A successful community tourism strategy is hard to come by for small towns in Canada. Why? Because, based on our 10 year research of small towns in our country, small communities do not have the resources like time, funds, skills and staff to maintain and operate a quality content marketing strategy online. What is worrisome, is that over 90% of travel is planned and booked online. What is even more troublesome is that there are few small town content marketing strategy programs out there which are built for small towns. Therefore, what we have is a whole lot of expensive strategy models built for urban cities. Too high maintenance. Too time consuming. Too technical for smaller communities, Therefore, out of reach for small to mid-size towns. So what is a small town to do?
We have always said, to promote tourism takes a community. Many communities have tried to build an online tourism brand, but have failed for the reasons mentioned above. However, the real defining moment deciding the fate of tourism in your small town is how much buy-in one receives from the local population? To have a successful tourism strategy, the locals need to see the benefits, understand the big picture and the long term goals. For example, build mountain biking trails, add kayak rentals, develop new Nordic skiing trails, open fishing stores, or build new greens on the golf course... all attract visitors and all benefit locals.
A small community can be defined as a place where people share the same values and interests, and feel a connection or a belonging to the region. Besides, lets be real here, it is the local who are the experts, who work, live and play in the region. In general, any effort to improve community lifestyle will generally win over a local population. Therefore, this sense of belonging and connection to the region will create local support first and then grow a larger visitor economy.
When locals see and feel the benefits of tourism you are well on your way to becoming a tourism community. What is a tourism community? A tourism small town is, generally, described as a rural area that reflects the interests of the people, and provides experiences which are authentic tot he region so to attract a visitor economy. However, this is not to say, that other industry is not required to be successful. Because it is. Putting all your eggs into one basket is always a dangerous marketing strategy. You see, eventually the unknown (declining industry, change of traveller trends, natural disasters, world events, etc) comes knocking on your door, unannounced, and ready to take your community down. Therefore, a strong Community Tourism Strategy, complimented by secondary industry and local buy-in play a large role in creating a successful community tourism plan.
What are the components? (1) Requirements to consider for being a small town tourism destination includes five things - attractiveness (first impressions), accessibility, community empowerment, marketing and the quality of the public and tourist facilities; (2) The visitor economy, is tired of traditional all-flash activities, and now visitors are seeking connections with rural environments while enjoying natural activities; (3) Take ownership of your tourism brand. Why we let suit and tie corporates manage our small town tourism brands from Head Offices in far away lands is beyond me? What do they know about your community? A community tourism strategy should be managed and owned by the experts, the people in the community, so to enable visitors to connect with the local population and immerse themselves into the lifestyle of the region.
I will not kid you, to reach a level of tourism success for small towns, is not easy. There are many factors that are working against you. One being, you are a small town with limited resources, often with no funding and, in most cases, lacking the skills to implement, maintain and grow. I know. I have seen it. I have lived it. I am sick and tired of seeing small towns suffer. But not is all lost. There are community tourism marketing strategies, ideas, platforms and training programs built for small towns in Canada. Only one, but that is better than none. forcing small towns to use urban models.
The one program, Experience Community, is built for small towns, and is new to the market. It is also a platform and ongoing training program. Training includes an online training library and monthly meetings. The Experience Community Program is winning many awards too. Two recent awards being, the "Best Community Marketing Program in Canada" by the Canada Prestige Awards, as well as, "The Best Economic Development Program for Communities under 20,000 Population in British Columbia" by the British Columbia Economic Development Association. The small town marketing program has been raised in the Federal House of Commons in Ottawa as a community marketing program to watch. The program was first implemented one year prior to Covid. And during Covid, it generated a lot of buzz showing increases in visitor traffic, reaching the high 80% percentile, while other communities were dropping fast.
The Experience Community Program includes and trains the locals with the skills necessary to create quality authentic stories, photo galleries and videos which resonate on the first page of search engines and create high engagement numbers on social media. Tourism Nicola Valley (TNV) in Merritt BC Canada, were the first to adopt the program during Covid. They call it Experience Merritt and Experience Nicola Valley. The program checked all the boxes. The locals bought in. The visitor awareness increased. The community started to build around it's successes. Now Tourism Nicola Valley has the support of the community they are building a new entrance sign, new mountain biking trails, better snowmobiling trails, developing a walking tour, refurbishing old attractions and much more.
In conclusion, building a stronger community brand takes hard work, the right attitude, the right tools, the right platforms and a whole lot of support. Once the locals buy-in, it is the locals who push your community brand to new levels. The turning point to success is when the community celebrates your accolades with you, they trust your vision, encourage your initiatives and play a bigger role in building a stronger community tourism strategy.
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You make very valid points. I've loved the Merritt and Nicola Valley area since I first saw it but thought I was the only one. Now with Experience Merritt, I see that I am not alone. Not only am I finding others who love the area, I'm discovering that there is much more to be experienced. There are outdoor adventures and possibilities I was not aware of.
You both are doing amazing work and I appreciate your passion for tourism, adventure and giving back to rural communities! You guys are the greatest mentors!