Ottawa’s tourism industry has transformed in many ways during the last decade and a half. And no one has been closer to those changes than Dick Brown.
© Cole Burston.
Dick Brown is the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association.
The president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association says that when he first started in the job, the premier could have announced millions of dollars in new funding for tourism to the capital and received 10 different answers about how it should be spent.
“We had organizations operating in silos, not necessarily even talking to one another,” he says, reclining in the lobby of the Westin Ottawa.
Not any more, though – thanks in part to the work that Mr. Brown has done in shepherding the city’s various groups together.
“The tourism community is pulling together in a way that 15 years ago wasn’t happening.”
In mid-February Mr. Brown announced that he would be retiring from the position sometime over the next several months, leaving behind 14 years in a business that he came to via somewhat unconventional means.
Mr. Brown spent a good deal of his career working for Carleton University, where for part of the time he was responsible for the university’s student housing.
The residences operate as a separate business entity, which meant that he had to go looking for additional sources of revenue during the down times of the summer months.
After opening the facilities up as a tour and conference centre in the 1960s, he received a visit from the head of Ottawa Tourism. The city’s hoteliers were not pleased about having another competitor stealing business from them, so they asked him to join the organization’s board.
When he retired from Carleton University in 1999, the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association asked him to come aboard for about a day a week as the organization’s only paid employee.
“It didn’t take me long before I realized that the one day a week was a bit of a fiction,” he says. “But the further involved I became in the issues, the more I got drawn in.”
One matter in particular grabbed his attention: how could the city get more advertising dollars?
At the time, Mr. Brown says, the number of tourists across Ontario was declining because there wasn’t enough money for sales and marketing. And, as he is fond of saying to anyone who will listen, marketing dollars are the lifeblood of tourism.
He drafted a plan that would see the private sector, rather than government, take the lead in raising tourism marketing dollars. And so the destination marketing fee, which today sees local hotels remit three per cent of their room rates to Ottawa Tourism, was born.
The program has been through a series of ups and downs over the years, such as several years ago when the introduction of the harmonized sales tax made levying the additional charge more difficult.
That was reversed last year, when, under Mr. Brown’s leadership, participating hotels again began collecting the fee. The OGHA expects it will generate about $8 million in revenue a year.
Mr. Brown says the fee gives Ottawa Tourism a stable base of funding from which to operate in the future. One of its most important elements, he says, is that the more successful the agency is in attracting visitors, the more money it will have to work with.
All that could lead it to fail is if hoteliers stop seeing results from it. But he remains confident that won’t happen under the leadership of Ottawa Tourism.
He expects he will continue to help out in the tourism community – he was recently reappointed as a board member of the Ottawa Convention Centre – albeit in a reduced role. His retirement is going to be directed mostly to spending more time with his family.
In the meantime, he has high hopes for the future of the city’s tourism industry.
“We’ve got a city that, in my view, is about to take the next step,” he said. “If we’re now a tier-two city, we’re near the top and I think in the next three to five years we will become a tier-one city.”
A new retail and stadium development at Lansdowne Park, the introduction of light-rail transit and the National Capital Commission’s new-found interest in animating the Ottawa River waterfront all give him hope for the tourism industry – as well as the city that surrounds it.
“A great place for visitors is also a great place to live as a resident,” he said. “They’re mutually complementary.”