A new regional tourism organization is developing strategies, marketing and products to attract and retain visitors to the pleasures of communities along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario.
The region includes all of Leeds and Grenville and the Rideau Heritage Route in Rideau Lakes and Leeds and the Thousand Islands as well as upstream in Merrickville Wolford and North Grenville. Last week's inaugural annual general meeting in Kingston brought together 120 representatives from the tourist industry who returned the existing board members to office in elections for Gananoque and Kingston representatives. The region was designated by the Province of Ontario as Regional Tourist Organization 9 (RT09) and has branded itself as 'The Great Waterway'. lt is one of 13 regional organizations which were formed across Ontario following recommendations of a 2009 competitiveness study researching the state of tourism in Ontario.
Unlike some of the new RTOs the Great Waterway presents a cohesive mixture of attractions in Southeastern Ontario. "We have great history. We have the water as a signature of our communities. I think that since the ministry has gone down the regional route we have an opportunity to brand this like some aren't going to be able to," said Great Waterway departing chair Richard Johnston who noted the competing markets of Niagara, Toronto and Ottawa. "If we don't push our regional brand we won't be able to compete at that level," he said.
The new organization, incorporated in October 2010, has a funding agreement with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, which last year was $1,487,000. The RTO has undertaken a number of product development initiatives. With the funding including researching existing assets in the region to develop itineraries, the creation of a new golf tournament The Great Waterway Classic, and participation in events in Canada and the United States to promote the region to travel writers. Marketing initiatives of almost $800,000 included a website, www.thegreatwaterway.com that has attracted 28,000 click-throughs in six months. A marketing campaign using broadcast, web, and print was recognized with an IABC award of excellence. A social media strategy was created to include Facebook, Twitter and weekly blogs.
Investments have also been made in research and training including free online Customer Service Training on their website for front line hospitality staff. Investment was also made in welcome cyclists workshops and special events training. A visitor tracking program initiated last year and expanded this year will be providing information to develop a marketing strategy and to work towards tourism products for the market.The organization is looking for measurable results for their efforts and has a vision of achieving the highest growth of tourism visitation revenues and investment amongst Ontario's tourism regions by developing results driven product and investment development and marketing initiatives.
"Every destination must win as a result of a collective approach to destination development and marketing," said Executive Director Libby Smith. "If we market as a region it's understood there are more things to do. Marketing regionally keeps people longer- not just to come to Kingston we want them to stay,' she said.