Touring is the emergent trend in US travel – Pepe

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Paul Pepe, Thunder Bay's Manager of TourismTHUNDER BAY – Guest Column – With 2010 quickly making its way into our rear view mirrors, we’ve begun to deconstruct the past year’s performance, looking at the emergent trends, decreases and shifts of the past year to predict what lies ahead of us.

Here’s my predictions for the 2011 tourism year for the Thunder Bay area.

1. Partnerships are king in 2011. with over $1.5 million in new Provincial regional tourism funds available to the tourism industry of the Northwest for partnership based initiatives, communities, industry and regional tourism organizations are going to have to focus on experiential tourism initiatives versus the old destination based models that saw a lot of duplication of marketing and product development efforts that frankly, only confused the consumer. We’re going to be working a lot more together as industry and communities.

2. We’re going to hear the words “product development” a lot more. Good quality relevant experiences are easier to market and in our new regional tourism model, product development, capacity building and investment attraction are more important than marketing. Now is the time to refresh aging product, find new markets and build new visitor experiences people actually want to travel for.

3. Continued modest gains in the domestic markets. The Canadian economy has remained stable in the past year and we’re going to continue to see Ontario and Manitoba lead our domestic markets, primarily in the summer leisure segment. They will be drawn here primarily to visit friends and family, touring, angling, hunting, and soft adventure. We’re going to continue a strong focus on the domestic trade.

4. We’re going to continue to see a shift in the US travel demographics from angling and hunting to touring and to a lesser degree soft adventure. The US economy is still tender and the U.S. midwest is no exception. This struggling economy will have its most significant impact on the angling and hunting markets, particularly those operators who haven’t made changes to their experience or sought new markets.

Touring is the emergent trend in US travel to our region and those seeking to explore the lake basin will continue to grow, following gains made in 2010 around this segment. There are 75 million plus passport holders in the US and looking at motorcycle, auto (AAA and specialty auto sport groups) and RV clubs will be a smart investment for all of us in the industry. The north Lake Superior coastline is one of Canada’s top 3 scenic motorcycle destinations.

Don’t write off angling yet, however. It’s still the single largest tourism segment for the entire region and the experience here, particularly the remote trophy experience, is pure Canadian iconic wilderness and needs to start reinvesting in capital upgrades and reaching new markets globally. Also, remember how many hundreds of thousands of our US friends are serving overseas? As they start returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, they and their family members will want relaxing experiences and we could see that segment plays a role in rebuilding US traffic to the area beginning in 2011.

5. MC and IT. We’ll see continued strong performance in corporate travel to the city, largely driven by the mining and health sciences sectors and increased air corridor options such as Porter Air.

We’re going to see the awareness of the city as a business hub continue to be seen be meeting planners as a advantage for those seeking something out of the ordinary. Our corporate segment will continue to be dominated by the domestic market. Canadian organizations and firms are travelling for conferences again after some contraction in 2008 and 2009 and they are hungry for unique destinations. Cue our “Unconventional Convention” destination positioning.

6. Sport tourism will continue to play a healthy role in our tourism economy with traffic similar to 2010. This is easy to predict because a lot of our events are secured 2 years out. The World U23 cross country ski time trails, and Ontario Winter Special Olympics will bring a welcome increase to local hotels in January (generally a tough month in accommodation sectors)

If our winter stays cold and snowless, we can expect a shot at hosting the North American Ice Yacht Championships again as we did at the eleventh hour in 2010. $155 000 in local economic impacts were generated in an event we had 48-hours-notice of earlier this year as over 100 racers scrambled to find clear ice. We’d love to welcome them all back.

7. Group travel. What can I say about this other than we are rethinking what group travel is in recent years and a lot of the potential growth in this segment ties into the trends in touring by looking at groups “beyond the bus.”

Motorcycle groups, sports car clubs have the potential to drive this segment’s future and our hosting of the 2011 Ontario Harley Owners Group will see over 800 avid motorcyclists descend on the city in late July, bringing a lot of attention to the spectacular touring route around the lake.

This could very well become a catalyst for an annual motorcycle gathering in the city. Now, let’s start adding up the Corvette, Porsche, Miata, vintage clubs around Canada and the US midwest who travel in groups and you can see where the potential lies.

However, there are also thousands of special interest clubs around North America – be it canoe, hiking, birding or skiing-looking for group excursion destinations positioned around an experience of common interest. The nice thing is that these groups are easily reached through social media channels.

While we’ll only be seeing two cruise ship visits in 2011, compared to ten in 2010, the Columbus is larger than we’ve seen in the past two years and total visitor impacts will be approximately the same.

Motor coach travel is still in the mix and we will continue to see traffic. One of the potential growth areas with this segment ties into the expected growth of the Chinese market and I predict we’re begin to see more Trans-Canada motor coach packaged tours than recent years as this new market wants to explore Canada’s geography, bookended by Vancouver and Toronto due to their air connectivity and large Chinese communities.

8. Sustainable Tourism is going to be embraced by more consumers and more industry partners. local culinary and cultural attractions that give visitors an authentic experience are only growing in demand. Keeping in mind that the definition of sustainable tourism is “the promotion of experiences that conserve the environment and bring economic benefits to local populations”, there is no reason why every single tourism operator in the region shouldn’t embrace some level of sustainability in their operation. Expect to see a green touring program evolving in the next 12 months.

9. Social Media. Yeah, it’s been around for the past 4 years but digital media and two way conversations will continue to dominate our marketing and communications strategies with up to 1/2 of our media programs being delivered electronically in 2011. Expect to see more content generated online to feed the search engines. My advice to tourism partners not using digital social channels in 2011? Call a realtor.

10. We’re going to have fun doing what we do and share our positive attitude with our clients and guests. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best in the local tourism industry in the past 4 years. These are people who are passionate, fun and collaborative. As an industry, we’ve weathered some pretty significant environmental challenges in the past few years and our 2010 performance showed we overcome them with creativity and entrepreneurship and a lot of camaraderie. We’re going to be positive, innovative and self-confident in 2011.

Remember, Success begets success.

Paul Pepe

Paul Pepe is Thunder Bay’s Manager of Tourism. Pepe’s views on the impact of social media, the Internet and new means of building the region’s tourism are helping to build the Emerging Thunder Bay.

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