Marketing Alberta ­ Are The Mountains Enough?

By Howard M. Salkow, M.C.Inst.M.,
President, Sedgwick Partners

When William Cornelius Van Horne assumed the role of General Manager of Canadian Pacific on December 31, 1881, he set in motion numerous marketing strategies that enabled CP to become one of Canada’s great success stories.

Besides the construction of a railway line through treacherous territory and, at times, horrific weather conditions, Van Horne is widely credited with the building of the majestic Banff Springs, "a hotel in the mountains that has captured the imagination of millions". With its European style and touch, a Stanley Thompson-designed golf course, hot springs, a spa and breath-taking mountain views, the Banff Springs and surroundings, as far as Van Horne was concerned, was the ideal tourist area. But, it had to be marketed. Thus began what is still one of the true marketing stories to come out of the province of Alberta ­ promoting the mountains to the world.

Today, as you approach the entrance to the hotel, Van Horne’s well-placed statue greets you with the words: "Since we can¹t export the scenery, we will have to import the tourists". With supporting marketing dollars available over the years, the Van Horne dream was realized.

Much has changed. Although one suspects the Springs will remain the "jewel" of CP Hotels, Alberta as a province is faced with huge challenges in promoting itself. There is a shortage of tourism promotion dollars and, therefore, not enough noise is being made to be heard. According to the World Tourism Organization, worldwide international receipts in 1997 reached $443 billion (US). International tourist receipts in Alberta in 1997 were $630 million (US) ­ only 0.14 percent of worldwide international receipts. The Alberta Government will spend $16.4 million on tourism in 1999/2000 ­ an amount that pales in comparison with many other incentive markets.

"In terms of what we have to offer, Alberta has every right to call itself a sought-after destination," says Wayne Peterson, President and CEO of the Calgary Convention & Visitors Bureau (CCVB). "However, we desperately need the provincial support to tell the world what we have here. Right now, our major marketing tools are the media, the Internet, trade shows and word-of-mouth," he said in a recent interview.

Such is the situation in Calgary that tourist organizations like the CCVB and the local Chamber are working on solutions, one of them being a resolution on what the provincial government should do before the February 2000 budget. Should the government:

  • Re-invest an amount equal to accommodation tax revenues into tourism marketing at provincial and community levels?
  • Allocate at least half of this amount to the municipalities of tax origin for use by community-based destination marketing organizations (e.g. Convention and Visitors Bureaus) to promote community tourism products, services and events?

To add to Alberta’s woes, the province has lost an estimated $128 million in visitor spending (overseas and American visitors) ­ because Alberta¹s share of foreign tourism declined in the 1990s ­ while the accommodation and food sectors lost more than 10,000 workers in February 1999, compared to the same month last year.

Says Peterson on an area few in the industry would dispute: "Tourism is a highly competitive industry on a worldwide scale. Continuous marketing is necessary to successfully attract major tourism operators within this industry. Tourism marketing organizations require a dependable flow of funds in order to plan and deliver programs of which it may take three or more years to realize the full benefits. This lead-time is the result of the planning cycle that tour operators use to bring a product to the market."

For a relatively thriving economy like Calgary, the ultimate would be to have busy hotels and on-going activity at the mountain properties. "You are right, this would be the ultimate in planning. But, if we cannot tell people that we are here and what we have to offer, we have a huge challenge in attracting the appropriate target markets. And until we receive additional marketing dollars, we are going to continue to lose market share," says Peterson.

For some time now, the provincial government has been criticized for not taking tourism more seriously. As more hotels are built in the downtown core and with the Telus Convention Centre ready for opening in June 2000, one suspects more pressure will be placed on Ralph Klein’s Tory government. It makes for an interesting challenge, but even more demanding without the necessary funds ­ irrespective of how good the intentions or the plan are.

Howard Salkow is president of Sedgwick Partners, a Calgary-based corporate communications and marketing company. He chairs the Calgary bureau of the CIM. Howard can be reached at (403) 256-8504, E-mail: [email protected]

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