Whither Destination Cape Breton Association?

Tourism Nova Scotia announced visitor traffic numbers to the end of September 2018 this week and it’s not happy news for Cape Breton: licensed room nights sold between January and September this year totaled 367,000 — down 6% over 2017 — and the occupancy rate stood at 53% — down 3% from 2017.

In announcing the numbers, Tourism Nova Scotia noted that “Canada 150 contributed to an exceptional year of tourism growth in 2017,” as entry to national parks and historic sites was free, the implication being it’s a bit unfair to compare 2018 to Canada’s 150th birthday year.

It’s a point I was about to concede, but then I looked up Destination Cape Breton CEO Mary Tulle’s predictions for 2018 and found the Cape Breton Post reporting in May:

[W]hile 2017 tourism numbers were up across Canada due to the country’s 150th birthday celebration, the head of the Destination Cape Breton Association is optimistic that this coming season will be even better.

All of our partners are indicating another strong year, for example both Keltic Lodge and Parks Canada are up significantly in bookings, and all indications are that the trend will carry over the island,” said DCBA chief executive officer Mary Tulle, adding that Cape Breton stands to benefit as travelers become increasingly aware of what is available and what they want.

I would like to know what Tulle has to say about those optimistic predictions now the actual numbers are in but I doubt we will be hearing from her, given that she has announced plans to leave the agency when her latest contract (her fourth) expires on Dec. 31.

As the Post reported:

“I’m really comfortable where Cape Breton is at from a tourism sector perspective and I think it’s time for some new blood and some new energy to come in,” said Tulle, 58, who just returned from a conference in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland in northern Finland, that looked at the effects of climate change on tourism around the world.

The end of the Tulle era seems like a good time to re-evaluate DCBA, a publicly funded organization I have criticized in the past for its lack of transparency. So today, I’m going to look back at some of the highlights of the past eight years of Cape Breton tourism promotion. It’s not a comprehensive list, but I would argue it’s a representative one — and failing that, an entertaining one.


Contained enthusiasm

Even if Tulle weren’t leaving, I doubt she’d be concerned that her rosy prediction for tourism in 2018 failed to come true. This is the same woman, after all, who told the Post last year that a Cape Breton-themed shipping container, part of something called “Inspiration Village” in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, would mean “the opportunity to have 11 million people see Cape Breton…”

In the end, according to organizer Guy Laflamme, 340,000 people visited Inspiration Village. And while it was billed as an opportunity to showcase Cape Breton to people from all over the world, by this spring Tulle was telling the Port Hawkesbury Reporter:

We saw a huge increase last year from Ottawa specifically. We feel that has a lot to do with the activation that we did in Ottawa called Inspiration Village.

So a) rather than showcasing Cape Breton to 11 million people from all over the world, the promotion showcased Cape Breton to 340,000 people — many of them, apparently, from Ottawa; and b) Tulle has no proof the shipping container (which featured, among other things, a “working lobster trap”) had anything to do with the increased number of visitors from Ottawa in 2017, but she “feels” it did, which is apparently good enough.



That reliance on “feelings,” though, is odd coming from someone who has been claiming, since she become CEO of Destination Cape Breton Association in 2010, to be engaged in research to determine precisely who is coming to Cape Breton, why they are coming to Cape Breton, what they want to experience in Cape Breton and how best to market these experiences to them.

Tulle arrived as DCBA was morphing (apparently) from a “member-driven” organization to a “destination marketing organization” or DMO. As she explained in this 2012 presentation (which has been posted to YouTube without a word of explanation as to whom she’s addressing — although it seems to be some sort of industry conference –and which focuses so tightly on Tulle you can’t see any of the slides that accompany her talk):

[P]art of being a DMO [Destination Marketing Organization] with the big word “marketing” is to recognize that what’s absolutely critical was to find what exactly is it that you’re going to do.

Research drives product development drives marketing drives research in a continuous loop, apparently.

But before you can decide what exactly is it you’re going to do, you have to figure out who you are, and in the case of Cape Breton, says Tulle, she found herself having to “continuously remind” people that:

We are not Prince Edward Island. We’re Cape Breton Island. We’re raw. We’re rustic. We’re magical. Fantastic. Recognized as the number one island in North America continuously. We are not a province.

Later she gets even more granular, as the data crunchers say:

We then did a market assessment to say, “Who are we, as Sydney?” We are the proud home of coal and steel and it’s time to start telling the story in a very integrated way, when cruise passengers choose to walk.

(I presume she’s referring to cruise ship passengers who “choose to walk” to Donkin, otherwise I don’t think they’ll find much coal or steel.)

Having established who we are,  DCBA then had to answer one key question:

Why are they coming? Why are people coming to Cape Breton Island?

As luck would have it, DCBA’s partners — federal and provincial organizations like Tourism Atlantic, ACOA and ECBC — had “synthesized seven key pieces of research” to determine why people come to Atlantic Canada and the answers also applied to Cape Breton. They included coastal scenery and culture. DCBA added “culinary.” I can’t tell you the others because I can’t see the slides. Apparently, though, DCBA felt the question “why are they coming” had been answered satisfactorily and moved on to the next big query:

[W]hat is our product as it pertains to those motivators on what people want to do when they come to Cape Breton? What is our product?”

What we learned is that we didn’t know and there was no way to actually benchmark any element of consistency.

There’s more of this, it goes for almost 20 minutes, and I can’t actually tell you what the essential message is, although there’s one semi-surreal passage about the necessity to “train” entire communities — by means of something called a Sustainable Tourism Expansion Plan (STEP) — which seems worth reproducing:

I was in Inverness County, Inverness community, yesterday with Lisa and a great group of stakeholders and Betty. And it’s about Inverness moving forward and as a community going through an entire training, many starting at level one, others being level two, others being level three and I said, “Is there any other community that’s gone through this?”


Great question was then asked: How did they do it?

So I can reiterate everyone else who stood here before me this morning: it’s community, it’s mobilization, it’s believing [gestures to an audience member] and I used to say nobody’s glass was more purple than mine, but I like yours better, it doesn’t exist, Anne. And that is very much what we have here, as a tourism product.

Uh, right.


Origin stories

But I digress.

In its 2018-19 Strategy, DCBA explains how it conducted the above-mentioned research; how it created “a comprehensive profile of the visitor to Cape Breton Island,” how it then focused on “product-development initiatives,” brand development and marketing:

From the establishment of a strong Maritimes base for the Cape Breton Island brand, the marketing campaign then extended outside the region to target key out-of-region markets, primarily Ontario, Quebec (English speaking) and the Northeastern United States.

But if  you look at Nova Scotia tourism statistics for 2008  — that is, two years before DCBA was even established — you’ll see that there already was a “strong Maritimes base” for our brand and that the areas they decided to target were the source of most of our visitors anyway. Here’s the list of visitors by place of origin in 2008 (you can click on the image to enlarge it):

Visitors to NS in 2008 by place of origin.

Source: Tourism Nova Scotia (Click to enlarge)

And here’s the same data from 2017:

Visitors to Nova Scotia by place of origin, 2017

Source: Tourism Nova Scotia (click to enlarge)

The 2018-19 Strategy also claims that DCBA has focused on developing the island’s “niche markets” (through the same, rigorous, research-driven approach) but the niches keep changing.

Here is Tulle in October 2017, as recounted in a story by the CBC’s Joan Weeks, telling the council of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (which helps fund her organization to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually) that the “next big markets” for Cape Breton tourism could be “Chinese families and LGBT travellers.”

“China is the big buzzword on the Canadian tourism front,” Tulle told CBRM council.

To support this particular niche market,  DCBA brought in a Chinese tourism specialist to “judge” the island’s potential and produced a Chinese brochure:



To support the potential LGBT traveler market, Weeks reported:

The agency is working with Travel Gay Canada and has asked Hollywood actor, comedian and LGBT activist Jason Stuart to assess the island. Tulle says Stuart will come to Sydney for Pride Week 2018.

(As far as I can tell, he didn’t.)


Keeping secrets

But that wasn’t all.  According to the Cape Breton Post account of that same CBRM council meeting:

“There are a lot of niche markets,” said Tulle, citing the growing, but lucrative market, of super-yachts, a number of which have been recently docked at various Cape Breton wharves.

“Now, for example, we’re not necessarily looking for travelers who golf, but rather golfers who travel.”

In passing, may I just note the kind of attention the successful Cape Breton Highlands golf courses have won us? Consider this quote from the Globe and Mail:

“Building a golf course in the middle of nowhere, you hope that at least a couple of people come,” says founder Ben Cowan-Dewar, who was 33 when Cabot Links opened in 2012, financed with the help of his business partner, American golf entrepreneur Mike Keiser.

Think about that. In 2016, six years after DCBA began its research-driven promotion of the island, we were being referred to in Canada’s national newspaper as “the middle of nowhere.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

No, wait, actually, you can. Look at this recent “sponsored content” spread in National Geographic:

I get the appeal of the “secret” destination known only to the most intrepid of travelers, but can we be both (as Tulle says frequently) “the best island in North America, third-best in the world” AND the best-kept secret in Canada?

The National Geographic article references the Cabot Trail, the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Alexander Graham Bell Museum (although it doesn’t actually name this latter, I guess the museum didn’t pony up for the campaign, instead, the author plugs Baddeck “a charming village on Bras d’Or Lake’s north shore where the great inventor’s contributions are commemorated at a national historic site”). But after millions of dollars’ worth of promotional campaigns, none of these things should be “secret.”


Winter wonderland

In December 2016, the niche was “winter tourism” as DCBA launched a campaign to promote Cape Breton to Cape Bretoners as a winter tourism destination. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but is it really what tourism organizations are intended to do? Aren’t they are intended to attract, you know, tourists? Or am I just being a stickler?

In 2017, as the organization prepared to launch its second such campaign, Tulle explained the thinking behind it to the CBC’s Steve Sutherland:

So, most people who know me, I think you included, have heard me say, we do research [which] will drive promotion, which will drive marketing. And, two-and-a-half years ago, we did an assessment on our winter product. We hired a real expert by the name of Dr. Laurel Reid and we asked her to really look at Cape Breton and see what do we have as a Winter product. What’s open? What’s available? Where can people eat? What’s the snowshoe opportunity? What’s the hiking? What’s the…snowmobile? What does our inventory look like?

Dr. Reid apparently carried out her research without actually visiting any of the operators she discussed in her report — as a footnote in the Executive Summary explains, “The original objective was to identify which products/experiences are market ready. This task proved to be difficult without visiting operators.” Nevertheless, she was able to produce a 39-page report that prompted DCBA to launch a campaign promoting Cape Breton as a winter tourism destination.

The campaign had “great success,” Tulle told Sutherland, who asked how they knew this. Tulle replied that they had measured exactly how many people had visited the website they’d set up to promote winter tourism and how many people had “clicked through” from the DCBA website to the websites of participating operators. But as anyone who has ever clicked on a tourism website can tell you, that is not the same thing as actually going somewhere.

And while Dr. Reid identified approximately 140 Cape Breton tourism operators that are open in Winter, the DCBA listings include only 56 entries — most of which are trails, including 13 within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park (each listed separately). Six are provincial parks. Four are part of the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail. There are four places to eat and three places to stay.


Travel writers

In June 2016, DCBA oversaw the “prestigious” Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) conference, held in Cape Breton. The cost, as reported by the CBC on 29 August 2016, was $265,000.

“Wining and dining” travel writers, as Tulle explained:

…is no guarantee that the resulting coverage will be positive but she believes the cost of the conference will prove its worth in publicity.

We’re seeing articles come in, certainly on a daily basis,” she said. “And we have stacks, at this point, of print, and even CNN that did the piece almost two weeks ago. That’s a 6.3 million circulation on that article that was done by one of the travel writers — 6.3 million.”

After the conference I did an (informal) inventory of publicity resulting from it and found that CNN article (which sounded like every other travel article I’d ever read about Cape Breton), 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), 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.”



Golden Globe awards.

Golden Globe awards.

For a number of years, Tulle traveled to the Golden Globe Awards to participate in a ritual that involves giving rich and famous people free things in the hope that they will promote you.

As Tulle explained to CTV Atlantic in 2013:

This has never been done before. It is Cape Breton Island and Bora Bora that are the two destinations being profiled at the gifting suite in Los Angeles this week.

I have no idea how the gifting suite approach panned out for Bora Bora but in August 2016, in one of the strangest interviews of my life, I tried to find out from Tulle how effective it had been as a promotion for Cape Breton Island and (as I reported  at the time) we had the following exchange:

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.

And as “wonderful” as it is to have Hollywood brag about Cape Breton, DCBA seems to have discontinued the swag campaign.


Let’s be Iceland

And finally in 2016, Tulle attended the Destination Think! Forum in New York, during which, according to this post-conference interview, she discovered the secret to increasing tourism to Cape Breton — we should become a Scandinavian nation. And not just any Scandinavian nation: Iceland. Which, Tulle says is:

“…an absolute model that I would very much like to have us strive to become.”

Mary Tulle, CEO, Destination Cape Breton from Thomas Craven Film Corporation on Vimeo.


Trump Bump

Of course, the most successful Cape Breton promotional campaign of the past eight years had nothing to do with DCBA — it was the “Trump-Bump” that resulted from radio announcer Rob Calabrese’s website inviting Americans worried about a Donald Trump victory in 2016 to move to Cape Breton.

Here’s the Canadian Press reporting on the phenomenon in July 2016:

Mary Tulle, CEO of Destination Cape Breton, says since the so-called “Trump Bump,” the tourism association needs at least two full-time staff members just to keep up with online and phone inquiries.

“I think what we’ve really tried to do is seize the privilege we’ve been given,” Tulle said in an interview. “It really was quite a unique tumbleweed of activity.”

What Tulle doesn’t grapple with, although it must have occurred to her, is that a website thrown together by a radio announcer as a joke was more effective in promoting the Island than years of “research-driven” marketing by DCBA.

But that’s really something we should grapple with, given that DCBA spends millions of public dollars on its research and resulting marketing campaigns. I personally find it hard to reconcile the very real Cape Breton tourism industry — made up of hardworking people providing accommodations and meals and tours and “experiences” — with a lot of the activity associated with DCBA.  Sometimes it seems our tourism industry survives and grows despite the “destination marketing organization” rather than because of it.

I think it’s telling, for instance, that a 2014 Industry Relations Assessment Report commissioned by DCBA (but no longer available on the website) found that of all DCBA’s industry-supporting activities — including all its research-driven product developing and marketing — “By far, respondents place the greatest value on the visitor servicing function at [Visitor Information Centres]. 67% of respondents place very high/good value on this function.”



So what does the future hold for DCBA?

In his article announcing Tulle’s plans to resign, Post business reporter Chris Shannon spoke to DCBA board member Debbie Rudderham, the chief information officer of Cape Breton University (CBU), who chairs the DCBA sub-committee charged with hiring a new CEO. Writes Shannon:

Despite its efforts to market the island to individuals, groups and corporate tours, Destination Cape Breton has come under fire in the past for not being forthright in releasing its financial details including how much money it receives from government.

The organization is not bound by provincial freedom of information legislation or the federal Access to Information Act.

A list of current board members, meeting agendas or minutes cannot be accessed from its website, www.cbisland.com.

Shannon apparently put the question of transparency directly to Rudderham who — for a communications officer at a public institution (CBU) — seemed breathtakingly unconcerned:

Rudderham chalked that up to the fact the association’s website is geared to marketing the island. She said the organization has nothing to hide from tourism operators or the general public.

“I didn’t even realize that we weren’t considered open, and that’s the truth,” she said. “There’s nothing secret there. We meet just like any other volunteer board.”

Where to start? The website may be “geared to marketing the island” but it contains a link to an “industry site” where it would make perfect sense to provide information about the association itself. Information like the names of the board members:



And they may meet like any volunteer board, but most volunteer boards on the island don’t oversee organizations that spend millions of public dollars.

As for her having no idea DCBA was not considered “open,” it suggests she hasn’t read some of the association’s much-vaunted “research,” namely, that 2014 Industry Relations Assessment Report cited above (which was prepared by the same Dr. Reid who inventoried our winter tourism offerings). The report is no longer available on the DCBA website, but I quoted it at some length back in February 2017 when I was writing about DCBA’s lack of transparency.

It wasn’t a particularly good report research-wise — the sample size of Cape Breton tourism operators who completed Reid’s questionnaire was statistically invalid — but she tried to make up for that by interviewing operators who represented a good cross-section of the industry, both geographically and in terms of the type of business they operated.

One of the issues they raised was the lack of transparency around the DCBA board. As I wrote at the time:

Apparently, tour operators are also curious as to how the board is constituted because Reid’s report contains this recommendation:

Board and Governance: Strive for transparency, providing access to the Board on the website as well as bylaws etc. and show how the Board is selected.

I scoured the DCBA website looking for names and contact information for board members, a list of the group’s by-laws and any information about how the board is selected but, 20 months after Reid made her recommendations, I found nothing. If DCBA has been striving for transparency, it’s been doing so in secret.

I asked Tulle how the DCBA board was selected and she said:

“The nominating committee, a standing committee of the board, gathers names of persons to fill board vacancies.  A vote is held at the annual meeting.”

I don’t know how the nominating committee gathers names (can tour operators suggest people?). And I don’t know who can vote at the annual meeting. And I don’t know how the original board was chosen. And I’m starting to see Reid’s point — it would be helpful to have this all spelled out somewhere.

Tulle did tell me that directors’ terms are three years and a director may serve three consecutive terms. DCBA posts its board and committee minutes on the website, but they are password-protected. I asked Tulle who was entitled to read them and she said:

“Board and committee members are entitled to read the minutes.”

And if you think they can’t pull the drawbridge up any tighter, you underestimate DCBA. I asked Tulle if there was any plan to follow through on Reid’s recommendations regarding the board and governance and transparency and she said:

“No, but if the board wishes to make it a priority, it will be done.”

Four years later, the board has not chosen to make it a priority and if Rudderham’s attitude is indicative, it has no intention of making it a priority anytime soon.

But people who focus on issues of openness and transparency — people like those at the Nova Scotia Right to Know Coalition — argue, convincingly, I think, that organizations like DCBA, which receive significant public funding, should be accountable to the public.

And indeed, it would not be difficult to make DCBA accountable to the public, but transparency is not a high priority of our current provincial government, either. So although DCBA will be under new management come January, it will continue to be the organizational equivalent of a black box, taking in millions of dollars in public money and turning it into marketing campaigns — some of pretty dubious value.