by Patricia Nicholson
From Whistler Mountain to Charlottetown’s Green Gables, Canada is a tourist’s playground. But 2003 was an unfortunate year, with SARS, a major blackout, West Nile virus, and forest fires all taking a toll on tourism.
"I think many people weren’t sure how important tourism was to the restaurant industry until the events of 2003," says Terry Mundell, President and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association. "It’s very important to our industry."
This year is expected to be an improvement over 2003, although the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association has expressed concern that a relatively high Canadian dollar and flagging consumer confidence in the U.S. may slow recovery. And some regions are bouncing back faster than others.
"Ontario has been disproportionately hit," Mundell says. "The real epicentre of the SARS hit was in Toronto, and that’s probably approximately a third of the restaurants in Ontario."
Mundell says the industry still has a long way to go, but he is confident that full recovery is on the horizon.
"We’ve survived through some pretty tough events before," he says. "It will come back. But this is going to take continued effort and push from all those in the industry working together to try to rebuild our brand."
Most cities or regions have a destination marketing organization, or DMO, that works to attract tourists to the area. But Don Monsour, Chair of product development for the Canadian Tourism Commission, says restaurant membership in DMOs is quite low compared to other tourism-related businesses, even though culinary tourism can play a big role in marketing an area.
"When people travel, they spend more time eating than any other activity," Monsour says. While people won’t choose a destination strictly because of food, it can be the deciding factor between two ski areas, for example. "Food is not the only motivator, but it’s a strong motivator."
Mundell says restaurateurs should be more involved in DMOs. Packaging meals with a hotel stay, or with pre-booked visits to attractions, provides the ease and value that tourists are looking for.
"Restaurateurs in general need to start to look at working with the other partners in their area of the industry," Mundell adds. "It could be as simple as hooking up with the local golf course down the street, or getting together with a spa, or maybe there’s an attraction around the corner that you may want to put some packages together with."
Even after SARS and the Ontario blackout, the Time for a Little T.O. package offered from November 2003 until March 2004 was Tourism Toronto’s most successful campaign to date, says Ellen Flowers, Manager of Media Relations for Tourism Toronto. The package offered dinner, hotel and tickets to an attraction, and, during the final three months of the promotion, also included theatre tickets. Flowers says the restaurant element was a major draw, with some excellent restaurants participating. More than 35,000 packages were sold.
Monsour says packages are far more effective tourist draws than coupons or menu discounts.
"You’re giving a value to your consumer in the sense that they can do two or three things in one night," Monsour says. "You’re not cheapening the product."
One of the best ways for restaurants to grab tourists’ attention is to get a write-up in a food or travel magazine. Monsour says publicity is more persuasive to travellers than advertising.
"Some of the clever restaurants today are putting on trips where they invite tourism travel writers into their cities, pick up the tab and have them on a dine-around so they can experience what that sector has to offer," Monsour explains.
Press trips can be planned independently or through DMOs. But Monsour adds that planning such events independently is only cost-effective for operators with several restaurants for writers to visit.
"To drive the tourist trade, you have to get to the tourist, and you have to get to them with credibility," Monsour says. That means going beyond traditional local ad venues such as Yellow Pages. "What they want is either concierge, or taxi drivers, or reservation clerks at hotels to recommend where they should eat."
That means those people have to know your business.
"What good restaurants do is they make sure that they invite a lot of the people who have that ability to market for them to their restaurants," Monsour says. "So they become ambassadors for their restaurants."
Once you’ve got travellers in your door, give them what they came for.
"You’re looking for a one-off, unique experience. You’re looking for bragging rights to go back home and tell your friends, ‘I found this wonderful place, it’s unbelievable.’ Whether it’s fine dining, or casual, or it’s a highway taco stand, they’re looking for something they don’t usually find at home. And it’s usually capturing the local ingredients and the local flavour," Monsour says.
"You don’t want the same thing you saw at home," he adds. "Otherwise you wouldn’t leave home." ¨
- Near and far. According to Statistics Canada, 69 per cent of tourism demand in Canada in 2003 came from Canadians, and 31 percent from foreign visitors.
Value to the Economy:
- Tourists represent 22 percent of Canadian foodservice sales, according to the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
- Tourists injected $50.9 billion into the Canadian economy in 2003, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.
- Offer local flavour — both in the food and in the ambience. Play up whatever you’ve got that they can’t get at home, be it local produce, a regional recipe, or even something beyond the plate, such as a historical connection or tradition. Were those berries picked yesterday, just down the road? Say so. Using a time-honoured Quebec recipe for tarte sucre? Be sure your customers know it. Located near a spot that’s featured in regional folklore? Tell the tale.
- Don’t bother with souvenir merchandise — a trend that has peaked, according to Don Monsour of the Canadian Tourism Commission. Monsour says today’s tourist would rather take home a great experience than a coffee mug.
- Get their attention through sources they trust: reviews in magazines and in tourist guides with consumer credibility, word-of-mouth and first-hand recommendations from people tourists are in contact with, such as hotel and tourism staff.
- Make it easy for them to enjoy themselves. Work with your local destination marketing organization or other tourism-related businesses such as hotels or attractions to provide value-added packages: dinner and a show, brunch and a gallery exhibit or garden tour, lunch and a ball game.