There are some things in the tourism industry that are unexplainable…this is one of those things.
On the weekend while in the Niagara region, we decided to bike along the incredible waterfront trail that follows the Niagara River. Our goal was ice cream in Niagara- on-the-Lake 10km downstream on what was a perfect spring evening. As we cycled along my friend Anne told me about this ice cream store we were headed to called COWS, that originated in PEI and how it is the best ice cream ever. Being a sucker for any kind of unique food reward while cycling I was instantly intrigued. As we rode into town on what was the Sunday evening of the Victoria Day long weekend, the town was buzzing with restaurant patrons, horse and carriage rides and people simply meandering along in this beautiful historic town. We parked our bikes in front of the store and found it mysteriously dark. I went to the door to find it locked…I yanked on the door thinking it was stuck, with enough force to set off the alarm.
Nothing gets in my way of world famous ice cream.
The only thing on the door was a Health Notice about not bringing pets into the store, no hours of operation, no reason why it was closed. Dumfounded why an iconic ice cream store would be closed in what I would consider prime time ice cream eating time, we collected ourselves and parked our sorry butts on a bench in front of the store. As masses of evening tourists streamed passed I said to Anne “Watch this…lets just sit here and see how many people try the door”. Within 15 minutes, group after group yanked on the handle only to have the same reaction we did. We estimated that they missed atleast $250 dollars of revenue within 15 minutes selling their premium dairy treats and merchandise. Their loss and my loss as I was excited to try it. Not sure what their reason was for being closed, like most small tourism businesses it could have been staffing issues, product issues, or simply a bad judgment call.
The moral of the story is to always call ahead like Ron, Anne’s husband said before we left and we both replied: “Yah right, its an ice cream store in a tourist town on a long weekend” “Its COWS”.
After spending the last 10 years embedded in the middle tier government system, it taught me some valuable lessons on how to build the case for tourism within a regional system. Here are some tips:
Trust – There is trust on two levels. The first is trust within the senior management and the elected council. Trust sounds like a dangerous word; it is if you don’t have it. Trust in government is earned by performance and public relations. Since there is a ton of PR value in good performance the more successful results you have on smaller projects the more accolades your leaders will receive from their constituents. This immediately trickles down to you as you tackle bigger initiatives. The second level of trust is with the business community whom who serve directly. Your job is to make them money and if they see direct value in what you do, you will have earned their trust. The business community speaks directly to the politicians….you see how this is working.
ROI – Measurement in the tourism destination management business is often tricky. Web visits, brochures handed out, event attendees are soft measurement tools that are important but don’t create a splash. What builds trust is when the business community is making money and they are communicating that to you and the elected officials. Establish good trusting relationships with your operators and they will tell you pretty quick if they are seeing return and will lobby on your behalf to make sure programs are resourced properly.
Community Benefits – Governments love to spend money on projects that increase the quality of life for their ratepayers. Positioning tourism projects that not only stimulate economic development but are also a legacy for residents. Trails are a big part of this approach. Destination trails attract visitors but for the remainder of the 8 months, they are real community assets that improve health, enhance alternative transportation needs, and make people want to live there. Be sure in all tourism projects to make this connection, it is one of the real benefits of a tourism-based economy.
All levels of government play substantial roles in the delivery of tourism experiences. They are often the land manager, infrastructure/service provider, transportation corridor manager, and so on. In order to be competitive and deliver experiences that exceed expectations they need to be well resourced. The tourism economy after all can be very lucrative for tax revenues. It is your job to build the case, earn the trust and deliver successful projects that create better destinations.
Think about all of the core tourism experiences in your region. Who manages them? Who runs them? Who makes sure the visitor is having the best experience possible?
In a lot of cases its volunteers, who ironically are not directly in the tourism business. Lets look at organized snowmobiling in the Province of Ontario. This is the largest snowmobile trail system in the world with over 40,000km or trails criss-crossing the province. This network is built almost entirely by volunteers. They plan routes, stake, sign, fundraise, purchase and maintain equipment, groom this massive system both for their own enjoyment but also for the visitor. Snowmobiling is big business and these volunteers are in full control of the delivery of the tourism experience.
Is this right? Is it fair? Ask most volunteers why they do what they do and almost none of them will say, “to contribute to the tourism economy”. They do it out of a labour of love for their sport or activity and in turn what it creates is an authentic tourism product. But, the issues arise when the destination marketing organizations really start to push these experiences as viable tourism products that generate huge economic activity….on the backs of the volunteers. It suddenly turns from a labour of love into work.
Lets face it, volunteerism is suffering. Lack of engaged youth, aging demographics, and simply too many tasks with too few people is creating massive volunteer burn out. The destination managers and marketers need to understand their products and what stage of the lifecycle they are at. If they are heavily dependant on volunteers, they need to be sensitive to those organizations and find ways to assist them in ensuring the product stays on stop at the same time appreciating and understanding the volunteers.
Here are 5 ways to engage with your volunteers:
1. Get down on their level – Attend their meetings, and work bees and get engaged.
2. Understand their needs – Do they require more bodies, cash for upgrades, or expertise?
3. Don’t let them get bogged down with rule compliance and regulation – These people all have day jobs and volunteer as an outlet. Help them.
4. Lobby – Use your connections to push their needs through government channels.
5. Offer to help – Allocate budget, staff time or other resources to help them with the tasks that your organization is good at.
Resources: Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs World Volunteers