By Chad Ingram
Published Oct. 18 2016
As Haliburton County prepares to close its tourist information centre along Highway 35 in Minden later this year it looks like tourism staff will be heading out into the community hitting events armed with information as the municipality employs a new strategy.
At the recommendation of the county’s tourism director councillors decided earlier this year they would close the centre a space the municipality leases from the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce at the end of 2016.
A report from tourism director Amanda Virtanen showed that in 2015 there were 3700 visitors to the centre 30 per cent of whom were there solely to use the washroom. Excluding the salary of the county’s tourism clerk – who will continue in her position and work from the county office on Newcastle Street – the centre cost $61200 to operate for the year.
“Would we ever spend $62000 on an ad that reaches 3000 people?” was the way Virtanen put it to tourism committee members noting that other small communities have been closing visitor information centres and that distribution of guides and maps could be done out of the county office as well as the county’s library branches and local businesses.
Many people she noted now find this tourist information online.
In the ensuing months members of the tourism committee have been having conversations about how to fill the void some believe will be left by the closure of the centre.
In a June report Virtanen suggested alternatives including electronic kiosks however some committee members were hesitant citing concerns around vandalism and the loss of human interaction.
“I’m now presenting a slight variation of what I’ve presented in the past” Virtanen told tourism committee members during an Oct. 12 meeting noting the concerns around losing the human touch when interacting with visitors. “So we are going to go to them with a human being rather than having them come to us. We’re going to start fishing where the fish are.”
The idea is that tourism staff dressed in the county’s #MyHaliburtonHighlands Roots clothing collection will head out to locations armed with collapsing sandwich boards iPads brochures and others resources to inform people what’s happening in the community and answer any questions they may have.
“It’s not a huge leap for our team to become event-rovers” Virtanen said.
She stressed staff will attend events and locations where people are spending leisure time and therefore more apt to pay attention. So staff will not be stationed outside grocery stores or hardware stores where consumers are on a mission but rather somewhere like Kawartha Dairy where people are waiting in line.
They will also be stationed at local farmers’ markets various festivals dogsledding events etc.
“They will be at events where people are wandering” Virtanen said. “Hike Haliburton would be great for this. They will also get a traffic counter and that will help measure success.”
There was some skepticism among committee members.
“I think there’s a paramount problem that we are creating” said committee member and local accommodator Sally Moore referring to the loss of the washroom along Highway 35. “I’m wondering what we’re doing to resolve that.”
“I think we can get around that” said Algonquin Highlands Reeve and County Warden Carol Moffatt. “There are enough places to go to the washroom.”
Moffatt also questioned whether it was really the municipality’s job to ensure there was a public washroom in Minden and noted there are not washrooms at other entry points to the county.
“The visitor centre located in Minden does not serve the entire county and yet the entire county pays for it” she said.
Minden Hills Reeve Brent Devolin indicated there are publicly available washrooms within Minden and within a few years would be new modern ones if things go according to plan.
Moore was also concerned that the new approach seemed to focus on weekends and said she worried it would mean missing weekday traffic.
“Days of the week are less important than when the events are” Virtanen said.
Moore also said there were business owners who would like their businesses to act as gateway stops sort of de facto visitor centres where tourism information could be available.
Virtanen pointed out that the county’s destination guide the only tourism material produced by the municipality itself is widely available throughout the community.
“I don’t think there’s a single business where you can’t find it” she said.
“I struggle to understand that anyone would be arriving in the Highlands blank” Moffatt said adding she thought at this point in time most people had done their research online before arriving in the community.
In the end committee members were supportive of trying out the new concept.
“There’s some merit to it” said Dysart et al Reeve Murray Fearrey. “I just can’t get my head around how it’s going to work.”
“Go out on a limb shake it up see how it works” said Moffatt.
Virtanen also gave committee members a look at the 2017 branding and marketing plan which will include continuing to build the #MyHaliburtonHighlands brand as well as incorporate new promotional ideas such as postage stamps and specially created emojis for use in text messages.
Virtanen is also planning to take advantage of Facebook’s live video function create an “ask a local” video series and for the county to make use of other social media platforms such as Instagram and Periscope.