Destination Cape Breton Presents (To Council)

Terry Smith of Destination Cape Breton (DCB) appeared before CBRM council Tuesday morning and got a very easy ride from councilors, many of whom made a point of thanking Smith and his organization for all their “hard work” and complimenting him on his interesting presentation. District 8 Councilor James Edwards used the opportunity to suggest Cape Breton needs a memorable tourism jingle like PEI’s “eight-double-zero-five-six-five-seven-four-two-one” (presumably a 2022 version, setting the DCB website URL to music).

Personally, I felt there were a lot of questions that could have been asked of Smith and DCB, beginning with the decision to use a picture of a readily recognizable local resident—Nadine Bernard, who ran for the Liberals in the 2021 provincial election—to illustrate their tourist-attraction strategy. No disrespect to Bernard (it’s a great photo), but her decision to have a beer and a lobster at Governor’s can hardly be chalked up as evidence of DCB’s success in selling the island to visitors:

Picture of two people having beer

 

If you post it, they will come

DCB has an almost touching faith in the power of its website; they believe that people who visit the site then visit the island. They actually state, in their 2022-23 Strategy, that “the vast majority of Destination Cape Breton’s marketing efforts are designed to drive traffic to visitcapebreton.com” rather than “to Cape Breton Island” and they interpret increases in website traffic and “leads” (when someone visits the DCB website, then clicks on a link to an operator’s website) as proof a campaign has “been effective in driving demand.”

They delight in figures like these:

DCB website visits

 

And what fun the organization has with the way it presents information, switching from numbers that mean something—there were over 1 million visits to their website in 2021— to numbers that don’t—the number of visitors who clicked through from the main website to an operator’s website was “up 13%.” But up 13% from what? To what?

Remember, we’re not even talking about actual visits to the island here, we’re just talking about how many people who visited one website then went on to visit another website, and my guess is, not that many, or else DCB would be trumpeting the actual figure.

Plus, look at the numbers that really count—licensed room nights sold. I’m focusing on “licensed” room nights as opposed to “shared economy” (read: Airbnb) room nights because the licensed operators are the ones who’d be linked to the DCB website. (The licensing system was abandoned in 2020 in favor of a registration system but until last month, people renting space in their homes didn’t have to register.)

You’ll notice that 2017, the year with the lowest number of website visits, had the highest number of licensed room nights sold. The year was a banner year for tourism because it was the 150th anniversary of Confederation and entrance to national parks and historic sites was free. In 2018 and 2019 (to focus on pre-COVID years) website visits were up but room nights sold in licensed accommodations were down:

 

Room nights sold chart

To me, it’s an open question whether there’s actually a correlation between website visits and real visits, but the website is what DCB does, so it has to believe it’s working.

 

Forecast

Smith’s “2022 Forecast” slide is worth reproducing in full:

He admitted the quotes on the slide pre-dated the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the spike in gas prices, and given the invasion began in February and he gave this presentation yesterday, I really think he should have updated his slides. But he didn’t, so I’ll do it for him. The Conference Board of Canada’s most recent outlook for Nova Scotia (“Time for a Lobster Roll“) dated May 12, says:

Total visits to Nova Scotia will rebound to their pre-pandemic level in 2024 [emphasis mine].

Most provinces are struggling with inflation and labour shortages, and Nova Scotia is no exception. As visitors return in earnest, higher costs and lower capacity will limit the pace of recovery.

SKIFT Megatrends claims to be able to forecast the top trends for the entire travel industry for the coming year and yet, for 2022 its first trend is “Uncertainty Is the New Certainty” and its explanation begins:

If you believe the people who tell you when and how the travel recovery will take shape, be assured that no one has precise answers right now.

Interestingly, DCB quotes SKIFT—a strange place full of badly written but interestingly dark takes on the future—at length in its actual 2022-23 Strategy, singling out six trends it considers “relevant” to Cape Breton including “The Rapid Ruralization of Travel Sets Stage for New Overtourism” (DCB admits elsewhere in the report that “overtourism” is already a problem in the Highlands on October weekends) and “Communities Move Beyond Spectator Roles for Tourism” (in which the author explores the novel idea that tourism must “enhance the quality of life of residents”).

The Expedia quote is just an excuse to use the term GOAT and seem down with the kids.  (I’m not even kidding, I’ve never seen an agency that chases trends like DCB does.)

As for the Dr. Robert Strang quote, it is from January and could really use a little fleshing out. The best I can figure (even after listening to the entire interview) is that he was referring to a theory floating around at that point that because Omicron was highly contagious but didn’t make people as sick as the Delta variant, it could end up providing us with some sort of herd immunity. By February (as in, a month later) you could find as many stories in which experts were pouring cold water on this notion. The bottom line here is that quote is dated and cryptic and probably should have been edited out of the slide presentation.

 

Speaking of trends

When I said DCB chases trends, I wasn’t kidding.

In December 2017, according to the CBC’s Joan Weeks, former DCB CEO Mary Tulle told CBRM council that the “next big markets” for Cape Breton tourism could be “Chinese families and LGBT travelers.”

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

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

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.)

I don’t think they’ve had great success with these markets but it doesn’t matter because they’ve moved on to a whole new set of niches:

Destination Cape Breton niche markets

 

 

 

Waterfalls & Snowmobiles

Critiquing this presentation could easily fill this week’s entire issue—pretty much every sentence or graph or photograph is worthy of deeper exploration—but that would be tedious, so I’m just going to hit a few final highlights.

Like the fact that one of the agency’s big marketing objectives for 2022-23 is to create a spring “Waterfall Season,” inspired by Tofino, British Columbia’s Winter Storm Watching Season and based on the revelation that:

Waterfalls are consistently among the most viewed and engaged content on visitcapebreton.com and social media.

(Just an aside, do you suppose DCB has at least considered the possibility of creating a “Cat Season” or a “Cat Festival” in Cape Breton given the general popularity of cats on social media? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised.)

Woman taking photo of Waterfall

Source: Destination Cape Breton

DCB will create Waterfall Season out of whole cloth designing an advertising program and engaging “local ambassadors and regional influencers to generate buzz around the concept.” The advertising campaign features people taking photos of waterfalls, which, even I know, is not how social media works—they’d be trying to take a photo of themselves with the waterfalls in the background and you know where that would lead.

The other flaw I can see in the plan is that, according to this Bloomberg article, a significant portion of the storm-watching in Tofino is done from behind hurricane-proof glass in cozy hotel rooms by people who have no interest in going outside or getting wet.

DCB will also attempt to increase winter visitation by expanding its marketing to the Greater Toronto Area, bringing in “targeted winter micro-influencers” from Toronto and “promoting a snowmobile festival.” (You know those Torontonians and their snowmobiles.)

But enough with the negativity, what say we just meet back here at the same time next year and see how it all worked out?

 

Labor Shortage

The shortage of service sector workers is, of course, hitting the tourism sector and in his presentation, Smith made the rather ominous statement that DCB was prepared to “collaborate with partners to mitigate the labour shortage by all possible means.” [emphasis mine]

Smith cited the case of poor local businessman Danny Ellis and his difficulty finding dishwashers as proof of the severity of the problem which he blamed largely on outmigration, while allowing there are contributing factors like the inability of seasonal workers in parts of the island to find places to live and the lack of transportation (apparently CBU ran a shuttle service last season for students working in the tourism industry).

The solutions proposed in the 2022-23 Strategy are typically vague:

 

 

But in response to questions from council, Smith floated the idea of increasing the number of hours required for Employment Insurance to ensure workers kept working through the fall shoulder season and Mayor Amanda McDougall said she’d spoken with international students who wanted to work more than 20 hours a week and wondered if these regulations could be relaxed.

Interestingly, one of the SKIFT megatrends DCB singled out as being relevant to Cape Breton was No. 5, “The Great Upskilling of Labor,” which states, rather ungrammatically:

Many travel sectors need to stop wondering when workers will come back.

They aren’t.

The author, after noting that the restaurant sector in the US had “a combined 1.6 million job openings in July 2021” says:

While travel executives [and Cape Breton restaurant owners] liked to blame the labor shortage crisis on things like added government benefits included in various pandemic relief measures, the lack of workers continued into the fall when many of these subsidies expired. The conversation now stems around workers craving more flexibility and no longer wanting to put up with long hours required at a shift.

SKIFT’s “upskilling” idea seems to be premised on the belief that ensuring some workers climb the ladder will attract other workers to the sector. But the implication is that entry-level work will still be drudgery—and I have to suspect the higher level work, which would probably involve one person doing multiple jobs, will also be drudgery, albeit possibly better paid. Plus, there’s only so much room at the top of the ladder in the service industry.

Honestly, these discussions really seem to boil down to, “How can we force people to work in the service sector?” rather than, “How can we make service sector work more attractive to potential employees?”

DCB needs to listen less to the Danny Ellises of this world and more to the people working in Cape Breton’s tourism industry.