Nova Scotians welcome visitors into their bubble

Today is the first day Maritimers can travel freely between Atlantic borders. Here's how Tourism Nova Scotia spent three months rethinking its strategy in preparation.

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Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland & Labrador opened their borders to each other this morning and the line-ups are already hundreds of cars long. Many are eager to begin enjoying the summer that almost never was.

The Atlantic bubble – an agreement in which residents from the four provinces can travel freely between the regions and without the need to self-isolate upon arrival – is meant to strengthen the Maritime tourism industry following a COVID-induced economic coma.

For years, the east coast provinces have propped each other up as part of the Atlantic Canada Agreement on Tourism (ACAT). When marketing to potential tourists in other countries, they collaborate on ways to position the region as a “must visit” spot where it is easy to hop between the four provinces. But now, Michele Saran, CEO at Tourism Nova Scotia says the bubble has created a scenario in which the provinces must now battle for tourism dollars.

“We’re competitors, quite frankly,” she says.

It’s a completely new challenge, says Saran, because it comes with a completely new audience. Tourism Nova Scotia, for example,  primarily marketed to travellers in Ontario and Quebec (for Canada), the U.S., the U.K., Germany and China. Now, it’s speaking to local and regional audiences in ways it’s never spoken before.

“The Maritime audience is different from the overseas audience. They’re not so much interested in visiting the coast of the pretty picturesque villages – they have those themselves,” she says. “The scenery was a big selling feature when we were talking to [visitors abroad.]”

So now, says Saran, it’s incumbent on Tourism Nova Scotia to give visitors from elsewhere in the Atlantic bubble new reasons to visit places like Halifax at a time when the urban destination is a shell of itself compared to before the pandemic. People from the island regions typically visit the city for its hustle and bustle, but Tourism Nova Scotia is hoping they’ll want to “Do More” – encouraging visitors to go further than its mainstay city and stay longer.

But before the “Do More” campaign (by agency m5) rolls out, the board is celebrating the bubble opening today with “We’re Open,” an ode to Nova Scotians themselves, not just the fact that the province is now accepting visitors. “We’re also open and welcoming,” says Saran.

While Maritimers are known to be hospitable, many still share concerns about growing the bubble any bigger than it already is. Saran’s team has invested in weekly consumer sentiment studies to understand not just when people are ready to travel, but when people want to receive them. “It’s a very fragile sentiment study. One little thing can happen [like a small uptick in cases in one area] and it can change dramatically, week over week,” she says.

Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 11.17.32 AMSaran anticipated Nova Scotians’ COVID concerns even at the early stage of the pandemic. Just a few weeks into the lockdown, the tourism board created a social spot about being sociable. “It was about how physical distancing is harder for Nova Scotians because we are, by nature, sociable people. But we spoke about how, when the time is right, we are going to be welcoming of people and visitors again,” she says. “It was a reminder to [businesses] and the public the value of tourism… and to let them know that, at some point, there would be a call to arms to support the industry.”

That call to arms came to life in the “Rediscover Nova Scotia” platform, in which the “We’re Open” campaign falls under. And when its “Do More” campaign launches in two weeks, the organization plans to showcase the “variety and volume” of things coastline neighbours can do in Nova Scotia via TV spots, radio ads and social content.

The “complete and utter pivot” from marketing to overseas travellers to a regional audience meant Tourism Nova Scotia has had to work closely with Destination Canada and Google, digging into research and social listening to understand this new segment. Not only did it see a departure from its usual marketing, but also in the products its developing for visitors.

Before, the tourism board would design experiences and packages for international audiences who tend to stay longer, and spend more. But local and regional travellers will likely look to go on day trips that include activities at a lower price point, says Saran. A report from Ipsos/Toyota in June found that 49% of Canadians are planning a day trip in the near future, staying 100km or less from home, a reality Destination Canada has also been planning for. So the challenge for her team is to re-design experiences that are more affordable, but also incentivize them to stay for more than one night.

Take, for example, the “Dining on the Ocean Floor” experience. People around the world sit at the edge of their computers the minute the package goes online, waiting to be able to book one of only a few limited seats (which costs over $1,000), says Saran. The Bay of Fundy experience sees tourists eating a locally sourced meal on the ocean floor right before the world’s highest tides come in. But what if the operator was able to offer a more affordable picnic-style experience, instead of a three-course meal?

This product idea, and many others, are tested for interest as soon as they are brought to the tourism board, either by the marketing team or a local business. “We test it with an online panel of thousands of potential visitors. Operators won’t make an investment in a new product or service unless they have a sense that it will be successful.”

“We’ve really had to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas, new reasons to visit the province,” adds Saran. “We’re trying to be as strategic as we possibly can, on both the marketing and the product front.”