Canada’s Indigenous tourism agency ramps up marketing

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada is looking to get back some of the momentum it was experiencing prior to the pandemic.
Indigenous Tourism

As a travel guide and business owner, Mike Willie, a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation and the owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, spends most of his day leading tourists on wildlife excursions through his ancestral homeland, says Sébastien Desnoyers-Picard, CMO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).

The problem is that many small- and medium-sized Indigenous business owners like Willie then need to spend their evenings managing day-to-day operations and new bookings – a labour-intensive balancing act that can hurt sales over time, he says.

It’s one of the many reasons ITAC has been working since last year towards the launch of Destination Indigenous, a discovery website and booking platform featuring Indigenous tourism experiences across the country. The site is part storytelling platform, part educational resource and travel planning guide.

“We created the website in a mindset where it’s inspirational, educational, promoting visitor education, but a place we could gather and host events and really become the pride of those Nations, showing their experiences to the world,” says Desnoyers-Picard, a French-speaking member of the Huron-Wendat Nation, from Wendake, near Quebec City.

Destination Indigenous was scheduled to go live at the end of March during Rendez-Vous Canada, the annual trade event that connects the international travel community with Canada’s tourism industry partners. When the gathering was canceled due to COVID-19, ITAC postponed the launch until National Indigenous People’s Day on June 21.

With the platform now live, the tourism association is promoting it through a series of marketing campaigns, starting with “Virtually Yours,” a video that’s been in-market since May. The spot uses footage shot prior to January to highlight experiences that were indefinitely put on hold as a result of the pandemic.

“Right now, the world needs healing. We have to take the time, protect each other, not travel, [make] some compromises,” says Desnoyers-Picard of the message behind the spot. “Think about us for your next trip, but just wait before you come.”

Since then, the organization has gone out with a follow-up spot, launched in conjunction with Destination Indigenous, that paints a picture of a sector set on recovery. The video was scripted by Desnoyers-Picard and produced internally with assistance from Vancouver-based Barber Shop. ITAC members, provided with the script, recorded the message using their phones.

Whereas the last video emphasized staying put during COVID-19, the latest push reminds prospective travellers that “We have taken all the measures to make sure that when you come, it’s because it’s going to be safe to do so,” the CMO says. “Let’s work together, let’s bridge the gaps that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and focus on [discovering] your own backyard, because right now is the perfect time to do so.”

In the coming weeks, the tourism body is aiming to launch yet another campaign, one rooted in the concept of an “escape from home.” For the first time, Desnoyers-Picard says ITAC will be hiring a creative agency to lead the work, which will be broadcasted more broadly. “We’ve always done this internally. It’s been good, but it hasn’t been excellent,” he says. “Now we’re at the stage where we need to take it to the next level.”

The Indigenous tourism industry in Canada was thriving prior to this year, with growth outpacing overall tourism activity and with international interest in Indigenous experiences at an all-time high. As of last year, the industry encompassed at least 1,700 businesses, more than 36,000 employees and contributed more than $1.6 billion annually to Canada’s GDP (up from $1.5 billion in 2017), according to the Conference Board of Canada.

But the pandemic will have severely hampered that momentum, with direct economic activity falling 66% and employment dropping 60% across the sector, according to recent projections from the Conference Board.

Border closings have been particularly difficult on some Indigenous business owners. According to Desnoyers-Picard, roughly 50% of customers come from North America, many from the U.S. The sector has strong appeal among international marketers, particularly among European and Asian visitors; for example, research has shown that 63% of French and 47% of German visitors are interested in Canadian Indigenous experiences as they arrived in the country.

All of this will make keeping would-be travellers aware of Indigenous tourism (and of what experiences are opened or reopening soon) all the more important this year.

Typically, Desnoyers-Picard says awareness of Indigenous tourism has been relatively high. But conversion has not been what it should be for an organization tasked with driving sales growth. The Destination Indigenous platform is expected to help by enabling tourists to more easily discover and book experiences directly.

Crucially, it will also allow ITAC to obtain valuable data on prospective customers and serve them with relevant travel information, from the moment they first poke around on the site to the time they begin packing their bags, says Desnoyers-Picard. Such ongoing engagement will be critical this year, he says, as many travellers are wondering what sites will be open as travel restrictions slowly begin to lift.

“We wanted to simplify [the booking process] for our members by providing them with a property management system that would help them be fully bookable online, either through our platform… or through their own websites, providing them with solutions that would allow them to have a full inventory online and then also manage dynamic pricing or have their own pricing online, depending on how they want to do it.”

As the country awakens from lockdown, Desnoyers-Picard expects to see a spike in destination marketing from its many provincial and national partners. While he says that Indigenous experiences aren’t necessarily “made for everyone,” he’s confident they will remain highly competitive going forward.

“Some people will maybe want to experience ‘glamping.’ But how about ‘glamping’ in a teepee? How about [tasting] Indigenous cuisine with the terroir of the north?,” he says. “There are so many [ways] that we can travel differently.”