What happens when tourism investment looks inward

Waterloo hatched a new strategy to lure locals to attractions in their own backyard.

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Chicago had cow sculptures in the 1990s. Toronto had moose in the 2000s. Global cities were dotted with street pianos in the 2010s. And in 2020 – a year in which “anthropause” became a term, describing the “slowing of modern human activities, notably travel” – the town of Waterloo, Ont. had picnic tables installed on restaurant patios.

Why? Because in a world where Instagram-friendly pop-ups are off limits until further notice, engaging with local residents (who may still be reluctant to come out of their quarantine shell) with a public art project is the next best thing.

The idea to have artists paint and transform picnic tables, which would then be offloaded onto patios across the region, from Kitchener to Cambridge, is the brainchild of the Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation. At first, its team thought about placing the tables in public spaces like parks, but that quickly came with challenges – like who would be responsible for cleaning them?

“We knew people would be reluctant to sit at a table that hadn’t been properly cleaned, so that’s when we decided to attach them to restaurants, which would then put people on patios,” says CEO Minto Schneider.

One thing led to another and soon the tourism board was in talks with 35 different artists and three brand sponsors to help supply the materials to build and paint the outdoor furnishings. Both Home Hardware and its Beauti-Tone Paint brand (which are based in the region) have signed on as co-sponsors for paint and wood supplies, while Lot42 (an old steel mill that was converted into an event venue) has given the organization use of its 40,000-square-foot space so artists can work on the tables while staying two-plus-metres apart.

Given that the Ontario government had amended the Liquor License Act to allow some restaurant and bars to add or expand their patios (and therefore accommodate for social distancing), Schneider says deciding to partner with the foodservice industry for the “Art Fresco Picnic Table Tour” was “a happy coincidence.” She hopes that the 50 tables the tourism board plans to seed will convince locals, and eventually those outside the province, to seek them out.

For added incentive, Schneider says her team is also working with restaurants to design “Eat Local” signature dishes as part of the campaign.

Like most destination marketing organizations, the Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation has learned to look inward. “Normally, we would only market to people outside our region to bring them in,” says Schneider. “Marketing inside the region was the responsibility of the restaurant or attraction. It was to make sure we weren’t stepping on each other’s toes, and so our mandate was to work outside a 40-kilometre radius.”

But then COVID happened – and now the organization is charting new waters, like working with local radio stations. It has new partnerships with Bell, Rogers and Corus to have ads air on local airwaves for the rest of the year. Outreach might expand in September, when Schneider says the plan is to open up marketing communications to Ottawa, for instance, as she expects consumer sentiment to shift.

“There’s a ton of research around traveler sentiment… We know people are reluctant to travel far right now, so it makes sense to focus on local to begin with, and then move out as things begin to open up,” she says. “The [local radio] stations bleed a bit outside of the region, so we will have some coverage as people start to travel out further.”

Beyond restaurants, the tourism board is looking at drumming up support for amusement parks, museums and outdoor recreation companies. The summer is when these type of attractions make enough money to sustain their business through the winter. But because they will be “limping through the [summer], we will have marketing running through to the end of the year,” says Schneider.

As Canadians nervously watch news of case spikes in almost all of the States, businesses might have to contend with growing concerns of a second wave north of the border. This could put a potential damper on reopening plans, but Schneider believes attractions and museums offer more reassurance than outdoor spaces, which have tended to attract large crowds post-lockdown. “There is no public control when it comes to parks and beaches. But [the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory, for example] has time ticketing, they can make sure traffic flows in one direction to keep people safe, and they have it policed to ensure you’re not too close to other groups.”

Schneider is confident that the tourism industry in the Waterloo region will rebound better than some, thanks to its higher-than-average community of newcomers because of the tech industry and the universities.

“These people tend to get out and explore where they live – much more than people who grew up here,” she says, reciting an anecdote of when she once spoke at a high school and asked the students who had visited the nearby St. Jacobs Market. “Two people raised their hands. People drive in from Toronto to go there. So we’re really trying to encourage people to explore their own backyard.”