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Tourism tug of war

Welcome to the bumpy ride that is regional tourism.

A new body meant to co-ordinate provincial tourism funding for all of Niagara is just getting off the ground. But the fledgling Regional Tourism Organization has already stumbled into a controversy over an untendered marketing contract.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned Niagara Economic Development Corp., the regional government-funded agency that runs a separate Tourism Niagara website, is paralyzed by a political debate over its future.

When the dust settles, Niagara is supposed to have a co-operative, industry-led organization designed to cut through the clutter of competing marketing efforts and help co-ordinate an effective, regional tourism strategy.

But right now, some industry members feel “it’s hard to do our job,” said Susan Morin, community economic development manager for Venture Niagara.

Tourism marketing is still happening, of course. St. Catharines is still promoting the Garden City; Niagara Falls is still a well-oiled marketing machine. Regional co-ordination, however, isn’t as visible.

“It’s tough, trying to understand who is the leader here, who is doing what right at this moment,” said Morin, who is helping organize a meeting next week for concerned tourism industry members. “With all the changes, it’s a little bit like the perfect storm.”

Morin, who is also involved with Tourisme Franco-Niagara, said businesses at the April 6 session will talk about ways to replace a tourism marketing committee formerly run by NEDC.

Those brainstorming committee meetings disappeared following regional council’s recent decision to lop off the tourism arm of the economic development agency. Other agency tourism services no longer receiving regional cash include marketing literature for cycling tourism, the Welland Canal recreational trail and a winter and wine campaign, according to interim NEDC head Alan Teichroeb.

Regional councillors re asoned the new Regional Tourism Organization would be coordinating regional marketing efforts from now on. But it’s unclear what will happen to the remaining NEDC services, like the regional tourism website and the Gateway Niagara information centre.

“Some people think with the (Regional Tourism Organization), the calvary is coming,” Morin said. “But whether it is or not, we can’t afford to wait.”

Morin said if the meeting goes well, attending businesses could form a “tourism network” to help plug the gap left by the exit of the regional agency.

But there are more holes to fill, Grimsby and District Chamber of Commerce president John Dunstall said.

Dunstall recently made a pitch to regional council to take over the NEDC tourism booth at the Niagara Gateway, the visitor welcome centre on the QEW.

The NEDC lease at Casablanca Boulevard runs out in September.

“If that happens, and no one is there to pick up the slack, there will be a measurable, negative impact on Niagara’s tourist economy,” said Dunstall, who estimated more than 100,000 visitors make use of the info booth each season.

“We’re essentially offering to take over and offer information to tourists, not just for Grimsby, but the entire region.”

Theoretically, that sounds more like a job for Niagara’s new regional tourism organization.

But the province has said the RTO is meant to grow new tourism, not take over “existing operations,” said Mike Trojan, chief administrative officer with Niagara Region.

Trojan took pains earlier this month to point out that problem to councillors debating the fate of NEDC, including its tourism arm. If the NEDC folds or permanently loses its tourism funding, current services like the Tourism Niagara website may be left hanging.

Wayne Thomson’s reaction? Big deal.

“They’re not in the tourism business, whatever they might pretend,” the chairman of Niagara Falls Tourism said of the NEDC. “How many hits does that website get? Come on…. If they had (cut out tourism) 10 years ago, it still would have been late.”

Thomson said if the RTO decides to develop a new regional tourist-luring website from scratch, that’s fine. But he suggested Niagara Falls’ website — the acknowledged online tourism juggernaut in the peninsula — could be adapted to serve the rest of the region.

Angelo Nitsopoulos wasn’t a fan of the NEDC’s tourism role either.

But the St. Catharines hotelier is frustrated with the slow-moving Regional Tourism Organization.

Nitsopoulos has given up his spot on the organization’s board. The owner of the Quality Hotel Parkway Convention Centre wouldn’t comment when asked whether he liked the direction of the new co-operative tourism effort. But he did say it “isn’t moving fast enough.”

“I don’t want to fight with anybody, but I don’t want to waste my time, either,” he said. “We’ve been given $3.2 million (annually) to promote Niagara. All of it. We still don’t have much direction on how to spend it.”

Thomson agreed the new organization is coming together slowly, but added he was pleased “industry people from all across the region” are committed to making it work.

“Would I like it to happen faster? Absolutely. It was suggested there would be a permanent board by February, and now we’re in March, heading into April,” he said. “But I think we all recognize starting a completely new organization takes time.”

The Niagara Regional Tourism Organization, one of 13 new agencies spread across Ontario, has endured its share of growing pains.

The fledgling tourism body came together just days before the March 1, 2010 deadline set by the province, as various cities and industry players vied to front the regional partnership. Soon after, an early Regional Tourism Organization co-chairman Joel Noden left his revenue director position with the Niagara Parks Commission shortly before public questions were raised about his commission expenses.

These days, the local Regional Tourism Organization is taking flak for approving a single-sourced marketing contract worth $750,000 in 2010. The board has argued there was no time to issue a request for proposals and still get the glitzy promotional magazine out in time for last year’s tourism season.

But despite the challenges, board member Janice Thomson said she personally feels the Niagara RTO has made “tremendous progress in a very short time.”

Really, it may not be visible to the public yet, but we’ve done some amazing things,” said Thomson, who is also the executive director of the Niagara-on-the- Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Once people see what we’ve accomplished, I think they’ll understand together, our efforts are raising up the entire region.”

Those accomplishments will be more visible soon, she added.

A planned new website, for example. The current temporary site,,has little public information available and a link to board meeting minutes leads to an empty page.

A new “Spring Fling” regional marketing campaign is also due to be unveiled in early April.

“I don’t think Niagara has ever had a more varied, comprehensive marketing effort on the go,” Thomson said. “I think it’s pretty exciting.”

On the administrative side, a permanent Regional Tourism Organization board should be confirmed within weeks and the search is on for a chief executive officer.

Thomson emphasized she couldn’t speak for the all-volunteer board, but added she disagreed with the suggestion the local RTO is behind schedule, or running out of time on the coming tourism season.

She pointed out a consultant is gathering information for a strategic tourism development plan, which will guide RTO decision-making from early summer onwards.

“It’s not like there is a dearth of tourism promotion out there,” she said. “We’re still being well-promoted by individual communities and organizations.”

This article was originally published here

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