Ottawa’s brand needs a boost, tourism summit told

Parliament Hill workers
Workers get Parliament Hill ready for Canada Day in 2016.

Ottawa rates high as an overall travel destination in a new survey, but the city lags behind other many major Canadian cities in air access and needs to better define its identity in marketing campaigns if it hopes to fully cash in on its potential, officials at a recent tourism summit were told.

"Overall, I would say Ottawa is doing fairly well," said Paul Ouimet, managing director of DestinationNEXT, which conducted the survey of 200 members of the local tourism industry, businesses, government officials and travellers in April and May. "You’re starting from a position of strength."

The city compared very favourably with the more than 250 other destinations worldwide the organization has surveyed in overall strength as a tourist destination – a category that encompasses elements such as attractions and entertainment, events, sports and recreation facilities and convention spaces – as well as community engagement, he told the audience of nearly 300 at the Shaw Centre.

But he said Ottawa scored lower in categories such as international air access and brand, a "bit of a red flag" that suggests industry groups such as Ottawa Tourism need to do a better job of selling visitors on the city’s many assets such as its natural beauty, world-class museums and other cultural attractions.

While Ottawa’s tourism organizations and various levels of government appear to be on same page when it comes to how to promote the city, they can’t rest on their laurels, Mr. Ouimet added. A destination’s brand is becoming increasingly important as cities look to stand out from the crowd in the ever-more competitive tourism business, he said.

"There’s a lot of other communities that are coming after you," he said. "It’s really, really important to continue to push the envelope."

Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said branding has long been a challenge for the tourism industry in Ottawa because many travellers associate the nation’s capital so closely with the government of the day.

"Do we want a brand that’s independent of government or not?" he said in an interview with OBJ after Mr. Ouimet’s presentation. "That can work in your favour and that can work against you. It’s one of the things that needs to be figured out."

"Do we want a brand that’s independent of government or not? That can work in your favour and that can work against you. It’s one of the things that needs to be figured out."

The rise of peer review sites on social media means it’s more important than ever for tourist attractions to deliver unique experiences that satisfy customers who can make or break a destination with their instant critiques, Mr. Ouimet said.

"You can have the greatest sales campaign in the world," he told the audience of tourism and government officials. "If you have a bad experience at a meeting and convention or for leisure visitors, you can absolutely be massacred on peer-to-peer sites."

Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt said that means organizations such as his need to work harder to use social media platforms to their advantage.

"A brand is no longer just what we are telling people it is," he said. "We have to be engaging with visitors while they’re here, because they’re the ones who are shaping our brand out there through their social media channels and the stories they’re telling their families."

Local tourism officials also agreed Ottawa would benefit from more international air connections but said the industry needs to expand further before that will happen.

"Until we have that critical mass that justifies having direct routes to more locations, that’s going to come with time as our marketplace grows," said Mr. Ball. "I think we need to focus on the low-hanging fruit – areas where there is easy access and direct routes, particularly ...  the northern U.S., and maximize those first."

Guy Laflamme, executive director of the Ottawa 2017 Bureau that is planning local Canada 150 celebrations, said the year-long party will raise the city’s profile and help make it a more attractive air travel route.

"If we make 2017 a huge success, which we will, as a result this will increase the interest of transportation companies to improve service to Ottawa," he said. "When they see increased level of demand, that’s the best argument you can use to convince Air Canada, WestJet, Porter or VIA to increase the servicing volume and level to our city."

Mr. Ouimet also said many survey respondents pointed to the Rideau Canal as a underdeveloped tourism asset, adding the ongoing rehabilitation work on Parliament Hill poses a challenge for the local industry because the Hill’s majestic vistas have become obstructed by scaffolding.

"That is a major, iconic attraction," Mr. Ouimet said. "To have that boarded up … is going to be a major issue."