Indigenous tourism is a burgeoning pillar within Canadian travel, growing at four times the pace of other tourism sectors and contributing more than $1.7 billion to the GDP from over 1,875 businesses (prior to the pandemic). And despite the crushing impact of the past two years, there is more interest than ever from Indigenous entrepreneurs to take their place in the Canadian hospitality industry.

Indigenous hotel businesses often start out from a place of passion and not necessarily from one of formal hospitality experience. The drive is there, but the deep business knowledge is often not, and this is hampering Indigenous participation in the hotel industry as well as the sustainable growth of Canadian tourism.

To get a sense of the scope of this challenge and how to overcome it, we connected with Deneen Allen, founder and CEO of Firecircle, a membership-based platform for workshops and masterclasses coupled with personalized coaching and mentorship, all purpose-built to uplevel rural Canadian tourism and hospitality operators. Allen has been consulting Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients across Canada since 2008, with this latest educational vehicle working to address the constant knowledge gap she and her team see regularly, along with its impact on the wider travel infrastructure.

Allen is quick to point out that the lack of industry knowledge in rural and remote tourism is by no means exclusive to Indigenous entrepreneurs. Quite the contrary: it’s the lack of available ‘points of reference’ in these communities that act as a dominant barrier to hospitality ownership and growth.

There are sometimes few to no comparative examples of businesses available to inspire country-based hoteliers. For the same reason, some basic economic concepts may also be absent from their environment.

“At this point, someone may ask, ‘Why wouldn’t a rural hotelier or restaurateur just travel to seek out these inspirations or simply go on the internet?’” Allen says. “The truth is that this innate level of curiosity must be initiated through education. If a person does not know what they don’t know, they also do not know to seek out information they are missing.”

While the Internet may be a treasure trove of resources to help any self-starter direct their operations, Firecircle emphasizes beginning with the operator’s motivations for wanting to work in tourism in the first place. At the very root of every entrepreneur’s vision is their ‘big why.’

To this end, Firecircle’s focus on education also ensures that would-be hoteliers are better positioned to invest their own capital or to accept outside capital on more equal terms. Presently, many Indigenous communities are being approached for joint ventures and other investment opportunities, but without a firm understanding of five key areas of knowledge (see sidebar), the chances of a successful partnership are greatly diminished.

Getting more sustainable capital into these areas will inevitably act as a virtuous circle for the entire Canadian travel economy. The first successful project in a remote region attracts more travellers and more capital, then more hotel developments provide space for brand expansions, new management company contracts and third-party suppliers. On the labour side, more jobs in the industry will mean a greater talent pool of experienced hoteliers for existing properties to draw from.

For all these reasons, nurturing aspiring Indigenous hoteliers who will bring new hospitality markets to the forefront is a task we should all support.

BY LARRY AND ADAM MOGELONSKY – Larry and Adam Mogelonsky are partners of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited. You can reach Larry at larry@hotelmogel.com or Adam at adam@hotelmogel.com

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