Plotting a destination plan
By Chad Ingram
A number of residents shared their ideas on tourism strategies for the county during a town hall meeting at Haliburton Legion on the evening of March 3.
That meeting, facilitated by Greg Oates of marketing firm MMGY NextFactor, was part of a series of input sessions the company conducted last week. The County of Haliburton has hired MMGY NextFactor to create a destination development plan, designed to help further map the sustainable development of the Haliburton Highlands as a tourist destination.
“So it’s a five-year plan, a long-term roadmap to bring all the pieces together to align them, create that shared vision for everyone to kind of rally together to leverage tourism, or what we call the visitor economy, to benefit the community,” Oates said. “I just really want to emphasize, it’s really a community-driven destination development plan. We’re not coming in here and really saying much, we’re just asking questions, we’re providing the structure, and then we’re providing feedback and context.”
The company has worked with more than 250 destinations and Oates said many of them have been resort-driven, traditionally seasonal economies, so communities with some of the same
challenges and opportunities as the Haliburton Highlands.
Oates emphasized that part of the process is getting the community engaged, with the understanding that all residents, regardless of whether they work directly in a tourism-related job, are part of the Haliburton Highlands’ visitor economy.
“[It’s about] . . . how well the community works together as a collective, and does everybody in the destination feel that tourism is important, and that they’re part of the visitor industry,” he said. “Even if they’re not in a hotel, or if they’re a tour operator, or, you know, maybe working as a welder. Are they part of the visitor economy? Yes.”
MMGY NextFactor performed a community assessment of the Haliburton Highlands last year.
“Yes, there are challenges, but how can everyone in this room sort of create a future where you can benefit, your workers and families benefit more, and optimize what’s happening here?” Oates said.
Part of that optimization is the continuing evolution of a community-driven marketing platform, with business owners or other community and industry partners sharing their stories.
“As a community, we need to be more intentional about sharing stories,” Oates said. “So, [the] tourism [department] wants to share what you’re doing, but we found from a lot of conversations last year that sometimes it’s hard to actually get that information, to get those stories to be shared.”
Attendees of last week’s meeting, who included many members of the local tourism industry, made suggestions under four categories, or “asset clusters,” including outdoor recreation and sports; culinary, culture events and wellness; accommodations; and transportation and mobility.
Suggestions ranged from promoting the Haliburton Highlands as a world-class fishing destination to more environmentally friendly recreation to diversification of trails in the county. There was discussion about how to attract more millennials to the community, with suggestions for creating a more vibrant nightlife within the community.
Also mentioned was the county’s lack of a central booking agent to organize vacation packages involving numerous businesses.
“I think one of the big demands that we have here in the county, is the lack of ability we have for customers to get a one-stop-shopping experience,” said one attendee. “So, they can’t call up and say, I want to do a winter weekend, or a winter week, and I want to go dog-sledding, snowmobiling, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and ice fishing, I want to have three dinners at fine dining and I want to stay at this kind of accommodation. Bam, I want to pay one person, and I want to have it all arranged for me.”
County tourism director Amanda Virtanen said there is a private business in Muskoka that fulfills that function.
“It’s a huge issue when you talk about who our competitors are as well, so if you look at how a family’s planning their trip, it’s way easier to book a trip down south for a week, and have your food and your stay and have everything organized . . . than it is to be in the city and not have a ton of time, but have to plan where you’re going to stay, where you’re going to eat, what you’re going to do, drive around. So that’s a huge barrier for us, to enable those experiences.”
Other suggestions included the creation of a workforce development strategy for tourism-related businesses, an accommodations needs assessment study and creation of a municipal accommodation tax, the revenues from which could be earmarked for tourism-related activities.
Attendees then evaluated the suggestions in terms of priorities using their smartphones, with results displayed in real time on a screen.
MMGY NextFactor also conducted four focus group sessions last week – one for accommodators and restaurateurs, one for experience providers, one for community leaders and one for lake associations – and the feedback from those sessions, in addition to feedback from the town hall meeting, will be compiled into a draft plan, and that draft plan is expected to be presented at a public meeting in the spring.
The destination development plan is a $60,000 project for the County of Haliburton.