The Haliburton Highlands might be a small destination but stakeholders are knowledgeable about the area and where to go next with tourism initiatives.
That’s the impression NEXTFactor Enterprise tourism consulting agency representatives got following a destination assessment and tourism workshop held May 15 in Haliburton. They presented key findings of a tourism survey that had been conducted in the county over two months and told Amanda Virtanen county tourism director that Haliburton County’s survey participation exceeded that of other destinations they’ve worked with including both Fort Lauderdale and Ottawa.
“It was funny because I was blown away but then I was sort of not surprised when I thought about it because the community is really engaged and they are really passionate about tourism” said Virtanen. “I think it’s good to know how well we perform against larger destinations. We were also the smallest destination that NEXTFactor has ever worked with so they were really very much surprised by our engagement and knowledge. They actually said they were surprised with how much of the survey was filled in they said they get a lot of ‘incompletes’ from other regions from people who don’t have all the answers.”
Eighty-two participants locally took part in the survey and 60 were in attendance at the working session.
Overall NEXTFactor found the survey results placed the Haliburton Highlands in their “Explorer” category “suggesting need to focus on elevating both destination strength and community support and engagement.”
Key points of destination strength included the good variety of outdoor recreation activities and facilities; a high volume of tour development options; memorable brand and positive brand image with widespread appeal; high-quality arts entertainment and cultural attractions; and that there is an abundance of outdoor spaces for events. Respondents said there was good local community support and positive media coverage; a high level of partnership support and certainty and that tourism marketing efforts have broad economic impacts across the region. A need for more accommodation dining and retail capacity; upgraded internet infrastructure; upgraded mobility options and way finding; more community and government advocacy and addressing hospitality culture and the effect of seasonality of visitor economy on workforce challenges were pointed out by survey respondents.
“I think what it did – there’s lots of varying opinions on what’s successful tourism and what’s not – and I think it was great to get everybody on the same page and have third party experts validate what I sort of do and also it was important to speak about that tourism needs to have engagement of the whole community the chamber the BIAs municipalities and it’s not just on the county tourism department” said Virtanen who said the process reinforces that tourism is a community-led effort not just a county-led effort.
When asked what one thing Haliburton Highlands could do to become a better visitor destination 20 per cent said there was a need to work on hospitality culture through better customer service training for front-line staff through to upper management. Fifteen per cent responded that marketing was key offering better event support through co-branding opportunities better awareness of Haliburton experiences and and broader marketing that focuses on specific attractions. Ten per cent said a need to better nurture year-round employment and offer tourism courses in high school so that young professionals might return post-secondary education would offer more workforce sustainability.
“I think it was good to see that this plan addresses more than just marketing and branding and what is sort of traditionally thought of as tourism responsibilities” said Virtanen. “I like that they also talk about workforce development transportation infrastructure internet all of those things that feed into making a successful tourism industry. It’s more than just marketing. I was happy to see that to come out from community voices.”
A shared community vision better storytelling and a destination development plan outlining short- mid- and long-term commitment of key priorities was recommended.
On May 22 county council approved an application to a new Canadian Experience Fund to fully fund a destination development plan project beginning in 2020.
Virtanen said there will be more opportunity for community engagement in the future through initiatives like town halls and stakeholder meetings.
“It’s not like if you missed this workshop or you missed the survey… it’s definitely not your last chance to be engaged” she said. “I was just impressed impressed by the community for stepping up the way they did.”