Momentum 613: Canada is missing the boat on the economic benefits of cultural tourism, expert says

Steven Thorne

Canada is stuck in the 1930s when it comes to thinking about tourism in general and cultural tourism in particular.

That’s the strong opinion of Steven Thorne who has forged a career out of helping communities attract visitors. The longtime consultant has made a specialty out of understanding the “cultural” tourist and in his opinion Canada does a very poor job of it.

Thorne knows what he is talking about. Although he is “mostly” retired these days, he’s worked extensively in the field as a consultant on what he calls place-based cultural tourism. Some of his clients have included Tourism BC, Parks Canada, Tourism PEI, and cities, towns and institutions from B.C. to Newfoundland. Thorne helped Whistler, B.C. capitalize on cultural tourism.

“We are the least sophisticated cultural tourism destination in the world amongst the developed tourism economies,” Thorne says. “We are an outdoor scenery and nature destination.” Canada’s brand was built on this.

“We don’t understand the cultural tourism market. We don’t understand the cultural tourist’s behaviours. We don’t understand the global demand for cultural tourism. We don’t understand destination planning for cultural tourism. We don’t understand it period, we don’t get it at all.

“The bigger problem is: we don’t think it matters because we’re Canada.”

Fifteen years ago Canada was No. 7 in the world as a destination for tourism, now we rank No. 18, Thorne says. Supernatural may have worked in 2002 but in 2017 and beyond, it’s lost its fresh appeal, he says.

“We have a very rich culture, but the reality is we don’t market it.”

That’s the kind of message Thorne will bring to a conference aimed at helping the community build upon the many successes of 2017 … successes such as La Machine, which saw a giant robotic dragon horse and a massive robotic spider lure thousands of tourists to the community this past summer.

The meeting on Nov. 24 called Momentum 613, has been organized by Ottawa Festivals to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated this year and carry it forward into 2018 and beyond. The one-day session will hear from speakers, including Thorne, and about a report that will examine the state of tourism thinking in town and what can be done to develop it further.

Thorne believes Ottawa has a significant cultural tourism opportunity, perhaps one of the most significant in the country. The community benefits from the presence of the National Arts Centre and the national museums and galleries, along with the many festivals and culinary experiences available.

“But unless the tourism industry, working together with the cultural sector, undertakes a destination planning approach to culture tourism Ottawa will not realize it’s opportunity,” he said

Most Canadian cities have what Thorne would describe as a generic leisure marketing campaign which includes cultural experiences.

“This isn’t cultural tourism,” he says. “Cultural tourism is targeting a culturally oriented traveller.

It’s an old saw in tourism, that effective marketing is marketing by segment. If you are interested in attracting golfers, you put together a golf campaign, the way Prince Edward Island has.”

It makes sense to target cultural tourists, Thorne says, because the cultural tourism is the most lucrative segment of the travel industry.

“There are budget cultural travellers and there are extravagant cultural travellers. It would be inaccurate to say that all cultural travellers have fat wallets, but generally the cultural traveller earns more, spends more, stays longer in the destination they visit and is generally considered the tourism industry’s best friend.”

This comes with a corollary, Thorne noted. The more the cultural infrastructure of any city is invested in by its citizens and government, he added, the greater the return to community will have in terms of livability, of economic development, of tourism and of the retention of youth and attraction of retirees.

Thorne says that cities such as Ottawa need to define themselves culturally.

“Every city has its own distinct cultural character. You can call it ‘sense of place;’ you can use the French word terroir. Successful cities distinguish themselves from each other in just about every aspect of their development to the extent that they capitalize on unique attributes of place which are their own.

“Successful place-based cultural tourism means capitalizing on unique assets. And I don’t mean just the attractions and experiences. You have to have those but they have to be in the context of what it is it that makes Ottawa Ottawa.”

Thorne says he is a fan of the American TV travel reporter Rick Steeves who is seen on the PBS network.

“Rick Steeves always (opens a show) with a 30,000 foot view of the destination. That curation of the whole, which is greater and different from the sum of its parts, sets a stage for a traveller. When you go through the window, you go down to explore the individual parts.

“Without that larger context you are simply throwing one handful of galleries against another handful of galleries; one handful of museums against another handful.”

Sense of place makes a city unique.

It’s not an easy process, but Thorne suggests that it would be well worth Ottawa’s while to do the work.

For example, he says, consider Paris. “We all know the phrase The City of Light. It is associated with Paris as a tourist destination. Other cities, too, have a particular moniker such as The Eternal City … Rome.”

Washington, D.C., may offer an example for Ottawa, he says.

For more than 20 years there has been an organization there called Cultural Tourism DC.

“It focuses more on the neighbourhood experiences of Washington and uses them as a complement to the larger national experiences which D.C. has on offer. It also works very closely with the city’s tourism office.

Thorne believes there is a real opportunity for Ottawa too to develop a tourism plan that will appeal to the cultural tourist.

Thorne says there are five main cultural tourism cohorts:

1. Those primarily interested in heritage experiences.

2. The performing arts traveller.

3. The culinary traveller.

4. The agri-tourist.

5. The visual arts traveller.

There is, he says, a lot of cross-over participation amongst these cohorts. Foodies often are interested in the visual arts. Heritage travellers can be interested in agri-tourism as well. Each of these tourist types can be a target of a marketing campaign.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.