Destination Cape Breton, the Travel Writers & the Blacksmith

Blacksmith Grant Haverstock founded the FireHouse Ironworks in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton in 2011.

FireHouse produces custom ironwork but from the beginning, the company has been more than just a working forge, as its web site explains:

The forge at FireHouse Ironworks is a place for community members to gather and learn about the blacksmithing craft. We have open house demonstrations during the Celtic Colours International Festival as well as other community events throughout the year.

Haverstock also offers blacksmithing workshops and, that thing most prized in today’s tourism industry, experiential tourism, inviting the visitor to “be a blacksmith for a day.” Moreover, as president of the Cape Breton Blacksmith’s Association (CBBA), Haverstock has organized a number of blacksmithing conferences here on the island.

All of which, you’d think, would endear FireHouse greatly to Destination Cape Breton Association (DCBA), the island’s tourism association. And for a time it did—the association gave FireHouse its 2014 Small Business of the Year Award, an honor bestowed upon a small business (10 or fewer employees) that:

…displays excellence in small business operations in the tourism industry. Achieving success in the areas of marketing, product development and visitor services to create and establish a unique, sustainable tourism product.

 

Taking to Twitter

But in 2015, Haverstock took strong exception to the Nova Scotia government’s plan to close the province’s visitor information centers (VICs).

“Seventy-five percent of our summer traffic comes from the visitor information center in Port Hastings,” Haverstock told the Spectator. So important to his business are the centers, he makes a point of having VIC staff tour his operation at the beginning of each season.

Word that the centers might close spurred him to action: he issued a press release in conjunction with Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster;  he contacted the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS), which spoke out on the issue; and he reached out to DCBA, which remained silent, as a result of which Haverstock “took to Twitter.”

Haverstock says his Twitter activity prompted a response from DCBA CEO Mary Tulle, who called and accused him of “trying to sabotage everything.” He says DCBA later approached him to contribute to a promotion it was running and he agreed to participate only if Tulle apologized for her earlier phone call, which she did. (Tulle said she called Haverstock initially to ask him to speak to her directly rather than using Twitter. She confirms Haverstock’s story about the promotion and the apology).

In the end, the province reprieved the VICs, but Haverstock thinks his criticism permanently soured his relations with Destination Cape Breton.

 

And So It Proves So

Months later, in June 2016, Cape Breton Island hosted the “prestigious” Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) conference. The cost, as reported by the CBC on 29 August 2016, was $265,000:

The province, through Tourism Nova Scotia and the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage kicked in $47,000.

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality provided $25,000 each while Inverness, Richmond and Victoria counties gave $5,000 each.

The Destination Cape Breton Association, the island’s marketing agency, was one of the organizers and hosts and contributed money raised through its marketing levy on hotel rooms.

A June 2015 press release announcing the event said Destination Cape Breton was planning a number of “mind-blowing experiences” for the “powerful group of A-list talent” expected to attend the conference.

TMAC president Elizabeth Kerr assured the Post that travel writers must go through “quite a rigorous” qualification to join her organization, so I looked up some of the stories written by attendees post-conference to see what the work of an A-list travel writer looks like. Sample:

While Sidney [sic] has its lure, Cape Breton has many other attractions. Chief among these is the Cabot Trail, a scenic roadway encircling the Island. Tourist literature describe it as a place that makes one believe in magic. And so it proves so.

After spending a few days in Sydney, Cape Breton Island’s largest city, we felt that it was time to discover why Nova Scotia declares Cape Breton Island, ‘the masterpiece where your heart will never leave’.

There was a piece in the Calgary Herald about learning to boil lobster in Cheticamp (it generated six comments, five from Nova Scotians, including one from Tulle herself), a CNN article that sounds like every other travel article I’ve ever read about Cape Breton and an amateur ghostbuster’s  account of his tour of Louisbourg that sounds like no other travel article I’ve ever read about Cape Breton (and that’s a compliment). As per the CBC report cited above: A CBC News search for coverage following the event found many of the writers had posted short stories on their own blogs and web sites.”

Still, having a travel writer of any caliber notice your tourist operation can’t be a bad thing, so the organization deciding which operators will be showcased when the travel writers come to town wields some power. And if that conference is funded wholly or in part by public monies, then the organizer should be open and transparent about how it chooses the operators it features or, in the case of FireHouse Ironworks, doesn’t feature. Because DCBA’s 2014 Small Business of the Year was not on any of the itineraries.

“They were everywhere but here,” says Haverstock of the TMAC writers. “They hiked Salt Mountain. They were in my backyard.” But they didn’t visit FireHouse and Haverstock suspects it’s because of the spat over the VICs.

 

Ambassadors & Partners

Mary Tulle says that is not the case.

I spoke to Tulle at length on Tuesday, and here’s the first thing I must say in response to our discussion: I completely understand how challenging organizing a conference like TMAC would be. No, let’s be honest, I can’t begin to imagine how challenging it would be because it is something I could not do assuming I had every man, woman and child on Cape Breton Island assisting me.

I  get that it would, indeed, be impossible to include every tourist operator on the island in the travel writers’ itineraries. But I also know that some operators were included and some weren’t and I wanted to understand how the selections were made and who, ultimately, had final say on the structure of the tours. Pinning that information down took far more effort than it should have. It started out reasonably enough, with Tulle saying they’d been advised by Peterborough, which hosted the 2015 TMAC conference, to have “ambassadors” help structure the media tours.

…we had known what the top 10 reasons were that people come to Cape Breton Island, very strongly, Mary, because of our web site visits, we know the Cabot Trail is number one, we know culture is strong, we know the coastal and the Bras d’or is strong, we know culinary, we know golf, we have those 10. We know parks. So we invited leaders from each of those respective experiential groups to work with us on developing those tours.

But then things went sideways:

Tulle: … our job was, once the tours were designed, we then connected with our partners, our operators, hotels, motels, inns, Parks Canada experiences, and our job was to ensure that they wanted to participate and they also supported us. So, at no time did we look at a who was or who wasn’t [included], it was very much about what those ambassadors were looking to showcase.

Me: So they had, basically, the power to arbitrarily choose who would be showcased?

Tulle: When we talk about arbitrarily, it’s about what’s going to be able to work well within an itinerary. So I don’t want to…

Me: But they had the freedom to design the itinerary?

Tulle: Well, we know who our partners are.

Me: Meaning?

Tulle: Really, we have industry partners that we work with. Anybody who’s on our web site.

Me: But, how do you become an industry partner then?

Tulle: Everybody’s an industry partner.

Me: Then, if everybody’s an industry partner…

Tulle: You can only fit so many partners on an itinerary.

Me: Okay, fair enough, so the people who were designing these tours could choose?

Tulle: Absolutely.

Me: And do you have any idea what criteria they used in setting up their itineraries?

Tulle: Well, they would be reviewed by our media relations partner, Randy Brooks, and certainly I would like to think that all experiences on Cape Breton Island are quality experiences.

Me: So, just…

Tulle: Mary, I need to ask you a question — what’s the point to your question?

Me: The point of my question is to determine how you decided which tourist operators were showcased to the travel writers.

Tulle: Based on the itinerary itself.

Me: But the itinerary itself is designed by someone, it’s not like it comes in from outside and you have to…

Tulle: We had one of our industry partners.

Me: Who arbitrarily decided what the itinerary would be and who would be featured?

Tulle: It was then vetted through our media relations.

Me: So you had final say over who was on…?

Tulle: Destination Cape Breton, if that’s how you want to word it.

Me: Why? Is that not the correct way to word it?

Tulle: Then you know what? Absolutely.

I’m exhausted just reading that.

Having established that DCBA had final say on the operators showcased during the TMAC conference, I asked Tulle if Haverstock had been excluded due to their conflict over the VICs. She said absolutely not, and furthermore, explained that DCBA had lobbied Business Minister Mark Furey on behalf of the VICs behind the scenes and provided me a copy of a letter DCBA sent Furey on 22 February 2016 (I’ve attached it below.)

In the end, I cannot say whether Haverstock was intentionally excluded from the TMAC tours, although he remains convinced he was. I do know it seems strange he was left off the itineraries entirely, given his status as a DCBA Small Business Award Winner; given the support DCBA has given him in the past; given that TMAC participants were in his neighborhood; and given that FireHouse offers an experience that can, actually, be described as “unique” in a Cape Breton tourism context. I can also say that at least one high profile observer found it strange FireHouse was not on the TMAC tours:

 

And I can definitely say that it can be very hard to get a straight answer to a simple question from DCBA — and it didn’t get any easier.

 

Swag

I asked Tulle about another criticism that had come up in my conversations with Haverstock, namely, that he felt DCBA’s Oscar and Golden Globe “swag” campaigns were not doing anything to promote tourism. The campaigns involve “gifting” actors with trips that, as the Cape Breton Post explained in January 2016, “include accommodations, and everything from golf, to outdoor adventures, to a white glove tour of the Alexandra Graham Bell National Historic Site.”

Tulle: So, it’s wonderful to have Hollywood come and visit and brag about Cape Breton Island and to stay where partners have donated, so we have not put any money into any of the packages that we have provided.

Me: And do you have numbers that show what sort of results you’ve had from this program?

Tulle: We don’t disclose.

Me: Why?

Tulle: Because it’s part of privacy.

Me: Why?

Tulle: With individuals.

Me: It’s not individuals, it’s numbers.

Tulle: We do know that the Number One state looking at our website this year is California. We don’t spend any money in California. Not one cent.

Me: But my question is, I’m asking what are the numbers or visits that have resulted from the…Oscar swag campaign?

Tulle: So, it’s not really an Oscar swag campaign as much as it’s an invitation to visit Cape Breton Island. Because we’re the representative of some of the partners who have the opportunity.

Me: Okay, and how many people have answered that invitation?

Tulle: I’m not at liberty to say.

Me: Why could you not say how many? Numbers, not…

Tulle: Because they don’t wish to have their privacy disclosed.

Me: By saying ‘two’ or ‘three?’

Tulle: Mary, I’ve answered your question.

Me: Whose privacy are you, like, I don’t want names, I don’t want to hear, ‘It’s Ben Affleck and Gwyn Paltrow,’ I just want to know how many people?

Tulle: I’m not at liberty to discuss that.

 

Not-So-Social Media

But communication does not seem to be DCBA’s strong suit. Just ask Sydney-based filmmaker Madeline Yakimchuk, who took issue with the lack of First Nations images in a 2014 DCBA campaign. She told the Spectator she’s still blocked from the association’s Facebook page. That’s unfortunate, she says, because she actually wanted to congratulate DCBA for responding to her criticism and including First Nations in subsequent promos.

Tulle’s response is that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are pieces of “a marketing tourism platform.” They are not, apparently, places for communication:

“[I]f it’s going to be constructive criticisms…then we would welcome an opportunity to have this kind of dialogue, so that we can have a face-to-face or a telephone conversation versus using one of our marketing platforms.”

I asked if Yakimchuk would be unblocked from DCBA’s Facebook page. Tulle said, “I can’t answer that. I haven’t spoken to her.”

Which, you have to admit, is a novel approach to social media — we’ll use it to broadcast our message, but you should call us or drop by the office if you wish to respond.

Once again, I must make the point I seem to make in every article I write about publicly funded organizations on Cape Breton Island: if you are spending taxpayers’ dollars, you must expect to answer for your spending decisions. You must expect public scrutiny. You must be prepared to answer legitimate questions and not hide behind the words “privacy” or “confidentiality.”

And if you did so, oh, how much better life would be here in Cape Breton, this “paradise-isle for which Ulysses missed out on,” as my new favorite travel writers would put it.

DCBA_Letter
The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!