Tourism business in the Okanagan rising

It's called the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association Annual General Meeting and Tourism Summit 2015

Tourism business operators from across the Thompson Okanagan gathered in Kelowna last week to talk about the development of their industry.

Called the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association Annual General Meeting and Tourism Summit 2015, most of that talk around the Manteo Resort conference room was positive.

Revenues for tourism businesses is up in our region, five to 10 per cent over previous years. Many saw business pick up in the months of May, June and September, something that wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.

The tourism industry pumped $1.75 billion in spent dollars into the Thompson-Okanagan region, and attracted 3.5 million visitors.

“Some areas felt the impact of the forest fires and the smoke in the air towards the end of summer,” acknowledged Glenn Mandzuik, chief executive officer of the Thompson Okanagan Tourist Association.

“But even with that, there is a very positive attitude within our industry across the region.”

Not that there are not challenges on the immediate horizon — marketing awareness, labour shortfall and the potential impacts of climate change — but Mandziuk said the industry is positioning itself to continue to prosper. In recent years, TOTA has began to tout the concept of a regional marketing to its members, that a collective marketing approach is better for business, and offers greater attraction options for tourists, rather than directly competing with each other.

“There has been an evolution in how we market ourselves as a region, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said.

Mandziuk also cited the importance of establishing Destination BC, a provincial tourism marketing arm of the government that is overseen by the industry rather than politicians or political appointees, to help market tourism both within and outside the province.

“It has been two and half years since Destination BC was started and we’re starting to see results now from that effort,” said Mandziuk, who noted it also complements the Destination Canada tourism promotion initiatives launched by the federal government.

“I think we all now realize the only way to get our province on the map from a tourism promotion perspective is to raise the level of awareness,” he said.

Mandziuk points out how some pockets of the Lower Mainland still don’t realize the Okanagan has a wine industry, and the need to combat the focus on B.C.’s “golden triangle” for tourism — Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler.

Walt Judas is the chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. and one of the guest speakers at last week’s summit.

Judas said his message was largely positive, in particular pointing out what a fabulous year it’s been for the Thompson Okanagan.

“There is a tourism product here that continues to grow and mature, case in point being the wine industry, where generally operators and tourism businesses have done well to market the attractions here,” Judas said.

“It’s not just the weather or drop in the Canadian dollar bringing more Americans here, but a buildup of a lot of hard work by destination marketing groups like Tourism Kelowna and (TOTA) for several years.”

But Judas said the industry can’t let up on the need for marketing awareness initiatives, and will have to address labour shortages and climate change.

On the labour front, Judas said tourism operators have difficulty filling the job openings, particularly those which are seasonal.

“Finding seasonal employees is always a challenge, and providing accommodation for them is problematic as well,” Judas said.

“Sometimes foreign workers are willing to come here and work, sharing accommodation with others in order to send money back home, while for people here they have higher expectations for the type of work they desire to do.

“They are looking instead for jobs with higher wages and for jobs that are personally more career-oriented.”

It is a similar challenge to what the local agriculture industry faces, where nobody locally wants to pick the fruit leaving orchardists to increasingly rely on other labour options, such as bringing in workers from Mexico.

Like agriculture, for the tourism industry there are no easy answers to that issue, but Judas said the industry has to continue to build a marketing case for how tourism related jobs are a great resumé builder and a way to learn more about the career opportunities that tourism might hold.

“There is also the opportunity to enjoy some of the resort areas and cities around or province to experience the amazing amenities that draws tourists there, whether it be skiing in the winter or summer activities,” Judas said.

Mandzuik said TOTA estimates that by 2020, there will be a shortfall of people to fill 1,600 full-time jobs, one that his organization wants to address “head-on” now rather than waiting till it reaches a crisis stage.

“We already hear about labour issues in our region. I know of one hotel property that has to close down half the hotel because they can’t find staff to support keeping the rooms open,” Mandziuk said.

“Those issues are important for us because it is the tourism employees that play a key role in delivering a positive tourism experience to our visitors.”

He said if you don’t have enough staff it will diminish the experience, one of the best marketing tools for bringing people back again and again.

To that end, Mandzuik said TOTA and a provincial human resources initiative called GO TO HR have joined forces on a $250,000 investment over the next two years to put a tourism industry labour recruiter on the ground in the Okanagan.

That person’s role, Mandzuik explained, is to develop awareness on both a local and international level of job opportunities that exist here.

 

Written by Barry Gerding

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