Rosanna Caira: Tell us about the association and what your objectives are as its president and CEO.
Keith Henry: We’re a national non-profit, indigenous-led tourism-sector organization — the third or fourth iteration of a national body. Indigenous tourism in this country has had some challenges trying to organize ourselves as an industry. We’ve got a diversity of many nations, whether it’s First Nation, Métis, or Inuit, and that’s something we try and promote as part of the cultural experiences of this country.
Essentially what we do is try and help develop Indigenous tourism businesses with a network of partners throughout the country. We have a series of programs and initiatives to help our Indigenous world, regardless of where they reside, understand what it means to truly be market and export ready. and help with the mechanics of that from an entrepreneurial or a community-owned business angle. On the marketing side, we work closely with many layers of marketing partners, from larger city marketing organizations to provincial or territorial marketing organizations, and ultimately, with Destination Canada. Pre-COVID, that was such an effective relationship, where we were helping create and curate Indigenous content — what we’d call authentic content — to support international marketing work, because we don’t have the resources to do on our own. We have a series of tactics around marketing development, and then we have a number of initiatives around what we call the ‘leadership and partnership pillars’ and sign a lot of different relationship agreements with partners that will help support Indigenous tourism.
RC: What types of businesses are part of your membership in terms of hotels/motels?
KH: [The business] has to be at least 51 per cent Indigenous-owned and operated. We have different categories — such as cultural tourism or Indigenous-owned tourism businesses — so it might be a hotel that isn’t providing a cultural experience. Within our 1,900 members businesses, there’s about 100, what we would call accommodation, and some of those are small, boutique-style, B&Bs, while others are very large hotels with 200 staff — it’s quite a wide range. So, our challenge in helping market, promote and sustain those businesses is you can’t market that all in one way. For example, you’re not going to send a large tour group to small B&B that has three rooms. So, the accommodation sector is a fairly large piece of our 1,900 businesses, then we have a series of cultural centres across the country, some restaurants and some Indigenous chefs that do a lot of catering. There’s quite a wide range of business but the key is they have to be Indigenous owned and operated by the community or the entrepreneur that lives in the community or are connected with their nation. It’s really important to us that it’s authentic, and it’s owned by our people so that the benefits go back to our communities.
RC: As a member, what type of help can members expect from a marketing and/or advocacy respect?
KH: We’re kind of a hybrid, and that’s what makes us quite different than non-Indigenous sector. Some people think we’re the Indigenous version of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada for advocacy, because we do advocate with the federal government on federal policy. But that’s not all we do. We also do very specific development work. For example, we’ve got a series of programs where our process is to help businesses become more market and export ready. One of our biggest challenges is that we just don’t have enough businesses that understand those sales channels, how to work with tour operators and other countries — and yes, COVID-19 has gutted a lot of those sales channels — but that’s still going to return one day, we know that and that’s we’re working towards. We’ve implemented a new system called Project Rise, and we do an assessment to help those businesses understand and identify do they have to address their digitization, their online presence, their sales pieces — do they have the right systems in place to do that. We believe strongly that tourism is going to return quite aggressively into the next few years, so we can help those businesses by investing in them — we have a set amount of resources, but we prioritize right and we prioritize by who’s really ready to buy into the systems and help understand that.
And then finally, on the marketing side, we would help those businesses market into many different sales channels through our platform, Destination Indigenous. When you are a member, and you qualify and are market ready, you get your information on our platform (destinationindigenous.ca), which offers a specific direct-to-consumer sales process where people can purchase packaging, buy their business, their experience right there.
RC: What kind of impact have you seen specifically from COVID? Have a lot of your membership closed their doors during this precarious time?
KH: It’s been awful. In 2019, which was our best year ever, our industry was growing about 20 per cent a year across the country and we were outpacing non-Indigenous businesses by quite a lot when you average them across country — the demand was there. The all of a sudden, everything shut when COVID hit us in March of 2020. Literally, everything stopped. I hear the tourism industry talk about the hardest hit, I would argue Indigenous tourism was the hardest of the hardest hit. And I say that because we have businesses that did 99 per cent of their sales to foreign markets. The interesting thing is of those 1,900 businesses, not a lot of them recorded bankruptcies because that’s not the way we work. Many of our businesses are on reserves, they don’t go to the courts to file bankruptcy, close their doors, so a lot of them are hibernating but we don’t know if we can convince those businesses to re-start.
In terms of economics, we went from a roughly just about $2 billion in direct GDP with sales and employees down to just about $500 million overnight — we lost massive amounts of money. We saw a slight re-bound in 2021, up to about roughly $715 million. We saw a bit of re-growth, but we’re so far from where we need to be. And we’ve been trying so hard. That’s why we’ve been creating programs to supplement businesses and help them — we don’t want them to give up, because then once they’re gone, we’re not just losing a business, we’re losing cultural ambassadors, people and elders. The people that have bought into the industry are now saying, ‘forget it,’ they’re selling out or they just close their doors and don’t come back. It’s been devastating. On the flip side, now, there is almost a sense of optimism and we’re going to hold on to that as hard as we can, and just run with it.
RC: How big is the international picture compared to the domestic picture?
KH: As of December 2019, 55 per cent of our paying customers were Canadian, so they were the largest group. And the demand at that time was about one in one in five, one in six Canadians really wanting to explore Indigenous tourism. The demand is there, but they don’t spend as much. It’s a market we knew was important, and we did some domestic work, we depended on our network of partners to really focus more locally and domestically. By comparison though, the international piece was 45 per cent of our customer base, but it was 70 per cent of our economics overall. U.S. support was significant and we saw massive support from the Chinese market — it grew out so fast for us it was a crazy and they were spending so much money on our arts and our work and just so much on the consumable things. France, UK and Germany were all very good markets for us and Japan has always been there. Those six particular foreign countries were spending a lot of money per visit, staying longer, et cetera.
RC: You recently released, as a group, your 2022 to 2025 strategic plan, titled Building Back Better. What are the main goals of that plan?
KH: We want to get back to 2019 levels in three years. We know the roadmap — it’s an Indigenous-led approach. We’ve been saying to the government, all these relief programs have helped a little bit, but they’ve not been very effective. We’re not here to bash those programs, but we believe an Indigenous-led strategy will recover us three years faster than then a non-Indigenous led one. According to our economic analysis, if we carry on doing what we’re doing right now, with no more specific Indigenous marketing, development, leadership and partnership investments, we won’t see a return to 2019 levels until at least 2028. We’re seeing ongoing headwinds against us — just when we think international travel is going to open up, Omicron hit us — so we’ve focused on how do we enhance the domestic market? And then how do we naturally transition to the international space in the next two years? It’s basically a $65-million plan over three years, about $21 million a year — half of that would be marketing, another almost 25 per cent of that annual investment would be in specific development activities. And then there’s some specific activities around leadership and partnerships. We’ve been trying to re-start our International Indigenous Tourism Conference and hope to be able to do that in 2023.
We want to make Canada known as the best destination for Indigenous experiences in the world.
RC: How are you leveraging partnership opportunities within that plan and who are you looking at as key partners?
KH: We work with Tourism HR Canada on implementing Project RISE, for example, and with Tourism Industry Association of Canada. We also do a number of things with TIAC to help expand our industry and bring our Indigenous voice forward on the policies and issues that affect our industry. Working with Destination Canada, our marketing partners, we want to take the federal money and leverage more investment to re-building international networks. Finally, we’re working with a series of provincial and territorial partners such as Travel Manitoba and Travel Alberta and with Parks Canada, along with so many others that want to contribute to the space. We’re trying to sort of triage our strategy and to be honest, that $65 million will probably be leveraged almost double over those three years between the partners, because then we can leverage those resources into creating even a more robust campaign.
RC: ITAC recently received $2 million in funding from Destination Canada. How will those funds be used?
KH: We re-launched the original campaign, but more focusing on the domestic market this year. We did commercials, enhanced our online presence with Destination Indigenous and the platform there, we curated new video content, some of which hasn’t been released yet. So, we’ve been doing specific tactical things to enhance the campaigns we’re doing domestically. The theory is, in reality, most of our businesses, because they haven’t had sales, don’t have any marketing dollars. So, we’re trying to fill that vacuum with Indigenous content to promote and get as many of them on Destination Indigenous as possible.
RC: In recent months, Canadians have been mourning the children lost to residential schools and we’ve heard a great deal about finding a way to support reconciliation. What role does Indigenous tourism plays in educating and sharing that culture?
KH: Tourism is absolutely critical for Canadians to address some of those challenges. I don’t know how much your colleagues and your viewers will realize, but a lot of our businesses are built on the grounds where residential schools were. Now the communities have taken the negative situation and turned it into an experience or resort, and are proud that they’ve turned those stories around. I don’t think a lot of Canadians realize the breadth and depth of that. Indigenous tourism is the strongest tool they have — if they want to learn, come spend some time.
I’m an indigenous leader, too. I’m an elected Métis leader outside of my tourism work. I understand the pain, the suffering, and there’s a number of us trying to say, ‘let’s turn this into something as a learning opportunity’ and I think Indigenous tourism is critical in that regard. We want Canadians to come experience our communities and our tourism companies, because that’s the best way, right now, I feel that they can offer support.
RC: What additional support would you like to see from government to help the association’s goals?
KH: What we need from government — it doesn’t matter which party, this is a non-partisan statement — is stabilization. I’m going be really candid about this: when it’s Destination Canada going for money, the government doesn’t think anything about just stabilizing, they know they need multi-year funding multi-year this, but for us, we’re in between everyone — we’re Indigenous Services Canada with funding on this; then we might deal with the tourism division, or innovation, science, economic development; and then we might be a hybrid between all of these different ministries. What we need is an Indigenous-led strategy that is multi-year in approach and is predictable. And we’re not asking anywhere near what Destination Canada is, that’s never what we’ve recommended to this federal government. But if we’re going to be partners, and are committed to Indigenous tourism, we need to stabilize so we can predict marketing strategy, we can predict development, investment plans and implement those plans on a consistent basis year over year. That’s our biggest challenge — we need stable, predictable relationships and long-term vision behind how we’re going to stabilize the sector.
RC: What’s been the biggest lesson for you through this challenging time?
KH: There are a couple of key points. First, as we get back to whatever the new norm is, the lesson is that there’ll be a new norm and we’re going to have to adjust. Second, we need to make sure we’re not limiting our marketing to just certain markets that seem the most lucrative — we need to have an ongoing robust approach to stabilizing Indigenous tourism. Third, we can’t take for granted that the communities and entrepreneurs will just want to come back. We have to create a positive sentiment. The challenge is really so significant and we underestimate the power of that right now. Someone in the non-Indigenous chair would say the same — just because tourism might come back, I don’t know if it will come back the way we wanted with infrastructure, and people wanting to work in our sector, because of the hard knocks we’ve seen for going on three years.
On a personal level, what I’ve learned is that you have to be patient, because it’s been an emotional roller coaster. I’ve had entrepreneurs call me, just bawling because they can’t figure out how to make ends meet. On the other hand, we have nations still carrying on major projects, because they have the resources internally to maintain those projects, but the entrepreneurs don’t. We have to find a balance, even in the Indigenous world and I’m finding a way to better manage that in a positive way, because it really dragged me down a lot. It really wore on me over the last three years. So, I’m happy to see it’s kind of moving forward, because I feel like [the industry] turned over a new leaf.
Interview by Rosanna Caira