When Marsha Walden stepped into the role of president and CEO of Ottawa-based Destination Canada (DC) in August 2020, the pandemic was already dramatically altering the landscape of the country’s tourism industry. But the former CEO of Destination British Columbia already had six months of pandemic-immersed experience to bring to her new role and was fully versed in the crisis.

“Professionally, there were almost no reference points for an economic disruption of this magnitude,” says Walden. “As we heard many times, the world was living in ‘unprecedented times.’ There were no roadmaps, and no best practices to follow. So, we turned to each other, our partners across our industry, to leverage our collective intelligence, form plans together, and co-create a response. Deep collaboration has been key to finding our way through the pandemic.”

Now, two years into the pandemic, Walden — a veteran tourism worker — says the roller-coaster plunge the industry endured has levelled out and it’s clawing its way back.

“COVID has been devastating on so many fronts — whether that’s lost revenues, diminished labour pools, gaps in product supply chains, cancelled airline routes, or closed businesses (and the list goes on),” she says. “However, working through this has strengthened our agility, creativity and resiliency as businesses. Now is the time for purposeful choices about the future of our industry — choices about who we invite as guests and how we host them — and it’s promising to see communities strive for a more sustainable future.”

She says if there’s any silver lining within the last two years, it’s that Canadians have come to realize how much they value travel and how much tourism contributes to their communities’ wealth and wellbeing.

Walden made the move to Destination Canada because, she says, “others felt I could make a difference to sector recovery. In many ways, I’ve built a career on leading transformative change. So, as much as the timing of my start had its challenges, it felt right taking on this new role just as the tourism sector needs to re-imagine travel today, plan for future resilience, and consider what the hosting economy means for a broader range of stakeholders.”

COVID has impacted people’s perceptions of tourism and its direct link to our collective quality of life. “When visitors disappear, it can affect the wellbeing of the entire community — socially, culturally and economically,” says Walden, adding people now understand that travel is so much more than sightseeing, and that tourism is critical to supporting many of the community amenities that locals enjoy, too.

Laser Focused
With border measures recently eased, the team at DC is laser focused on revenue recovery — driving income back into tourism businesses and employee wallets in every corner of the country.

“We have high-impact sales and marketing programs well underway in the U.S. and Europe, for both leisure travel and business events,” explains Walden. “We’re also working with Canada’s major airports to help re-establish air routes by marketing collaboratively with both global and domestic airlines.”

DC expects U.S. visitors to Canada, by far its largest international market, will lead recovery from international markets and earlier this spring, launched its largest-ever U.S. marketing campaign thanks to a significant increase in federal funding.

The association is also forecasting strong visitation from Europe in 2022, while indicators show other markets will bolster the recovery over time. “Mexico, Australia, and our Asian markets are showing solid demand for the safe, stunning, wide-open spaces and lively cities Canada offers,” says Walden. “We have the tourism experiences that the world is craving, but are competing with hundreds of other compelling destinations eager to restore their hosting economies. What’s more, we must show travellers that it is easy to come here, and easy to travel within Canada.”

Central to a full recovery, she insists, is restoring business travel. To that end, DC’s Business Events team is working with city DMOs across the country to ensure Canada has a dominant presence in global trade shows for business-event planners. In addition, DC has a targeted sales-and-marketing program to lure meetings and incentive business through C-suite decision-makers in six of Canada’s key growth sectors.

Change Makers
“Our team is incredibly dedicated to our work and our industry, so they were acutely aware of the severe challenges facing our partners and the tourism businesses,” says Walden. “I feel our team members stayed very focused on the work they needed to do to support our industry, rather than the changing landscape of our office culture.”

Externally, she says her team worked “exceedingly hard” to freely share information with partners, engage in regular industry-wide dialogue as events unfolded, plan and re-plan together, and worry together.

“The breadth of our team’s industry experience and the depth of personal ties between our team and our sector partners has been vital to getting through this.”

Internally, DC quickly launched a Business Resilience Team to work with human resources to ensure its employees immediately had the tools they needed to work effectively from home and, over time, had the physical and emotional supports and programs they needed to stay healthy.

“Personally, as a leader who was new to the organization, I focused on connecting with people and ensuring there was clarity in our direction, culture and strategy,” reflects Walden, adding while online meetings worked quite well, she was eager to finally meet more people in person.

Looking Forward
“While the last two years have been unimaginably difficult for the industry, it’s also given us an opportunity as an industry to reflect on what we want for the sector, for tourism businesses and employees, and for Canadians, in the future,” says Walden, “Like all destinations, we know that challenges remain. We’re still faced with some significant hurdles to overcome as we re-build — including labour shortages, air and ground transportation, and rising costs, to name a few.”

DC’s goal is to re-build Canada’s tourism sector in a way that is more profitable and more resilient. Walden says that means making our destinations more attractive to both visitors and investors. “We also need to attract talented people to our sector and build their careers
in tourism.”

Over the longer-term, the association is striving for tourism growth that generates wealth and wellbeing for Canadians while enriching the lives of guests — increasing business prosperity, strengthening socio-cultural vibrancy, and lifting environmental sustainability.

DC has already scored a number of major wins over the past year.

“For starters, we became much more agile as an organization and were able to quickly shift our marketing efforts to wherever the best opportunity for industry ROI surfaced,” says Walden. “Initially, this meant making a major marketing shift to a domestic audience, which had been the purview of only provincial and city DMOs in the past, but which was critical to industry survival in 2020 and 2021. We were asked to step in. Domestic travel has been the saving grace for a large proportion of tourism operators, both here in Canada and in every part of the world. Looking ahead, maintaining the desire of Canadians to spend on domestic travel will be important to long-term industry resilience.”

Another key achievement for DC was the manner in which the association strengthened its partnerships. “We’re strong believers in the power of collaboration as a competitive advantage. As a nation, our tourism ecosystem is more integrated than ever. We now have deeper relationships with destination-marketing organizations across the country, with our airports, with global airlines, and with Canadian government agencies around the world. We worked hard to supply our sales and marketing partners — in travel trade, travel media, business events and incentive travel — with insightful market data, new tools, cross-Canada product knowledge, and innovative approaches designed for a new travel mind-set and a changed travel marketplace. We have also had good success in aligning partners with our focus on high-value guests — those travellers who have the capacity to spend more time and money when they visit and whose values align with our Canada brand, having a deeper interest in truly knowing a place and its people.”

Finally, she says her team set a higher aspiration for the industry’s future and re-defined the association’s long-term yardstick for success. While economic measures remain important to gauge the vitality of our industry, Walden says DC is incorporating holistic measures of the net benefits that tourism brings to Canadian communities, such as socio-culturally, environmentally, and economically, to secure a more resilient future for the sector by building a regenerative hosting economy.

“While we know that uncertainty and challenges lie ahead, we are poised for recovery. Canada has what the world wants — lively cities wrapped in nature, spectacular wilderness and coastlines, a unique mosaic of Indigenous and global cultures, and welcoming people ready to host our guests with open hearts.”

By Amy Bostock


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