TOTA telling the story of the Okanagan

Tourism association looks to broaden Okanagan's appeal with new 10-year plan

As Gordon Fitzpatrick sits in his office at Cedar Creek Estate Winery, he watches out over an amazing view of Okanagan Lake and marvels at the spectacular area of the world he is operating his winery out of.

Cyclists cruise by on their bikes as the sun pierces down and begins its rise toward the 30 degree mark, bringing more activity onto Okanagan Lake, filling up area golf courses and heating up the region known primarily for its great weather.

“As I look out my window I just think what a wonderful playground we live in,” says Fitzpatrick, the 52-year-old president of Cedar Creek. “First of all the climate is unbelievable, and with the lake and the mountains and the wine and the culinary scene, it’s all very exciting. We are turning heads internationally. But we have other world-class tourism products in the region. The skiing, the golf, there are safaris where you can watch grizzly bears. There is the adventure tourism and eco-tourism and the (cycling) gran fondos. It’s an extremely desirable place that most people don’t know about and that’s one of our challenges: We need to make people more aware of what’s here.”

And that challenge is being taken on by the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, the regional tourism group that represents the region’s 3,200 tourism operators. For the past two years TOTA has been working with all of its stakeholders, developing a new 10-year plan to help the tourism industry grow from what is now a seasonal industry to one that can sustain itself outside of the four-month peak period.

According to TOTA, every stakeholder that works in tourism and every jurisdiction in the region has signed off on the plan that asks for co-operation rather than competition amongst the tourism operators in the Thompson Okanagan.

“We need tourism operators to see that the competition is not in the room or across the street but in fact the competition is in Arizona or New Zealand or Australia,” says Glenn Mandziuk, the president and CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association. “There has to be a principle that in order to achieve success we need to work together. We need to package together and promote together because the goal is to get on the radar screen of visitors and get them to come to the area.”

In the office of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, Mandziuk points out a map of the region, one of six tourism regions in the province. It’s massive, roughly the size of Ireland, and its features span both ends of the spectrum, from the mountain peak of Mt. Robson, to the dessert climes of Osoyoos. TOTA represents 90 communities and hamlets, 28 First Nations groups and over 3,000 tourism operators. There are nine ski hills, almost 90 golf courses and 125 wineries. There are 15,000 full-time equivalent jobs in tourism in the region and it generates $1.75 billion in direct revenue each year, making it the largest economic sector in the Thompson Okanagan.

“We have a very diverse product,” says Mandziuk. “From a geographic point of view, it’s really amazing that you can have the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies all the way to a true desert in Osoyoos. All of these areas are in different phases of their maturity. There are some areas that are generating full-on and some that are just emerging as tourism destinations. We had to create a plan that resonated in every jurisdiction in the region.”

Developing a new 10-year vision, TOTA had to take a hard look at the past tourism practices and how people outside of the region view the area. Focus sessions were held in Vancouver, Calgary and Seattle, asking them about the perception of the area.

“We asked people their perception of the region for the past 15 years and the first word to come out of their mouths is that it’s hot,” says Mandziuk. “They don’t think of us as anything more than a place to go to the beach. We need to change their image. We need to deepen the story as to what we stand for as a region because we know we stand for a helluva lot more than ‘it’s hot.’”

Another area TOTA looked at was revenue, and Mandziuk says despite the fact that revenue was on the rise, 80 per cent of the money made in tourism is being made in just a four-month period, leaving tourism operators not much chance to keep employees on during the soft, shoulder seasons.

“The industry has been plagued by the fact it is extraordinarily seasonal,” says Mandziuk. “It’s not sustainable in the sense that you can’t keep your labour year round, you can’t get funding from the bank for an expansion because they don’t know if you can pay your mortgage. We need to change the way we are doing business and we can do that by creating experiences.”

Mandziuk says that by creating experiences that tourists want and marketing those experiences to a specific consumer, the region will become known for more than just heat in the next 10 years.

Back at the Cedar Creek Estate Winery, Gordon Fitzpatrick is excited about several new ideas that will be unveiled this year by the winery and are designed to give visitors the experience of an authentic look at the wine-making industry.

A new vineyard trail called the Senator’s trail is named after Gordon’s father Ross, a retired Canadian senator who at 80 years of age, still walks the property every morning. The trail will take people amongst the vines, with guides and signage explaining the story of Cedar Creek.

“That will be another level of experience and it will be authentic,” says Fitzpatrick. “It makes a big difference when you can kick the dirt and see where the grapes come from and provide interesting stories. We want to intrigue people with what we do. We have a lot of great stories to tell.”

The telling of stories is one of the pillars of the new 10-year tourism plan.

“We can’t keep promoting summer, sun and fun,” said Mandziuk. “While that’s important and we can’t lose that, we need to add a new dimension to our marketing and our product developments. The exciting thing is people are embracing it and that’s because the timing was right. The biggest thing is if we work as a collective around this for the next 10 years our image will change.”