By Ian Ross
Rather than dictate from the top down how provincial tourism dollars will be spent and what marketing strategies will be undertaken, Huron North Tourism is taking a grassroots approach to promote their region as a viable four-season tourism destination.
Gathered around the table are lodge owners, outfitters, guides, municipal officials, area business owners and other key stakeholders from St. Joseph's Island to Spanish and Elliot Lake who are mapping out their own regional marketing campaign.
By taking stock of what they have to offer in attractions and services, tourist operators are teaming up to research their own markets and develop some collaborative vacation packages to brand the north shore for its own unique outdoor experiences.
"By and large, tourism operators have had a lot of things done to them and not much done with them," says Stoney Burton, marketing manager for the Blind River-based Community Development Centre (CDC) for East Algoma.
"The operators don't want to be surprised by programs, and told they have to fit this (mould). They want to be at the table making the program and driving those decisions."
"Northern Ontario businesses are fiercely independent," says Burton, and encouraging them to sign onto marketshare programs without consulting them is a tough sell.
The CDC received a $304,813 boost from FedNor in early February to help cover the costs of advertising, participating in trade shows, producing marketing packages, travel guides and maps and the upkeeping of a Huron North tourism Web site.
Tourist operators will also receive training in customer service and the development of tourism products to meet market demand.
The North Channel of Lake Huron, with its thousands of secluded islands, is internationally lauded as a freshwater boater’s paradise by word of mouth alone. However a "real outdoor challenge" is appealing to a general touring market.
To target the southern Ontario and the Midwest states of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, a steering committee of 15 tourism operators has formed as a market share group. The group aims to reach their market by creating vacation packages, tours and products related to the region's rich Aboriginal, early French settlement and early mining heritage.
"There's a lot of collaborative work with the tourist operators to determine exactly who their clientele base is and what their demographics are," says Burton.
One area of study is the development of activities and opportunities for the slower spring and autumn shoulder seasons. Attracting more users of all-terrain vehicles, organizing fall-colour tours, possibly including farm-based agri-tourism opportunities and even catering to one of North America's leading recreational pasttimes - birdwatching - are just a few of the ideas being reviewed, he says.
Lake Huron's north shore is on major spring and fall migratory routes and is home to two provincially significant wetlands hosting a wide range of waterfowl and migratory species like tundra swans, cranes, herons and half-dozen varieties of raptors.
The region is "a rather large untapped resource" that has not been well-organized or accessible until recently, Burton says.
Burton also intends to build bridges with the area Aboriginal community to include Aboriginal powwows as part of their heritage tours and to market authentic Aboriginal crafts.
Many Aboriginal micro-entrepreneurs in the area operate on a part-time basis during the summer and journey as far as North Dakota to trade their crafts, says Wilma Bissiallon, manager of Misswehzahging Development Corp.
"One of the things we would like to do is develop some kind of brand for our craftspeople and artists," Bissiallon says. "Crafts, and items like moccasins, take a lot of time and effort for someone to make, and if we could connect all of these craftspeople of our three First Nations (Thessalon, Mississauga and Serpent River) we would be able do some marketing for them, instead of them making orders on a one-to-one basis."
The corporation's newest project is to set up an Aboriginal tourism development office with the aid of $124,000 FedNor contribution to promote tourism and business opportunities.
Among the duties of the program co-ordinator and administrative assistant is supporting a loan circle program, a peer lending group where a group of entrepreneurs review each others business plans and agree to financially cover one another should they default on their business loans.