, per capita there were more edible experiences available in Lanark County than in the neighbouring city of Ottawa.

Put simply, the region was a foodie dream come true. The problem was while there were plenty of offerings available for visitors, there was no centralized resource visitors could access to find them.

Enter the Sip & Savour Trail.

This partnership project was launched in 2017 by the Lanark County Tourism Association (LCTA), and involved a multi-year plan to bring together the food and drink operators in Lanark County under one umbrella. This partnership project began with a Tourism Development Partnership Project (TDPP) application, now known as theTourism Recovery and Innovation Project (TRIP) Partnership Projectsstream, to initiate a feasibility analysis to see if there was a need for a food and drink trail in the region.

“We wanted to provide value to members, and also respond to feedback from visitors who were looking for a food and drink experience,” said LCTA Vice-President, Jackie Kavanagh. “Food and drink is a huge draw to our region in part because we have a strong farm to table culture here, but also because we have had so many craft alcohol destinations open over the past several years.”

Next for the project was bringing together the tourism operators and garnering their buy-in and support for the project. Stakeholder sessions, information sharing, and countless phone calls and chats with business owners took place over several months, but in the end the effort was worth it.

“We were able to bring on board to the trail almost every food and drink business we had targeted. We had every brewery, two distilleries, two chocolateries, and multiple restaurants sign up right away, so we knew the trail would be robust,” said Kavanagh.

In total, the trail brought together nearly 40 tourism food and drink operators in Lanark County, representing every corner of the region, from Mississippi Mills to Perth, Carleton Place, Smiths Falls, and beyond. Funding was sought from the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization (OHTO) for three years in a row, to offset costs for everything from the feasibility analysis to the development of a marketing plan, a video, photography, branding, brochures, digital advertising, and finally on to full trail development.

To launch the trail, the LCTA first branded it, developed a website, a marketing plan, and launched a digital marketing campaign in the Ottawa area. The initial advertising at launch reached more than 500,000 on a limited budget, primarily through digital marketing. Three years later, the trail continues to provide value to the region for visitors and operators.

“The Sip & Savour Trail has been highly successful for our region, it created a landing place for visitors to be inspired to plan a visit here,” said Kavanagh. “The Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization has been there every step of the way, from conception to the final product supporting the initiative and helping us to build it even better.

About OHTO’s Partnership Projects

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.

For more information about this or any of OHTO’s partnership projects, please visit comewander.ca/programs. To apply for TRIP, please visit: comewander.ca/trip.

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Hastings County: A Tourism Recovery and Innovation Program Success Story

In Hastings County, the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams has extra meaning: If you build it, they will come. The idea is that if you build and develop purchasable tourism experiences, then visitors will follow. Long debated in the tourism world, this is a concept that is no longer theoretical, thanks to a recent Tourism Recovery and Innovation Program (TRIP) Partnerships Project in Hastings County.

It isn’t often that a community is able to come together to ignite their collective curiosity and drive concrete progress and discoveries. In Hastings County, a project that began with the Ignite program in 2019 with 17 operators and two staff members has led to the prioritization of experiential tourism development in the region, and the development of experiences that will attract visitors now and in the future.

Hasting County’s 2021 TRIP project built on the foundations created by the Ignite program, with a goal of realizing the development of enhanced experiences in the region – namely, Experiential Tourism Development through e-training for local operators.

Through this project, Hastings County hoped to develop a sustainable training experience that could be repeated in future. Andrew Redden, Economic Development & Tourism Manager for Hastings County, explained the project fit with the priority of facilitating the development of more tourism experiences within Hastings County.

“The workshop was a kickstart to achieving our goal of creating more purchasable experiences,” said Andrew. “It created some great connections and connections with local businesses, and we have seen some great experiences implemented as a result.”

In 2021, 11 tourism operators in Hastings County took part in the training, with a goal of creating six new or enhanced experiences within one year of the program. Participating tourism operators included tourism experience operators like Tweed & Company Theatre, Kingsmill Cider, Potter Settlement Winery, The Barn Chefs, among others.

“Some of the businesses that took part are champions in the tourism community, and capable of achieving wonderful things,” said Andrew.

While time will tell how many experiences are developed in response to the training, there is one easily notable success story: Kings Mill Cider. Cidery owner, Margaret Van Helvoort, explained the many benefits the program had on their business, and the ways in which it sparked inspiration for exciting future projects.

“Thanks to the program, Kings Mill Cider was able to make an amazing partnership connection with the Stirling Festival Theatre and in August we hosted the first annual Busker Festival together…it turned out splendidly,” said Margaret.

Margaret noted the opportunity to make connections with other operators was a benefit f the experience. The exercises they took part in were unique – one exercise involved planting and caring for seeds and seedlings which showed how important an attention to detail and follow up can be. Margaret added the other exercises were “invigorating, refreshing, and grounding.”

A follow up meeting is planned for October to learn more about what experiences were developed in consequence to the training, and with new experiences forthcoming, Andrew is optimistic about Hastings County’s role of promoting tourism development.

“If we can work with operators to encourage them to create a purchasable experience, we can assist with the promotion,” said Andrew.

This project is an example of how partnership projects can benefit the community and tourism operators simultaneously. Andrew recommends anyone with an idea for how to grow tourism to consider partnering with Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization.

“Ontario’s Highlands has always been very approachable,” said Andrew. “Whether it’s a small municipality, a tourism operator or organization I would encourage them to give staff a call and ask them for thoughts of how they can navigate through some challenges of the industry.”

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