Tourist connections with colourful locals critical for industry
It's that time of year again. The hotels and B&Bs are filling up, restaurants are flat out and tour boats are loaded to the gunnels with CFAs (Come From Aways) on the lookout for icebergs and whales. Tourism now employs 18,000 people. That's 8 per cent of the total jobs in this province.
But how well is the tourism industry performing overall? Carol-Ann Gilliard of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador thinks the news is good.
Back in 2009, the tourism industry established goals to achieve by 2020. Among them, $1.6 billion in revenue annually. Vision 2020 is at the half-way point now and revenue estimates are at $1.1 billion
Newfoundland and Labrador "staycationers" are responsible for a large amount of that spending. But of that $1.1 billion, CFAs are injecting $492 million every year.
"Non-resident visitation has grown 22 percent in the past five years," said Carol-Ann Gilliard, CEO of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador.
"That's a substantial amount of new revenue coming into the province every year and the potential is there to grow that significantly in the next five years of the vision for sure."
Gilliard said the industry has identified lots of ways of boosting tourism, including higher quality accommodations, greater variety of food options for travellers, operators using online resources more effectively and highlighting efforts to protect the natural environment.
Gilliard added one of the most critical pieces moving forward, though, is something known as "return on emotion".
"Travellers want to have their hands in it. They don't want to be shown something, they want to experience it," said Gilliard.
And many travellers want to have those experiences with bonafide locals.
"We have people here who are who they are, naturally. They're storytelling, they're funny, they're musical and can really make people feel at home," said Gilliard.
"There's a warmth that travellers get from us here that people don't get everywhere they travel and not everybody comes here expecting that. When it happens and you encounter somebody that really makes you feel something, that's what's really important."
Lisa Molloy, a staff member at Leaside Manor B&B, hears feedback all the time from tourists who can't get enough of the genuineness of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
"They just love the people and how they interact with strangers," she said.
Vickie Mercer of Vancouver was charmed by frequent and friendly conversations during her stay: "It makes you feel welcome when people are willing to talk."
Dora Finlay, who owns Leaside Manor B&B, Compton House B&B and Monastery Spa and Suites in St. John's, is trying to facilitate more personal connections between guests and locals.
"We've had a number of music nights where we had local artists come into our boardroom. We're thinking of having a storytelling night during the summer so people from away could come and sit and listen to some Newfoundland stories." said Finlay.
Gilliard suggests building in even more authentic interactions in communities will resonate with travellers.
"Packaging experiences that people don't get anywhere else. Whether it's with people who are rug hookers, musicians, someone who knows where the best berry patch is, someone who knows how to bake bread," explains Gilliard.
"Right now, it's hard to access. A traveller could be passing through a community and there's stuff happening all around them, but how do you package it so they can access it?"
Gilliard admits creating emotional connections for tourists can be tricky.
"It's going to be very critical as we're moving forward that we're not going about this in a way that's artificial. If it's contrived, then it's too contrived and so it's a really delicate balance."