When it comes to tourism in the Southern Interior, the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
At least that’s the message Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association chief executive officer Glenn Mandziuk wants to get out as TOTA embarks on an ambitious 10-month endeavour to create a strategic marketing plan to not only promote the region but also gather information to help it develop a bigger, stronger industry here.
The regional strategic plan, the first of its kind in the province, will be an attempt to pull together the diverse elements that make up the $1 billion industry in the southern central Interior. But drawing on the needs and desires of 90 communities and 3,200 stakeholders in an area the size of Ireland will not be easy.
“Every community with a tourism agency has some sort of a community (tourism) plan and, up to now, those plans have, for the most part, been operating in isolation of each other,” said Mandziuk.
“This plan is designed to pull them all together.”
Mandziuk argues that tourists who come to the Thompson Okanagan tend to move around while they are here, in part because of the size of the region and the variation of what the region has to offer.
But even if a visitor likes just one thing, often there are opportunities to try different variants at sites scattered throughout the area. Wine lovers can visit wineries up and down the Okanagan Valley and golf enthusiasts can play a myriad of courses, from Valemount in the north to Osoyoos in the south, and skiers have their pick of hills and resorts to chose from.
But the strength of the diversity this region has to offer is also one of the biggest challenges when it comes to developing a plan to market the area to the world.
The Thompson-Okanagan, when it comes to tourism, is divided into 10 sub-regions stretching from the North Thompson in the north, Gold Country and the Nicola Valley in the east, the Similkameen, South Okanagan and Boundary in the south and the Central and North Okanagan, Shuswap and south Thompson in between. All offer their own inducements to visitors and all want to attract tourists.
And then there are the competing interests of the individual tourism operators at the local level, the 3,200 businesses that TOTA calls its stakeholders.
While regional marketing is encouraged by these businesses, as is provincial marketing by Tourism B.C., many local operators have a closer relationship with their local tourism marketing organizations, such as Tourism Kelowna here.
“It all depends on the focus,” said Stan Martindale, manager of the Ramada Lodge Hotel in Kelowna about TOTA’s plans.
While supportive of the regional effort, he said at the end of the day he, and his counterparts at other hotels here and elsewhere in the region, want the same thing—to fill their hotels to capacity.
While Mandziuk wants to spread the word that Penticton and Kamloops are not Kelowna’s competitors when it comes to attracting tourists, when it comes to day-to-day business for Martindale, his competitor is as close as the hotel down the street.
But Mandziuk wants those in the industry to look at the big picture. And that means recognizing that first you need to get visitors to B.C. and then you need to get them into this region if tourism is to grow here.
And growth is something sorely needed right now.
Struggling to regain what it lost as a result of the recession, the tourism industry has seen business slowly climbing back but it is still well off the highs seen prior to the economic downturn in 2008.
According to Rosemary Paterson, president of the Kelowna Hotel and Motel Association, while business has been down at many local hotels what has really hurt has been the large number of additional rooms added over the last few years in the Central Okanagan.
An estimated 400 to 500 new rooms have been added either through additions to existing hotels or, in two cases, by brand new hotels being built here. Currently there are about 3,000 hotel and motel rooms in the Central Okanagan.
Still, Paterson said she is happy to see TOTA’s regional strategic plan being proposed and plans to be at the June 7 workshop scheduled for Kelowna.
The TOTA workshops, part of a series to be held across the region, will gather input from the public, communities and stakeholders as the tourism association pieces together its plan.
The work, which Mandziuk said could not have been undertaken by TOTA two years ago because it was not equipped to do something as wide-ranging, has been the result of the regional tourism organization repositioning itself to not only market the area but also help grow the industry here.
“Research is central to this plan,” he said. “We want to know who the visitor to the region is.”
As it stands, information about the tourism industry here, such as the exact size, is still an educated guess. It is known accommodation alone across the region generates about $260 million per year.
The $1 billion impact figure has been around for several years and Mandziuk said more exact benchmarks will enable his organization—and local tourism organizations—to chart growth and see what is working, where and why.
“I’m not happy at all that we can’t have that data at our fingertips,” he said.
From a local tourism marketing perspective, Kelowna is keen to be part of regional discussions, said Kelowna Tourism’s Nancy Cameron.
“Of all the destinations within the region, Kelowna is the largest generator of tourism revenues and as such, Tourism Kelowna is keen to engage in regional destination discussions that focus on identifying improvements required to make us an even more desirable tourist destination,” she said.
“Global competition for the traveller is robust and we are well-served to harness any tools at our disposal to make sure Kelowna continually improves its offering to remain competitive.”
She said processes, like the one being undertaken by TOTA, provide vehicles for identifying areas in need of improvement.
The push for a regional strategic plan for an industry as big and as important to this area as tourism is also being welcomed by Central Okanagan’s economic development officer Robert Fine.
Fine, who has been appointed to the advisory board that TOTA has set up to help with the work, echoed Manziuk’s view that other parts of the world, not other parts of the region are the competition when it comes to attracting tourists.
“(Kelowna’s) competition is not Penticton or Vernon, it’s places like Melbourne, Australia,” said Fine.
“That is why this is a good thing. There has never been a regional (tourism) strategy like this before.”
He added while planning and marketing are still required at the local level, big picture planning like this can only help.
The work TOTA is doing is also catching the attention of the province and other regions in B.C.
Mandziuk said he expects it will likely serve as a template for other parts of B.C. It is also being noted internationally.
In fact, the idea for the regional plan came from similar, successful plans in New Zealand and Australia.
One of the main aims of the plan will be to bring in smaller communities, where tourism may not be recognized for what it is, and what it can be.
In B.C., where forests are often viewed more as part of the industrial landscape because of the province’s strong forest industry history, those same forests are an attraction for visitors, particularly Europeans.
And tourism is also seen as an economic development generator.
According to Fine, few investors set up shop in an area without first visiting it. And that is initially done as a tourist.
“It’s rare that people simply come here based on a job or entrepreneurship opportunity without visiting it first,” he said.
“And that’s where tourism comes in.”
So while no one wants to see the reinvention of the wheel, many in the tourism industry are looking to the creation of the regional strategy to help bring more people here and help communities offer visitors a unique experience—everything from forests, provincial parks and native culture, to wineries, golf, water sports, winter sports, the arts and culture.
“We have focused hard on leading the way,” said Manziuk. “Because if we don’t do it, someone else will.”