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Winter fest a priority for tourism in Banff

A new report calls for an initial $825,000 financial investment to help give Banff National Park the competitive edge in the ongoing war to win over tourists world-wide.
Banff’s appeal as a summer destination is outpacing its draw in winter.
Banff’s appeal as a summer destination is outpacing its draw in winter.

A new report calls for an initial $825,000 financial investment to help give Banff National Park the competitive edge in the ongoing war to win over tourists world-wide.

The biggest ticket item in the tourism industry’s bid to fill more hotel rooms and get visitors spending more money in restaurants and shops is a month-long winter festival each February.

It’s the highest priority outlined in the 2011 Competitiveness Initiative Report, released by Banff Lake Louise Tourism, Parks Canada and the Town of Banff, Monday (Aug. 29).

The report also calls for better promotion of classic outdoor experiences like hiking and biking, as well as aggressively going after a greater share of the convention and meeting business.

“We’re an iconic destination, but let’s face it, we’ve been going through some pretty challenging times,” said Julie Canning, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism.

“We’re not moving out of the recession in the way we wanted to, and with so many different choices for today’s savvy travellers, there’s a need for a fresh approach.”

Billed as the Competitiveness Initiative, a panel was set up in January and was led by Banff Lake Louise Tourism and co-chaired by Parks Canada and the Town of Banff.

The panel gathered input from various industry experts, including a senior advisor at Deloitte, one of Canada’s leading consultants for tourism, hospitality and leisure industries.

The group examined how today’s consumer behaviour is fundamentally evolving with new technologies, and also considered what the service and value expectations are for travellers.

They came up with nine ideas to be more competitive on the global tourism scale, but plan to focus on four priorities in the short-term.

Exactly what a winter festival would entail has not yet been hammered out, but it would span four weekends in February and be phased in over five years.

The report calls for an initial investment of $150,000 to get the festival off the ground, which is estimated to grow to $500,000 over five years.

Potential concepts include river skating, street curling, ski races, skier-cross, a comedy festival, astronomy, and enhancements to existing events like Ice Magic and pond hockey.

Canning said Banff does a great job of livening up the park in summer, pointing to dragon boat and bike festivals, hoop dancing and outdoor restaurant seating, but that needs to roll into the fall.

“This is not a chili cook-off. This is about a big winter festival and about bringing vibrancy and animation to Banff-Lake Louise year-round,” she said.

“We looked at winter festivals in Ottawa, Quebec City, Winnipeg. There’s some great winter festivals out there and we want to take some of those core ideas and make them relevant to our national park.”

The report also calls for better promotion of Banff National Park as a cool place to go for classic outdoor experiences, including hiking and biking.

The panel estimates this will require an initial promotional budget of $120,000, while trail enhancements are expected to cost an extra $100,000 a year.

First, they plan to come up with a list of classic experiences they want to aggressively promote, and secondly, draw up a master plan for trail upgrades and new trail alignments.

“It’s not just about sightseeing anymore for travellers, it’s about sight-doing,” said Canning.

Pam Veinotte, superintendent of Banff National Park, said Parks Canada could use this study to help determine which trails would be a priority in any given year.

She acknowledges this comes with a hefty price tag, saying Parks Canada’s existing trail budget is not enough to meet these recommendations.

“We’re going to have work collectively to try to augment the budget that we’re spending right now on trail maintenance,” said Veinotte.

“That may mean Parks can put in additional funding, but it’s also going to call upon partners to help us as well.”

Another top priority to come out of the panel will be to encourage Alberta associations to host their meetings and conventions in Banff and Lake Louise.

The initial price tag is $75,000 to begin this work, plus another $55,000 for such things as website enhancements.

With the meeting and convention market already representing about 11 per cent of Banff-Lake Louise’s business and 18 per cent of the overall economic impact, they want to focus on building midweek business in the spring, fall and winter seasons.

“The associations do the loop of meeting in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. These groups have to meet in Alberta and how do we get those people meeting here?” asked Canning.

“A dedicated full-time position is required for this initial outreach. We need to go knocking on doors and providing a competitive alternative to city meeting locations.”

Canning was quick to point out this is not a strategy to benefit just hoteliers, but the entire business community.

“Restaurants and retailers know when there are big groups in town because they feel it,” she said.

Rounding out the top four recommendations is a plan to target local, national and international schools to encourage, for example, field trips to Banff National Park.

The initial budget is expected to be around $75,000.

“We want students doing field trips here,” said Canning.

According to research provided by Deloitte, the biggest challenge facing Canadian tourism is value, in that vacation costs are increasing, but the experience remains the same.

Rather than hotels cutting rates and restaurants lowering prices, Deloitte says there is a need to have a long-term focus and make decisions that lead to increased visitation and revenues.

“It’s a slippery slope to assume that you can compete on price,” said Ryan Brain in his report to the panel. “Stronger brands are a competitive advantage.”

A situational analysis of Banff and Lake Louise revealed the tourist resort’s strengths include its scenery, wilderness, and unique mountain town environment.

On the other hand, the area’s weaknesses are said to be a low awareness of recreational opportunities, a lack of new activities, as well as low reinvestment and relevance.

Officials say the greatest single factor in any tourism offering is the ability, or lack therefore, to find a significant point of differentiation over other resorts.

Canning said the lack of renewal, regeneration and potential loss of relevancy are all issues of deep concern for long-term, sustainable tourism competitiveness.

“If we lose our relevancy and our reinvestment, that becomes a devastating blow to our competitiveness,” she said.

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said this report provides a clear vision for Banff and the tourism industry, and demonstrates what can happen when the three organizations work together.

“It’s very rewarding for me to see the Town, Parks and Banff Lake Louise Tourism say we’re all in this together and we’re going to get through the recession and come out stronger,” she said. “I do think these core priorities are doable.”

That said, Sorensen knows there are budget implications for Banff taxpayers and funding for these initiatives will have to come from all three organizations, even outside sources.

“We either have to reposition current dollars or find new revenues, or find outside sources to bring in revenues,” she said. “That’s what the three organizations involved will all have to look at.”

Though not considered priorities, other recommendations in the report include encouraging tourism operators to offer Canadian specialities, including food and wine.

There is also an idea for a downtown convention centre, a Banff reality show and a centralized payment mechanism to allow for an all-inclusive customer experience.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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