Friday marks the beginning of Kelowna’s biggest tourism weekend of the year.
Parking spots will be more difficult to locate, as will patches of sand to spread beach towels over.
Thirty minute waits will be expected at downtown restaurants and pubs; the word “no” will be spotted on most hotel vacancy signs.
For locals, the minor inconveniences are well worth it—the population swell is good news for local businesses.
And, if Tourism Kelowna’s anecdotal evidence is any indication, the business of being a destination has been pretty good so far this summer.
Despite the devastating flooding that may have stopped several Albertans from travelling west in late June and early July, the majority of local accommodators are reporting increased numbers compared to last summer.
Well over 20,000 out-of-towners will be arriving over the next three days thanks to Kelowna’s biggest entertainment and sports festival: Monster Energy Center of Gravity. It’s a mammoth event expected to spill $6 million into the local economy.
Though all seems well in the local tourism industry, Tourism Kelowna’s recent push to build a new visitor centre in City Park has a significant slice of the population less than amused.
In this week’s Close-up, Capital News reporter Wade Paterson looks at the tourism number projections for this summer, what residents and visitors can expect this weekend and why Tourism Kelowna feels its necessary to set up shop in City Park.
The official statistics won’t be released until sometime this fall, but Catherine Frechette, communications manager for Tourism Kelowna, is optimistic about what will be revealed later this year.
“From reports with accommodators in town, it shows that June was fairly on par with June 2012,” says Frechette.
“In July we conducted an informal poll with accommodators. The poll we conducted was really spurred on by the Calgary flooding event.”
The results indicated the majority of hotel, bed and breakfast and campground owners saw increased business in July.
The poll also got a taste of accommodators’ projections for August.
“There are only a few who are expressing unease, which is linked with the Calgary market. Overwhelmingly, the confidence is good for August.”
One doesn’t have to look much further than recent provincial election predictions to understand polling should be taken with a grain of salt.
But Frechette says the early indications have Tourism Kelowna staff feeling optimistic about the overall summer season.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years has been small increases, year over year, building back up from the decline that we saw in 2009 from the economic downturn.
“The increases have been nominal, so we’re not quite up to the height of 2008 just yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Most of Kelowna’s visitors have traditionally come from B.C. and Alberta, which is still the case; however, the type of vacation they’re opting to take has evolved.
Many tourists are opting for quick, spur-of-the-moment getaways as opposed to multi-week holidays, according to Frechette.
Daily non-stop flights to and from Toronto have also brought more Ontario residents to the Valley.
Frechette notes Tourism Kelowna aggressively promotes the region in popular markets.
“We’ll do radio campaigns on Vancouver stations or (other) stations where we know there’s a high percentage of that market that travels to Kelowna in the summer.”
Tourism Kelowna also goes after specific travellers in niche markets, with the aim of bringing golfers, wine lovers and, most recently, adventure seekers to our backyard.
Recently, it partnered with golf insider Bob Weeks for a TSN feature, which showcased Kelowna golf courses.
“We do very highly targeted campaigns because we know that those are deciding factors for people.”
Perhaps the most successful Tourism Kelowna effort came on July 15.
Over three million sets of eyes witnessed what the Okanagan has to offer as it was the setting for the inaugural episode of The Amazing Race Canada.
The show set a ratings record and was the most watched Canadian entertainment program since the Corner Gas finale in 2009.
The two peaks of summer tourism in Kelowna are the July and August long weekends.
Typically, both offer good weather, plenty of attractions and an extra day off of work.
But Center of Gravity’s world-class entertainment, more than 150 professional athletes and 30,000 guests, likely gives the August long weekend the upper hand.
Scott Emslie, founder of Wet Ape Productions, says the event has grown every year since 2007—when it was then known as Volleyfest.
“I feel like there are constantly new challenges,” says Emslie.
“I think if we stayed the same size it would get a lot easier, but every year we’ve grown substantially.”
The estimated local economic benefit, directly related to Center of Gravity, was $4 million in 2011. Last year it was $5 million. This year, Emslie predicts it will be closer to $6 million.
“It’s probably going to stay around $6 million for the next couple years. As long as we’re bringing the right entertainment, I think the crowds are going to come.”
What may be most telling is the makeup of those crowds.
2012 ticket purchases were comprised of 26 per cent locals, 48 per cent visitors from B.C. and 23 per cent visitors from Alberta. The other three per cent came mostly from other Canadian provinces and the United States.
“That’s where you get that big economic impact—all the people from Alberta and the Lower Mainland that come out for the weekend.”
Keloha Music and Arts Festival, the other Kelowna brainchild of Emslie’s, has experienced a more modest growth.
The event, which ran July 5 to 7, brought out about 15,000 spectators in its second year.
Emslie says the numbers for Keloha were up by about 10 per cent this year, but Wet Ape Productions “still has a ways to go” to make Keloha a sustainable event.
“Our focus is finding a way to make the numbers make sense for Keloha.”
Wet Ape Productions and Tourism Kelowna have sustained a healthy give-and-take relationship since 2007.
Keloha benefits from a Tourism Kelowna event grant. The not-for-profit society also ensures both Keloha and Center of Gravity information is readily available to visitors.
In turn, Center of Gravity athletes’ and artists’ care packages will include promotional material featuring various attractions in the region, which has been provided by Tourism Kelowna.
Most Okanagan residents recognize and appreciate the work Tourism Kelowna does to help grow the local economy.
But a recent proposal to include a visitor centre and Tourism Kelowna office space in a new City Park building near Abbott Street and Bernard Avenue has more than a few residents frustrated.
President and CEO of Tourism Kelowna Nancy Cameron has posted an 1,100-word explanation on why a new visitor centre should be built in City Park.
Her plea suggests a visitor centre needs to be housed in an area surrounded by pedestrian traffic.
“It’s a numbers game. An increase in the number of tourists using a visitor centre relates directly to increases of people entering tourist attractions, services and retail shops,” she states.
“Those using the visitor centre will discover more to do in Kelowna than they had previously known and will go to more attractions, stay longer and have their expectations exceeded resulting in referrals to their friends.”
She goes on to note Tourism Kelowna does not want to see a loss of green space, the number of RVs and cars pulling trailers—in her opinion—won’t likely take up additional parking and, although tour buses may drop off customers at the centre, they will likely park elsewhere.
The building design includes a 5,000-square-foot visitor centre, 4,000-square-feet of Tourism Kelowna office space and 7,000-square feet of retail space.
But letters to the editors of both Kelowna’s newspapers and radio talk show callers have indicated some residents aren’t so fond of the idea.
“Please do not use up precious parkland to house an information bureau. There must be many other sites available for that purpose,” writes Mary Blumer in a July 25 letter to the Capital News.
In another newspaper letter to the editor published Aug. 1, Layton Park suggests the abandoned McDonald’s building on Harvey Avenue could be an “obvious solution.”
Park notes that option would provide more than 8,000-square-feet of office space, ample parking and higher visibility from the highway.
A similar suggestion was brought forward through a City of Kelowna online community engagement tool.
Although the topic is now closed for comment, the website indicates the idea of utilizing the former McDonald’s site has been reviewed and been determined to be “not feasible,” likely due to transportation and access issues.
A report is expected to come back to City of Kelowna Council in September, giving recommendations for the City Park Concept Plan, including public feedback.