After two years of a pandemic and several weeks of a trucker protest, Ottawa Tourism is itching to spread the message far and wide about why Canadian and international travelers should return to the nation's capital.
For Michael Crockatt, president and CEO of Ottawa Tourism, it was “heart-wrenching” to witness the impact the past couple of years has had on tourism businesses and employees. He estimates that approximately $3 billion in visitor spending was lost during the pandemic.
“It’s almost too big of a number to even think about what that means,” Crockatt said. “When you think of, over that time period, three billion fewer dollars being brought into our community from the outside and being spent here supporting jobs and businesses.
“The simple story is, it’s probably been the worst couple of years in this industry’s history.”
Feeling the weight of this loss, earlier this year, Crockatt and his team were ready to jump into action with aggressive marketing campaigns extolling the virtues of Ottawa. Then, the trucker protest arrived.
“No matter which side of the issue you sit on, it was again really bad for tourism, really bad for Ottawa’s brand and really bad for downtown businesses at a time when they just couldn’t afford that hit,” Crockatt said. “We’re very concerned about the longer-term damage (the protest) has done.
“It would be very difficult to encourage Canadians to come and visit Ottawa when all they see on TV is all the reasons they wouldn’t want to visit Ottawa.”
To put the lustre back on the city’s image, Ottawa Tourism is making up lost ground by launching a multi-platform marketing campaign with the theme “Here to Inspire”, celebrating culture and creativity in the nation’s capital. It will feature the city’s museums, galleries, concert venues and festivals, which Crockatt calls “key differentiators”.
The campaign will target leisure travellers, tour groups, meeting and convention planners, and sports organizers to make sure “they know what the real Ottawa is,” Crockatt said.
“Ottawa is the place that they knew before (the trucker) occupation. It is the place where you can come experience every different corner of Canada all in one city,” said Crockatt, who credits his strong marketing team and some recent provincial funding as enablers.
Ottawa Tourism is also ready to support innovative entrepreneurs who want to bring new or revitalized concepts to the city, such as the recently installed Interzip.
For example, Palapa Tours has big plans for tourism on the Ottawa waterfront. The company’s floating tiki bar boats made their first appearance on the Ottawa River last year and had booked $750,000 in revenue during their initial eight-week period of operation, said co-owner Michael Karpishka. But, due to pandemic restrictions, $400,000 of that had to be refunded to customers.
Still, Karpishka is hopeful for the 2022 season, when Palapa Tours will offer a corporate option for companies to conduct business on the water and theme nights for locals and tourists. He has even booked a few wedding ceremonies. Karpishka said the company is looking into strategic partnerships with local restaurants and caterers and encouraging customers to bring their own food from local businesses.
“We want to focus on helping the National Capital Commission animate the waterfronts and bring people out to the boats. Ottawa is a water city … We are birds out of the water. Ottawa is visually the number-one waterfront in all of Canada,” he said. “This is a unique experience. Here, people can kick back, tour the city’s waters, relax and sip a margarita.”
Craig MacDonald, the owner and tour director at Ottawa Walking Tours, is also hoping for a successful season, specifically from the European tourists that his company relies on during the summer. However, after two years of a pandemic and the international news coverage that Ottawa received during the trucker demonstration, MacDonald said his customers have been hesitant and nervous.
“We’re very optimistic and keen for the pandemic to be behind us but, like everyone, we’re so used to waiting for the other shoe to drop that we’re just holding our breath,” said MacDonald. “We’re trying to re-establish rather than start anything new. We are focusing on solidifying what we have had in the past and trying to build up from there to make the foundation a little more solid.”
At Ottawa Tourism, Crockatt is optimistic. “We think there are some cool opportunities … to demonstrate to residents and visitors just how resilient and creative this community is,” he said. “As I talk to some of my friends around the country, I hear a lot more positivity, which I’m hoping is going to translate into visitation for us this summer.”
With files from Sarah MacFarlane