By Chad Ingram
The County of Haliburton is a step closer to having a completed destination management plan.
The county hired Vancouver-based firm MMGY NextFactor in 2019 to compile the plan, which looks at ways to develop the Haliburton Highlands as tourism destination and also to market it in a more widespread fashion. The process has included a number of public input sessions with county residents, officials and stakeholders, including focus groups and town hall meetings.
On Oct. 19, Greg Oates of MMGY NextFactor facilitated a visioning workshop on the draft plan, that workshop taking place via online conferencing app Zoom amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“The plan that you’ll see today is a result of all the feedback MMGY NextFactor has received during the course of the project,” said county tourism director Amanda Virtanen.
“Ultimately, tourism is a byproduct of vibrant communities and a destination management plan captures all of the ways that tourism touches on the elements that define a vibrant community,” said Nicole Whiting, the executive director of the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization, of which the Haliburton Highlands is part. “I have 100 per cent confidence this process is going to position Haliburton Highlands for a solid recovery [from the COVID-19 pandemic].” Whiting added that financial support and resources are easier to come by with a destination management plan in place.
“If anything, we’ve really realized how important tourism is to the economic and community development of all of our communities, of all sizes,” Oates said of the pandemic. As for the community feedback his firm has received regarding the county, “Most everyone agrees there’s a lot of value in creating a more diverse and robust year-round visitor economy.”
About 25 stakeholders took part in the workshop, with Oates emphasizing nothing was definitive at that point. He’d developed four strategic goals for the Haliburton Highlands. “It kind of defines due north for how we’re thinking,” he said.
Those strategic goals are to optimize the year-round economy; diversify destination development; enhance the destination brand; and strengthening community collaboration.
Some suggestions for optimizing the year-round economy included working with regional and provincial governments to create a workforce development initiative for the tourism and hospitality industries, developing a campaign to promote tourism as a career, and addressing local bylaws that may hinder tourism, community and economic development. One participant brought up the example of bylaws prohibiting yurts or tiny homes, which are seen by many as a cool, alternative form of lodging.
As for developing the destination, Oates said this didn’t necessarily mean brick-and-mortar construction projects, although it could include those.
“It’s developing the destination in terms of connecting it and providing an itinerary and the content to support that, to inspire people to get out and different things in the destination,” he said. Some suggestions for diversification included expanding evening activities, business hours and events; developing partnerships between accommodators, tour operators and events to create more integrated visitor experiences; and developing and enhancing festival and event facilities using existing outdoor spaces.
As for enhancing the Haliburton Highlands brand, suggestions included expanding the website to show a wider cross-section of activities and more “holding hands with visitors,” in terms of helping them navigate their way through the county. Among other suggestions was expanded marketing efforts within Ontario to make the Haliburton Highlands more of a household name.
On strengthening community collaboration, developing a resident sentiment survey to benchmark and track local attitudes about the tourism industry and its impact was a suggestion. “If how a community works together drives destination performance, then it’s important to hear what the community is saying,” Oates said. Another suggestion was an annual tourism industry event open to all residents to celebrate successes.
Participants asked questions and provided feedback on the draft plan. The final version is expected to be presented to Haliburton County on Nov. 23. The plan is a $60,000 project for the county.