New Brunswick

Liberals question Higgs's tourism moves when sector is growing

Yennah Hurley, one of three outside consultants hired by Premier Blaine Higgs, has been pondering how to "fix" New Brunswick's tourism marketing pitch for a long time.

Yennah Hurley hired to improve province's tourism marketing pitch

In 2012, Yennah Hurley had a private conversation with then Premier David Alward about the challenges in the way of boosting tourism. Now, she's in a position of influence. (CBC)

Yennah Hurley has been pondering how to "fix" New Brunswick's tourism marketing pitch for a long time.

In 2012, the Quispamsis entrepreneur toured the province in an RV and was a weekly guest on CBC's afternoon radio show Shift New Brunswick, dispensing tips about what to see and do.

Between visits to Tabusintac and St. Martins, she managed to meet then-premier David Alward to discuss how to better promote the province to tourists.

"I had a private conversation with him on what I've been doing, what the people of New Brunswick are saying to me and what some of the challenges are that are out there," she said during a July 25, 2012, radio segment.

While she acknowledged that "you can't really say" why tourism numbers were down at the time, she said she and the premier talked about what "we can do to maybe get on board and fix some of that stuff."

Alward "really appreciated the point of view of someone who is not working for the government," she added. "I'm just doing it because I love the province and he loved that."

Now Hurley is working for the government. And she will get a chance to put her tourism fix in effect.

"Unfortunately at that time [in 2012], they weren't ready for me," Hurley said in an interview Friday. "I guess I was a little before my time there."

She'll earn between $150,000 and $175,000 a year, the salary range of a deputy minister, as Premier Blaine Higgs's hand-picked expert embedded in the provincial Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture.

Her mission during a two-year consulting contract is to help civil servants in the department embrace new ideas for attracting visitors. She will report directly to Higgs.

Premier Blaine Higgs hired three outside consultants, including Hurley, to help reshape government operations. ( Joe McDonald/CBC)

The department has "great people" but it's possible to have "blinders on," the premier said in a recent interview.

"You always think you're doing the very best, but then you have different perspectives and it helps your imagination go broader."

Hurley said that's especially necessary when the department's budget has been cut as part of the PC drive to balance the budget and pay down debt.

"Budget cuts allow people or challenge people to be more innovative or more creative," she said. "That's where I come in. I'm an entrepreneur. I've worked with tight budgets before."

"What I can bring to the table is a different way of thinking. Let's figure out how we can work with the budget we have, shift some things around, make sure our teams are in the right place, make sure our strengths in the department … are in the right place."

Tall order, say Liberals

Higgs recruited Hurley to shake things up despite big increases in revenues from tourists in the last two years.

The Opposition Liberals say Hurley has a difficult task: to maintain the growth trend and reach their government's target of $2 billion in visitor revenues by 2025 — despite a 37 per cent cut to the department's tourism budget.

"So you want to cut, but then the premier gets to hire a personal services consultant, a friend of his that he met two years ago," said Liberal MLA Jacques LeBlanc.

Liberal MLA Jacques LeBlanc questioned Hurley's hiring after the tourism sector revenue growth under the Liberals. (CBC)

LeBlanc focused on the funding cut during the department's presentation of its budget estimates to a committee of the legislature this week.

The Liberals announced their tourism growth strategy and its $2 billion goal in 2017. They poured $12.6 million into capital spending on tourism in 2018-19, almost a 20 per cent increase, and $6 million to fund new marketing efforts.

The strategy was led by Françoise Roy, the deputy minister hired by the Liberals in 2016 and fired by Higgs in March.

"We let go a very competent deputy minister who knew her files," LeBlanc said.

The premier said the Liberal spending had not produced any tangible results and he told officials that.

"I said, 'So what did we accomplish with that?' They couldn't name anything."

Still committed to $2 billion

In last month's budget, the PCs reversed much of the new spending, pruning overall tourism funding from $20.2 million last year to $12.8 million this year.

That includes reductions in marketing programs and the closure of visitor information centres at two entrances to the province, in Woodstock and Aulac.

Tourism Minister Robert Gauvin said Liberal spending increases were unsustainable and the PC cuts take the budget back to "exactly where we were before."

Even so, Gauvin told the committee, the government is still committed to the $2 billion goal.

"We are going to pursue the strategy, you can be sure," he said, though he added "it may take a year or two more" than 2025.

LeBlanc said that comment took him aback.

"Is it his consultant that they hired that's going to take two more years?" he asked. "Or is it coming from his department?"

Higgs described Hurley, pictured, as 'extremely passionate' about tourism in the province. (CBC)

Hurley didn't offer any specifics of the changes she plans to make, other than more emphasis on online and social media promotions that are less expensive.

"Right now I've just started at the department, so we're assessing a lot of things at the moment," she said. "We have a basic general plan of how we're going to do it, and that's working on the tourism growth strategy that was already in place.

"We have to make some changes. It would be unfair for me to say we have it all figured out, because we don't have it figured out just yet."

Higgs said he met Hurley, who lives in his riding, about two years ago and was impressed by how "extremely passionate" she was about tourism in the province.

Her LinkedIn profile lists several tourism-related ventures, activities and courses, including Maritime Daytripping Inc., a small business she ran at Saint John's Rockwood Park.

"She is absolutely appalled that we are not able to convince the rest of the world and the rest of our province of what a great province we have," Higgs said in the legislature when he was asked about her hiring.

Revenue growth

But LeBlanc said Higgs's comments are belied by the numbers.

From $1 billion in 2016, visitor revenues leapt to $1.3 billion in 2017. "That's a substantial increase," he said.

The Conference Board of Canada estimated the province "continued its upward trend in 2018" with revenues surpassing $1.5 billion.

Carol Alderdice of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick, said the group has been monitoring Statistics Canada reports and "it looks like we will come in around that figure." Final numbers will be out in May.

The Conference Board attributed the growth to the extra funding from the Liberals. The report was issued before last March's PC budget.

Won't seek bigger budget

Hurley said it's "hard to tell" how much of the recent momentum is due to Liberal spending but she said she wouldn't lobby Higgs to restore the funding either way.

"The budget is the budget right now," she said.

Even so, she said she also committed to the $2 billion goal.

"We have to go in some different directions. But we're not going to take away completely from the strategy that's in place. We understand it's on upward swing right now. So we're going to stick with that, but we do have to make a little bit of internal changes."

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