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Through the Eyes of a Tourist

Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

If you’re a destination trying to attract tourists, sometimes it can be hard to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses objectively. Rare are those times when you can sneak a peek through the eyes of a tourist… and when the moment sneaks up, it’s best to grab it fast, because these are people on the move.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting some world travellers. Candy and Gary Spaid happened to be seated at the next table to my husband and me while enjoying a cozy dinner in Canmore, Alberta recently.

The Spaids, an empty-nested couple in their 60’s, had a wonderful energy about them, and a truly remarkable story. In 2011, they sold their home in Colorado and reduced all of their belongings down to one suitcase apiece in order to embark on house and pet-sitting voyages around the world. Having been carefully screened and qualified by an online home-sitting service, they hand-pick their travel engagements, which keep them continually moving, eliminating a need for a home base. They have gotten to the point where counting the countries they haven’t visited is easier than counting the ones they have!

Now, while we at Tenato have had many occasions to analyze the tourism potential of Western Canada, we were fascinated by what serious world travellers might say about it. So, we took the opportunity to ask the Spaids how their stay in our part of Canada has compared to all of the other places they’ve been around the world. (After an initial casual chat, they kindly agreed to participate in a follow-up phone interview.) After all, Canada’s national parks are regarded by those of us doing tourism marketing as being diamond-star quality experiences. Is this consistent with reality?  What I learned from these seasoned travellers did surprise me.

Now, the Spaids have been to Canada before — namely to Vancouver several times — but their four-night stay in in Dead Man’s Flats was their first time in Alberta. Flying into Edmonton from Toronto, they rented a car and drove to Hinton for a three-night stay, during which they spent time in Jasper and visited locales such as Maligne Canyon & Lake, Medicine Lake, and the Jasper Tramway. The next leg of the trip was driving the icefield parkway with stops at Athabasca falls, the Columbia Glacier Visitor’s Centre, and Lake Louise. The Spaids do not generally spend big money on luxury items (especially since they are down to just two suitcases!), skiing or shopping, and instead prefer authentic experiences and living as the locals do. They do love good food though, and are willing to pay top dollar for a great meal.

With this in mind, their stay in Alberta left some interesting impressions. It turns out that there were hits, misses, and a few lessons. 

Source: pixabay.com

HITS:

  • Extraordinary natural experiences. The Spaids did rave about the dramatic scenery of the mountain lakes, saying they are unlike anything they’ve seen. The high point of their trip was seeing a flock of bighorn sheep!
  • Friendly and safe. They found all the Canadian people they’ve met to be extremely friendly and willing to chat. They never have felt unsafe.
  • Good connectivity. When travelling in the tourist areas, they generally had no difficulty getting internet or cellular service.

MISSES:

  • Pub food, pub food, where’s the great food? The Spaids, and especially Gary who is an excellent chef, know a thing or two about food preparation and quality. They found an abundance of pub food like burgers, pizza, and pulled pork in and around the parks, but had to ask themselves why was it so difficult to find fine-dining, especially in the tourist zones? They continually sought out of their favourites, like blue cheese dressing and brisket, only to discover that these either weren’t available, or just didn’t measure up to the standard in the US. 
  • Yowch, we’re getting gouged! As they travelled from Edmonton to the Banff area, they noticed prices on everything steadily increased.  They felt especially gouged paying for parking.
  • This is a five-star hotel? The Spaids had a disappointing experience at one of the most renowned 5-star hotels. They felt that if a hotel is boasts such a rating, then the furniture and carpet shouldn’t be worn, with rough paper towels in the bathroom.
  • Crap, we forgot our winter wear! There was a huge dump of snow they did not expect, and did not have gear for – they regretted not bringing their own and ended up using plastic bags over their tennis shoes! Prices on clothing were prohibitive to justify buying new in the tourist areas as well.
  • Where the heck is the trailhead? Despite loving the natural aspects of the Western Canada experience, they found it hard to locate the hiking trails and find them with existing signage. They also found it difficult to find the Visitor Centres too, which certainly would have helped. 

LESSONS:

Candy shares this insight to others considering a travelling lifestyle, “You have to ignore the news, with all its bad news. The people in this world are wonderful! It’s a wonderful world, and people should get out and visit and see the differences, and then they can come home and appreciate what they have.” Terrific attitude, Candy!

And we’ll share some insights of our own, reflecting on this experience. As tourism marketers, perhaps we can remember that:

  1. You can never have enough signage!  If people can’t find you, you don’t make a dime off them.
  2. You can never have enough detail on websites. Describe your meals, your ingredients, your atmosphere, your story… and set realistic expectations.
  3. Price-gouging tourists is a real deterrent. Free parking and shuttles probably go a long way with tourists – maybe businesses need to work in these kinds of cost to ensure tourists don’t feel nickel-and-dimed.
  4. Ensure your jewels are showcased. Perhaps our high-end restaurants are seriously under-marketing themselves… perhaps they assume this is okay, since they’re not marketing to the masses? The problem is then that they can miss out on reaching tourists; it might be worth giving free publicity to a few high-end spots in a given destination, even if the owners don’t see the need.
  5. Be the best of your rating! Standards of 5-star service must be compared on a global level; just making the basic requirements in a category may not be enough.

We must remember that when it comes to tourism, we compete globally; tourists, while they may be temporarily obliged to use whatever services are most readily available, always have the choice of whether or not extend their stay, speak favourably to their friends, or choose to return. If you’re going to be any good at serving tourists, you probably should travel the world (and at least the key zones from which your tourists come) to see the best in your industry regularly, and continually find ways to raise the bar or stand out.

In the bigger picture, regardless of improvements that can always be made along the way, tourism is good for tourists, and tourism is good for the local economy. The better we do it, the more of it we can look forward to.

We wish to thank Candy and Gary Spaid for their participation in this interview and delightful conversation! We also thank Richard Erickson for conducting the follow-up interview for Tenato. To learn more about the adventures of the Spaids, visit wwww.spaid.com

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Jacqueline Drew
About the Author - Jacqueline Drew
Jacqueline M. Drew, BComm, MBA is CEO of Tenato Strategy Inc., a marketing research and strategy firm with bases in Calgary and Vancouver. She loves to use her superpowers "to help the good guys win" and is also an energetic supermom, songwriter and cross-country skier.

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