Tourism marketers pull back during the age of COVID-19

MANITOULIN – Most Manitoulin Island businesses depend heavily on the annual influx of summer residents and tourists who discover the Island to be a welcome haven from the hurly burly of the outside world and bringing awareness of what the Island has to offer is usually a welcome endeavour, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to discourage unnecessary travel, there have been some necessary adjustments made by those organizations whose focus is on marketing the Island.

There are few businesses more attuned to the fortunes of Manitoulin’s tourism industry than that of Manitoulin Publishing Company Limited, the publishers of ‘This is Manitoulin’ and ‘Manitoulin’s Magazine,’ the former a tourism lure magazine and the latter aimed at directing tourists to the events taking place on the Island once a tourist gets here.

Alicia McCutcheon, general manager of the Manitoulin Publishing Company Limited, spoke to The Expositor about the distribution of the 2020 issue of the tourism lure guide, ‘This is Manitoulin.’ (Ms. McCutcheon is also the editor and publisher of this newspaper, also part of the Manitoulin Publishing Company family.)

“We’re in an interesting position as the tourist trade, on Manitoulin and everywhere else, is on hold just now as everyone works together to eradicate the spread of COVID-19,” Ms. McCutcheon observed.

“The 2020 edition of the ‘This is Manitoulin’ magazine was printed just before the middle of February and, fortunately, its only public distribution so far was a limited run in a Woodstock newspaper and 1,200 copies at a travel show just after the printing, handed out by Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates (MICA) in Toronto where they represented destination cycling at a Northeastern Ontario Tourism display,” Ms. McCutcheon said, adding that the feedback her office received from MICA president Maja Mielonen was that the publication’s bold cover statement, ‘Ontario’s Island Retreat,’ really hit home with showgoers who eagerly took the publication.

“‘This is Manitoulin’ is a really important part of the marketing of tourism for the Island,” Ms. McCutcheon observed, adding that this year’s is, ironically, the 60th annual edition “and there is a little story in the magazine this year that looks back at the tourism industry in 1960 and compares it with the current offering.”

“But we have looked carefully at the magazine and its editorial and advertising content and its 57,000 press run will stand up just as well in 2021 as it would have this year,” she explained. “As usual, we had sent out thousands of copies to major information centres (we solicit feedback from these centres annually so we know we’re putting them in the right places and in the right numbers and make adjustments accordingly) but now we are calling them back and halting the rest of the planned distribution.”

“It’s a really solid publication. We want the advertisers, primarily Manitoulin resorts and municipal and First Nation partners, to benefit as usual from this part of their advertising budget and it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the case in 2020.”

“Last spring, at the Manitoulin Trade Fair, the Manitoulin Publishing Company through ‘This is Manitoulin’ launched what has quickly become the Island’s primary tourism website: Visitors to the website are now greeted with this ‘popup’ message: ‘We’re so happy you want to Explore Manitoulin, but now’s not a good time! In the interest of keeping you and Manitoulin’s communities safe during the COVID-19 health crisis, we ask that you plan your Manitoulin getaway for a time when it is safe to do so. For now, please browse our site and get ideas for your perfect Manitoulin Island holiday on “Ontario’s Island Retreat”—we look forward to welcoming you when everything gets back to normal,’ by way of a friendly reminder to potential tourist visitors,” Ms. McCutcheon explained.

“As far as our other tourist publication ‘Manitoulin’s Magazine’ goes, we will of course suspend its publication for 2020,” Ms. McCutcheon said. 

‘Manitoulin’s Magazine’ has an annual press run and distribution of 25,000 copies, all on Manitoulin and aboard the Chi-Cheemaun ferry.

“We were planning to erect a large billboard this spring on Highway 17 westbound. The site we have leased from the Ministry of Transportation is about five kilometres east of where the four-lane section ends but we’re also putting this on hold until next year: it will be an invitation to visit Ontario’s Island Retreat with prominence given to this marketing slogan and to the website but this would be inappropriate just now,” Ms. McCutcheon stated, adding that she has had numerous conversations with individuals in the tourism business on Manitoulin and with officials from First Nations and municipalities who do not wish to encourage tourist visitors until the COVID-19 threat is resolved, in the interest of public health and safety, “and of course we want to be part of the local solution to this worldwide problem.”

Manitoulin Publishing Company also operates the Manitoulin Salmon Classic, the month-long competition that was conceived of six years ago to enhance the tourism product on Manitoulin Island and attract a whole new and different class of tourists. “We are proud to say we’ve been successful in this endeavour. The event has caught on and people are coming to fish in the event and bring their families and spend money at all kinds of Island businesses. This year, we feel we were on track to break the 1,000 angler mark but we will make a decision, based on public health concerns, whether to proceed with this month-of-August event soon. Right now, it’s day-by-day,” Ms. McCutcheon explained.

On a happier note, Manitoulin Publishing said it was pleased that this year’s edition of the Manitoulin Ice Showdown ice fishing derby that took place in late February, not too long before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic took over the news, was such a success.

“We partner on this event with Wikwemikong Tourism and, this year, more than 730 anglers responded to our joint marketing to come and fish Lake Manitou and Manitowaning Bay. It appears right now that this may well be the last major Manitoulin activity for the foreseeable future,” Ms. McCutcheon observed.

“Our publishing business is an old one; in fact, along with Turners of Little Current, the oldest continually operating business on Manitoulin,” Ms. McCutcheon concluded. “In the earliest issues of The Expositor from the late 1870s, there are references to people coming to Manitoulin to visit, to holiday, so this is also an old industry here and we have never been called on to record anything like this as it affects our tourist industry and our business will do its best to make sure it survives and thrives in the future.”

Destination Northeastern Ontario executive director Rod Raycroft said that he has had many occupations through his life, but none of them have prepared him to confidently gauge what the future may hold at this point. “I have been reaching out to my mentors for guidance,” he admitted. “Everybody is coming up with different assessments and possible solutions, there is no clear picture.”

Not helping matters is the whack-a-mole game of trying to determine what the rules of the game will be going forward.

“One day we are being advised that campgrounds will be allowed to open, then two days later we learn that they will not be allowed to open,” he said. “Fishing lodges can be open, so you can fish, but then people are being advised not to engage in unnecessary travel, so is that essential?”

If he were to engage in any crystal ball gazing, Mr. Raycroft falls back on what he has heard from industry partners. “Golfing may be one of the first things that they ease up on,” he said. “Our Golf Canada partners are telling us that courses are filling their holes and setting up games of closest to the hole to maintain safe distancing.”

Lodge owners, like their counterparts in the hotel and motel industries are instituting much tougher hygienic regimes and putting in place social distancing measures in order to be better prepared for a much different future.

As for the industry itself, Mr. Raycroft said he anticipates that people will be much more likely to stick closer to home with their vacation plans for quite some time. “I think it will be harder for people to go to the larger centres,” he said. “They will likely be looking for places where they can do social distancing easier.” That, he suggests, provides an opportunity for Northeastern Ontario operators. “The North has always had that attribute,” he said.

Contacted by The Expositor on the impact the pandemic has had on their marketing plants, Destination Manitoulin Island (DMI) replied that it prides itself on being the Island’s non-profit “destination marketing organization , DMI has placed a larger banner on our Facebook page asking everyone to follow our DMI ‘STOP + Think’ campaign messages, which is in essence echoed by our tourism industry leaders and DMI partners such as Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO), Destination Northern Ontario and Northeastern Ontario Tourism, along with our official local, federal and provincial public health officials,” replied DMI spokesperson Shelba Millette in a written statement. “We continue to communicate on a weekly, if not on a daily, basis with our industry partners mentioned above and closely monitor the situation as a collective in order to keep our membership, associates and travellers well informed based on industry facts.”

Ms. Millette went on to write that “more optimistically, DMI is looking forward to the day we can all be fully opened for business and garnish both full health and financial prosperity.”

As for those future plans, Ms. Millette wrote that “we have three DMI Island-wide tourism marketing scenario plans of action for the future and will make the appropriate DMI board chosen one(s) public when the time(s) arrives as we do not operate on the unknown COVID-19 end date or other speculations nor assumptions as your questions asked—we work from real-time facts.”

Questioned as to whether DMI was suspending its marketing efforts for 2020 as requested by Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, Ms. Millette responded, “regards to your reference to Chief Linda and her request to MMA about DMI, I never have or ever will speak on behalf of anyone or answer questions that should be directed to them.”

Wiikwemkoong Tourism manager Luke Wassegijig noted that the band’s tourism products are currently staring down a 40 to 100 percent loss this season but are working on remaining upbeat and preparing for life after COVID-19.

“We are in a holding pattern right now,” he said, adding that the Wiikwemkoong Tourism efforts are limited to portraying a positive outlook and posting supportive messages on social media and online forums. “It’s tough with so much uncertainty,” he said. “We have already lost 40 percent of our revenue with the season and potentially 100 percent.”

But the focus is now on building strong relationships with regional and national partners such as Indigenous Tourism Canada and Indigenous Tourism Ontario.

“We are strengthening our product development, increasing our training, refining our messaging with our websites and social media platforms, basically preparing ourselves for when this is all over,” he said.

Remaining positive in outlook is important, given that situation has come at a particularly bad time.”

“We have been growing exponentially year after year until this happened to kind of stop us in our tracks,” he said. “Our efforts have been showing increasing success so this hurts, yeah, but we will get through this and when we do we will be stronger than ever. We are staying focused on making that happen. The sun will shine tomorrow and we will be ready for it when it does.”