By Darren Lum
The province’s message during the pandemic has been to stay close to home and spend your money at the store and restaurant down the road.
This message was endorsed during the summer with a day visit by Minister for Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Lisa MacLeod, who stopped at the Haliburton Sculpture Forest and Minden Whitewater Preserve.
Amanda Virtanen, director of tourism for Haliburton County, said she’s continuing to follow the province’s lead in directing efforts to draw people from nearby areas, which now includes seasonal residents
“We’re focusing on hyper-local marketing … so really what our locals can do over the winter and that includes new cottagers or people who are staying here over the winter, who didn’t used to stay over the winter,” she said. “So, one of the programs that we developed is this date night program.”
Local businesses provide customers with special packages and offers. Virtanen said listings of who and what is coming up will be included in the tourism department’s newsletter to give people something to do on the weekends and evenings. The program isn’t just for couples.
“We use the term ‘date’ loosely. It can be something you go out and do with your girlfriends, or it could be something you go out and do with parents. We’re not aiming this program at middle-aged couples per se,” she said.
Other kinds of community events or initiatives being promoted include the recently held full-day event Christmas in the Village at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, online contests or the upcoming Hike Haliburton Winter Edition in February.
Virtanen said specific numbers are difficult to collect, but she did gain some insight about businesses with a survey of 50 respondents, which represented accommodations, food, retail and experiential provider industries about how the months of June to August have gone.
Thirty-eight per cent of the respondents saw more visitors than last year, but 32 per cent saw fewer while 34 per cent of respondents experienced greater revenue than last year compared to 40 per cent who saw less. It’s worth noting 41 per cent of the respondents cited “insufficient staff” limited capacity to do business this summer. Thirty per cent of respondents said they were on track in September to be up over September 2019.
Restaurants spent some of the pandemic fulfilling takeout orders only and have been hampered in their revenue-generating ability due to restrictions on number of customers permitted in their establishments.
Retailers such as Glecoff Family Store had a summer that was close to equal to other years Clay Glecoff has experienced as co-owner and as an employee when his father ran the store as V&S Stedmans.
However, what’s surprised Glecoff is a significant increase in sales the past few months compared to the last 10 years, which he called a “pleasant surprise.”
“Typically, this time of year like September, October and mid-November is a bit of a lull, but we didn’t see any slowdown. It’s almost like the summer didn’t end, but we’re not doing summer numbers, but it kind of felt that way,” he said.
He adds it wasn’t twice as much as usual, but it will help to float the business through the winter, which is typically quiet.
The key to this success, he said, comes down to a greater number of people coming into the store, which he runs with his wife, Amy. Customers are seasonal residents and locals.
“I think you’re going to see more people buying locally. I don’t think you’re going to see as many locals rip to the mall. They’re not going to go to the city. I think you’re going to see a lot of the mom and pop shops in town like the gift shop and those guys, I think everyone’s going to do better,” he said.
He said he has a feeling that many people believe it’s safer to shop here than in urban centres that have higher COVID-19 numbers.
Despite lower attendance due to pandemic restrictions, those running local cultural attractions are optimistic as they see new visitors coming to the area for day trips.
Laurie Carmount of the Minden Hills Cultural Centre said, “We had a small but steady flow of attendance but much less than past years. Really nice to see people out and I think they were appreciative of our efforts to have a safe space. We had new visitors, people who were making the Highlands their home during this time, which may become permanent.”
At the Haliburton Highlands Museum, director Kate Butler pointed out how comparing this past summer to any other is like “comparing apples to oranges.”
“We were keeping numbers in the main gallery quite restricted, but the flip side was that we connected with so many people at the museum’s farmstead and our other outdoor spaces in the park. We re-opened to visitors in early July and just saw a steady increase of visitors over the summer, with the autumn also being very busy with people looking for combined indoor/outdoor activities. We also saw a huge increase in day trippers to the area (people coming up from the GTA and even further afield) and I think that in terms of tourism, that’s going to be really beneficial in the long run. Those people who had a great short visit were consistently saying that they’d be interested in making a longer visit to the area in the future … ”
Next door, the Sculpture Forest’s Jim Blake said it was a strong season for visitation.
He estimated there were 20,000 visitors over a 16-week period based on an assumption that there are four visitors for every guide map taken, how one in 10 groups he encountered used the self-guided tour app and an average of 50 residents each day who visit to take dog walks, go on hikes and rides, don’t ever take a guide book.
“I actually think this is a conservative estimate – over the three days of Thanksgiving [weekend] we received the same amount of donations that we received for the whole summer in the previous year (we now have four donations boxes as opposed to one – but it is still a dramatic difference),” he wrote in an email. “Although the college was closed all summer, on Saturdays the college parking lot was full of cars – visitors to the Sculpture Forest. I met a lot of groups of people who came to Haliburton from the GTA just for the day to see the Sculpture Forest,” he wrote, referring to the Haliburton School of Art + Design.
The draw for urban and local visitors to get outside proved favourable for recreation operators, both private and public.
Tegan Legge, the general manager of the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, didn’t have exact figures, but said the number of people who visited this year “significantly increased.”
After the disappointment of a premature finish to the 2020 season for Winterdance Dogsled Tours because of COVID-19, they saw great success with “record-setting bookings up to this point in the year for the coming operating season, which has been primarily visitors from within Ontario due to travel restriction.”
Chris Card, manager of parks, recreation and trails for Algonquin Highlands, said following a decrease in numbers in May (when the first wave appeared to peak), growth has matched national trends. Revenue compared to 2019 bear this out: May saw a decrease of 154 per cent, but there were increases for June with 173 per cent, July 121 per cent, August 61 per cent, September 77 per cent and then October six per cent.
He said on average since the start of the water trails program in 2006 there has been a steady growth of revenue and attendance about eight to 15 per cent annually.
“We will see how November and December turns out but typically these are not camping seasons, rather most people are hiking at those times,” he wrote in an email. “The increases are higher month over month than we have seen, I have been watching what is happening in this industry across the country and it appears to be a trend nation-wide.”
Card said he attributes growth to people looking for vacation options closer to home.
“We have a lot of return visitors and this year [I] have noticed a lot of new faces and people are telling us that they are taking the opportunity to get into camping, a great social distancing friendly activity. Outdoor retailers have been experiencing higher than average sales in camping gear and we are seeing the result. Will the trend continue after COVID? Only time will tell,” he wrote.