Chi-Cheemaun’s new marketing initiative highlights Manitoulin

As we enter April, with this issue publishing on the first day of what is usually spring’s first month of transition from winter’s icy grasp, that also means that the Chi-Cheemaun’s sailing season begins in just a month’s time.

(This statement, at least for 2015, should come with an asterisk implying some kind of qualification as “winter’s icy grasp” may last a little longer this year: the Owen Sound Transportation Company has warned that thick Georgian Bay will delay the beginning of the sailing schedule for four days, until Tuesday, May 5.)

Even if it does not begin to sail, as usual, the first Saturday of May, the Chi-Cheemaun will nevertheless ply the waters between Tobermory and South Baymouth for almost half of the year, bringing tourists and cottagers to and from Manitoulin.

What will be different this year and in the foreseeable future is the fact that the Chi-Cheemaun now has a marketing strategy that will shine the spotlight directly on Manitoulin Island.

This comes about as a result of the ferry service’s decline in ridership that saw close to 30 percent fewer vehicles transported by the ship during the 2006 to 2011 period. While ridership has somewhat stabilized over the past few years, it has stabilized at the lower level.

This led the Owen Sound Transportation Company and its political masters at the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines to commission a consultant’s study of the issue and the consultants’ report has led, in turn, to the hiring of a marketing firm to develop a strategy to position the ferry service in the minds of Ontarians (and other visitors) as an important experience not to be missed.

This is where the focus on Manitoulin comes in because the important part of the Chi-Cheemaun experience, besides the unique-in-Ontario deep-water ferry trip, is mystical, magical Manitoulin.

This means, of course, that Manitoulin Island is the co-focus (along with the Chi-Cheemaun) of a major tourist marketing campaign.

That in itself is an exciting development for Manitoulin: the agency that won the bid to represent the Chi-Cheemaun’s interests is setting out to convince people from the south that they must take the ferry North to Manitoulin Island. Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula do not figure prominently in the campaign strategy but of course are also the beneficiaries of the publicity as people must first get to Tobermory to catch the northbound ferry.

That is a real gift to Manitoulin but it is a gift that comes with tremendous responsibilities for we must be that “magical, mystical” place that potential new tourists will be told lies at the end of a maritime voyage across Georgian Bay, a marine experience unique to central Canada and otherwise only available in this country in British Columbia and the Maritime provinces.

And it brings you north to Manitoulin. Nice package.

Will this mean an immediate onslaught of new tourists? That would be ideal but things normally don’t work that way. Rather, a campaign successful for the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service, and thus to Manitoulin Island, will in all likelihood begin slowly and then grow over the next few years as people respond to the campaigns, act on the advertising, have a good experience and tell their friends.

It is reasonable to expect that many new tourists reached in this way will be first or second generation “new” Canadians who live in south-central Ontario and for whom the ideal of the province’s “North” is not part of either their heritage or experience. Using the Chi-Cheemaun ferry and thus gaining an idea of the expanse of Lake Huron/Georgian Bay will be a learning experience for many of them as will be any holiday time spent on Manitoulin Island.

The Manitoulin Publishing Co. Ltd., that publishes the Expositor and the Recorder, also publishes Manitoulin Island’s tourist lure magazine “This is Manitoulin” and in order to be part of a campaign that will highlight “the magic and mystique” of this place, this year’s (and last year’s) editions of the publication purposefully set out to represent Manitoulin in precisely this way for a new tourist market. The distribution of the publication this year is also synchronizing with the aims of the marketing agency and its client, the Owen Sound Transportation Company. This is offered as an example of cooperating with a campaign that can only be good for Manitoulin over both the short and long terms.

That just makes sense, for everyone wants the Chi-Cheemaun to be as successful, to carry as much traffic (passenger vehicles, tour buses, bicycles, motorcycles, back packers) to Manitoulin as possible.

Manitoulin certainly has the inventory: significant natural features, unique cultural diversity, the arts, history, the unusual geographical mix that includes agriculture, productive lakes for sports fishing, the North Channel with its unique scenery, fishing and sailing possibilities and a generally benevolent climate.

We are also able to boast that Manitoulin is the largest freshwater island anywhere in the world.

We have a solid tourism infrastructure that includes a variety of accommodation options ranging from traditional housekeeping cottages, camping, trailer parks, motels, bed and breakfasts and now even a brand new hotel.

We have a wide range of organized educational activities courtesy of the Great Spirit Circle Trail, Manitoulin Streams, each of our community museums, the powwow organizing committees in each First Nation community together with parallel groups putting together a myriad of major summer weekend events in every municipal community.

Manitoulin has it all and now we are going to be the beneficiary of an advertising campaign as an integral part of the Chi-Cheemaun experience.

All in all, what we are looking at is a new chapter in the century-plus history of the Manitoulin tourism industry.

Bring it on, we say. We’ve got lots to offer and we’ve got “magic and mystique” in our veins.