Capital News file Kelowna Tourism CEO Lisanne Ballantyne.

Okanagan tourists undeterred by smoke

Diverse array of tourist experiences paying dividends

Despite forest fire smoke being trapped in the Okanagan Valley much of this summer, the tourism marketing mantra of “still open for business” hasn’t been quieted.

While acknowledging that the smoke has caused some trip cancellations in local hotels/motels and tourist package operators, tourism officials across the valley say the tourism measuring indicators are still showing positive growth.

They point to “realtime” social media photos and activity postings that help showcase the region as a place that has more diverse tourism experiences than beaches and peaches has been successful.

“We understand these circumstances can bring negative media attention, we encourage you to remain accurate in your messaging, and to use clear and up-to-date messaging from official sources only,” said a letter sent to Okanagan tourism stakeholders Aug. 15 by Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association president and CEO Glenn Mandziuk.

“Our messaging will continue to focus on being open for business and providing information on the many activities and areas to enjoy throughout the Thompson Okanagan.”

The realtime marketing philosophy was started by the Penticton Tourism Association as a way to counter initial negative fallout from local wildfires by reinforcing the many activities available that the smoke doesn’t impact.

“The one thing we can’t control is the weather. So for people with health issues regarding bad air quality, they should probably stay away, but otherwise people are still on the beaches, people are still out on the watercraft in the lakes,” said Tom Tischik, with the Penticton Tourism office.

“We have about 400 people a day stopping by our visitor booth on the beach and that’s not even our main visitor centre location.”

Related: Kelowna stayed the course despite floods and fires in 2017

He just returned from a tourism conference in Calgary last Thursday, where he said the Alberta city had more intense smoke issues than here in the Okanagan.

“I was chatting with a WestJet person on the flight and she told me their flights have not been affected by the smoke and their numbers are pretty consistent with where they have been in past years. And the flights I took in and out of Calgary were both full,” he said.

“Those are pretty positive indicators.”

Tischik says the realtime social media efforts are not meant to mislead people, but rather offer a positive and truthful message to put potential visitors at ease.

In Vernon, tourism is booming with a 7.5 per cent increase in the regional hotel sales tax as of May over what was a record year in 2016, and initial indications are June, July and August results won’t alter that trend.

Angeline Chew, tourism manager for the City of Vernon, said the North Okanagan has a history of sometimes being overshadowed by the Central Okanagan and the Shuswap regions, but she says that is changing.

“We have for the last three years been pushing to extend our summer season beyond July and August, and expanding on our weaker winter season,” Chew said.

“We have the product now to offer, especially in winter with Silver Star and cross country skiing, and we can be a destination point in summer with access to so many tourist activity options. We are the little guy right now but we are growing.”

Kelowna Tourism manager Lisanne Ballantyne said wildfires and smoke are a reality that local tourism business operators and visitors are now accustomed to.

Related: Environment sustainability a key to long-term tourism growth

Ballantyne says hotel/motel monthly surveys show about 75 per cent response of cancellations this month due to the smoky conditions, but still 80 per cent also reported doing better than last year.

“Last year we had a fantastic September and that made up for what we lost during the summer, so if the same thing happens again this year, what has been lost so far can be made up,” she said.

In Kelowna, Ballantyne said the realtime focus has been on the Washington and Alberta visitor markets, to keep potential visitors on track to still follow through on their plans to visit the Okanagan.

Equally important, she adds, is capitalizing on every opportunity to communicate directly with tourists now here, to enhance their vacation experience.

“We are fortunate here in Kelowna to have a new visitor centre. When people come here they don’t want to be influenced by other travellers, they want to talk with people who live here and can ask when the sky looks a little hazy on a particular day, ‘what else can I do?’” she said.

“That interaction is very important for us and the new visitor centre really offers an opportunity for us to take advantage of that.”

Ballantyne believes Kelowna tourism continues to diversify, which is a key to overcoming the influence of weather.

“We don’t want the bulk of our business to be subject to the whim of the weather. We are moving into a four-season tourism strategy for Kelowna, and for the first time we will be launching major marketing campaigns for this winter,” Ballantyne said.

“We feel we are market ready and there is enough product out there to entice tourists to come here more in the winter. Now is the time to start it.”

To report a typo, email: edit@kelownacapnews.com.


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