Tourism lookahead: After the big 2017 party, where does Ottawa go from here?

Kontinuum

Michael Crockatt calls the Canada 150 celebrations a “great gift” that made 2017 a record year for the city’s tourism industry.

The big question facing Ottawa Tourism’s CEO now is: will that gift keep on giving?

Coming off the euphoric highs of a once-in-a-lifetime slate of events to celebrate the country’s sesquicentennial, local tourism officials such as Crockatt now face the dilemma of how to avoid – or at least mitigate – the inevitable “hangover” that comes with the realization the party is over.

Crockatt and others in the industry are realistic enough to understand 2017 can’t be duplicated. But they’re also optimistic enough to believe the spotlight that shone on the nation’s capital all through Canada’s big year will be strong enough to create an enduring halo effect.

“The meeting and events that were here, sure, they’re not all coming back in 2018, but it helps us build that resume that we can host these huge events that people didn’t necessarily think that Ottawa had the capacity to do,” Crockatt told OBJ in a recent interview.

“So it does change the way that some convention planners and meeting planners and event planners think about Ottawa. We’re on a different sort of playing field now, I think, than we were before.”

So where does the industry go from here?

Fresh plans

The success of big-ticket events such as La Machine, Kontinuum and others has many city leaders musing about the possibility of making them annual occurrences to help capitalize on the momentum from 2017.

But those events came with a hefty price tag. The Ottawa 2017 Bureau, which organized the city’s Canada 150 bash, collected more than $28 million from private- and public-sector partners such as Canada Post, CIBC, Bell and Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company to help cover the tab for spectacles such as La Machine, which alone cost $3 million.

La Machine
Photo courtesy Ottawa 2017 Bureau

Industry officials are well aware that kind of cash won’t be lavished on a 151st birthday celebration, meaning Ottawa’s tourist offerings in 2018 and beyond will need to be scaled back dramatically.

“We have to figure out what we can do, what we can afford, and start implementing those ideas,” Mayor Jim Watson told the crowd at Ottawa’s Economic Outlook luncheon in early December.

The mayor pointed to two events in particular he felt are well-positioned to become repeat attractions: the Ottawa Welcomes the World series, in which the city partnered with embassies to host cultural events, and the Interprovincial Picnic on the Bridge.

Picnic
Photo courtesy Ottawa 2017 Bureau

Funding such events could be a “challenge,” Watson conceded. The new four per cent hotel tax that is replacing the voluntary three per cent “destination development fee” could help generate extra revenue for new activities, he noted, but he also said the city will have to hit up the private sector for additional capital.

But before writing any cheques, local tourism agencies and corporate benefactors alike need to sit down and figure out exactly what strategy will benefit the industry most over the long term, one tourism expert said.

“There’s no miracle cure for hangovers,” Ottawa-based consultant Pat Kelly said.

“There’s no miracle cure for hangovers.”

Last year was an anomaly, he noted, and the city’s tourism community needs to come up with a plan to make sure the capital remains on visitors’ radar even when their patriotic pride isn’t piqued by grand displays of nationalism.

“You can’t depend on those types of years,” Kelly said. “Part of the success of all of these events that took place in 2017 was the fact that it was the 150th anniversary of Canada.”

The former general manager of the Westin and Chateau Laurier said the city, Ottawa Tourism and other agencies such as the National Capital Commission need to put their heads together and figure out what events are most likely to be winners over the long haul. That requires research and strategic thinking, he added.

“You’ve got to have a long-term plan that sets the destination up to be consistently competitive and consistently successful. I think it’s more important to focus on doing things that will help to ensure that 2019, 2020, 2021 and beyond are solid years.”

 

Crockatt agreed the city’s tourism business needs to think carefully about what the future of the industry will look like.

“I would say without a doubt we will be able to continue some of these (events), either in 2018 or in future years,” he said. “The costs of some of them are high, but the benefits are enormous. We want informed, smart decisions that are based on data and evidence, and that’s our next step. We share the enthusiasm about keeping some of these things, but we want to make sure it’s the ones that have an impact on visitation.”

‘We’re getting smarter’

Crockatt said his agency, which is funded partly by the city and has a mandate to market Ottawa to tourists around the world, is getting better at analyzing data combed from sources such as visitor review apps and surveys to find out what events and attractions are striking the biggest chords with visitors.

He said the organization recently hired a full-time employee to study the economic impact of events such as Kontinuum with the aim of determining which ones would be most worth bringing back. It’s also partnered with the Rideau Centre on a survey that asks users their opinions about Ottawa as a tourist destination when they log on to the shopping centre’s WiFi system.

“We’re getting smarter,” Crockatt said. “It’s critical for us to pay to as much attention to the visitor experience and the development of our destination as it is just about the marketing side of things.”

He said the agency is also set to launch a new marketing campaign on its social media channels featuring local residents telling their stories about what makes the capital a great place to live and visit.

“I think people are going to see Ottawa in a different way,” Crockatt said. “We know they already are starting to see it in a different way, and I think this will help that as well. There’s some cool things you’re going to see in 2018.”

For example, the agency recently partnered with other bodies, including the city and the NCC, to create new wayfinding signage designed to make it easier for travellers to navigate their way to museums and other attractions. It also created a new Facebook Messenger app that encourages visitors to take part in various activities at museums and other attractions.

However, all the marketing magic in the world won’t be able to obscure the fact that starting later this year, the city’s most recognizable tourist attraction will be encased in scaffolding when Parliament Hill’s Centre Block undergoes a decade-long renovation.

Dispelling misperceptions

So what’s a town to do when its most-photographed building turns into a construction zone? While he admitted the prospect was a “little frightening,” Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association president Steve Ball tried to put a positive spin on it.

“I believe that gives us an opportunity to broaden the base of the product all around Ottawa and Gatineau and change Canada Day into a different kind of experience that doesn’t have as much focus on Centre Block and a concert on the Hill,” he said.

Centre Block

“We’re working with the feds in the hope that they’ll put a nice facade … on the building. We’re trying to mitigate as much of that as we can, and I think (the Department of Canadian) Heritage is listening.”

Kelly said the Centre Block construction project might be just the incentive the city needs to start leaning less on tried-and-true attractions such as the Hill and start focusing more on overlooked aspects of the capital such as its thriving culinary scene and the untapped potential of the Rideau Canal.

“Perhaps this is an opportunity to dispel the perception that Ottawa is a one-trick town,” he said. “We’ve become a great sports town. We have interesting neighbourhoods. With Parliament Hill under a tent, look for other opportunities to create a proper perception of Ottawa. It has a lot more to offer than just Parliament Hill.”

– With files from Kieran Delamont