The Northwest Territories’ top tourism marketing agency is faced with the challenge of ensuring next year’s visitors aren’t deterred by what has been one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent history this summer.
Tourism operators throughout the NWT have been forced to band together and rejig scheduled stays over the past several weeks in order to salvage tourists’ visits, which have been complicated by fires coming dangerously close to wilderness lodges, blocking out main highways and cancelling flights.
It’s been a challenge, said Cathie Bolstad, executive director of NWT Tourism – not only for tourism operators, but for the marketing agency, as well. NWT Tourism has been forced to reschedule visits throughout the summer by international media, hoping to give them a similar visit to the one they signed up for and leave them with a lasting, positive impression they can take back to their respective countries.
“We cannot control the weather and we work despite it,” Bolstad said with a laugh. “Like tourism operators, we are rejuggling, rescheduling, planning extra stays…We can’t be all things to all people, but we’re sure trying.”
While the obstacles created by this year’s fires have been stressful, Bolstad said the result has been a visible camaraderie among tourism operators, noticed by visitors who have remarked on the spirit of Northerners in making the best of a bad situation.
“In some cases, our own (NWT Tourism) staff have picked up guests that have had to cut their holidays short at lodges and we’ve assisted lodge operators to take their guests to another area of hospitality,” Bolstad said.
“What we’re observing is an incredible pull together attitude of competitors who recognize that how people leave the territory and their impression of us will gauge whether they come back or not.”
Whether visitors return to the territory is a question being seriously considered right now by NWT Tourism as it prepares its 2015 marketing strategy for the Spectacular Northwest Territories, and Bolstad said many unknowns complicate the planning.
“We don’t know what the impact of media coverage and the information that’s been put out there about the fire situation will have on visitors, and how many of them have seen it and paid attention to it,” she said. “So we’re going into our marketing plan knowing who our markets are, knowing what they’re interested in, but without knowing what exposure they’ve had to our situation in 2014 this summer. And so we need to get our heads around what will our marketing plan do to address ensuring that those who have been exposed to and may have concerns about the Northwest Territories’ fire situation, how will we get around that without actually drawing it in and making it part of the story we want to tell. That’s our challenge.”
Though most of the calls to NWT Tourism are from people concerned about the fire situation and its potential impact on their trips, Bolstad said there is also a small minority interested in visiting to experience the fires, themselves, which is something to ponder.
“A lot of the tourists that we get that travel in particular by road and who want to go into parks or into the wilderness are people who are, psychographically by definition of who they are, adventurous,” she said. “So for them…seeing this is part of their adventure.”
Tourism numbers down in Yellowknife
Numbers of tourists are definitely down in the NWT capital this summer due to road closures related to unpredictable and massive wildfire complexes along the only highway into Yellowknife, but that doesn’t mean visitor services haven’t tried to make the best of the fiery situation.
Tracy Therrien, general manager of the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre in Yellowknife, said the usual stream of road-tripping visitors opted out of a trek through the NWT this year, due to uncertainty around road and fire conditions.
“Our numbers are definitely down; there’s no question,” she said. “For certain we know that we’re losing travelers. A lot of people traveling to Alaska will detour and see us – they’re absolutely not doing that, at least not in the last two or three weeks. I’ve had people on Facebook saying we cancelled our trip to Yellowknife and whatnot.”
While that has dropped numbers, Therrien said road closures have also had the converse effect of bolstering activity at the centre, with visitors making repeat appearances to use wifi, get updates and seek out more tourist opportunities to fill their extra time in Yellowknife.
“It’s working both ways,” she said. “We’re not getting new traffic in, but people are getting stranded so they are coming back to the centre sometimes once or twice a day.”
As well, she said, sales at the centre’s gift shops, including the one at the airport, have gone up this year despite the fewer visitors.
“It’s kind of funny, but I would say the stranded and delayed people are spending more money,” Therrien said.
Although some visitors have been unhappy with an unplanned extension to their visit, Therrien said many others who braved the road and found themselves stuck in Yellowknife have expressed their happiness at being able to spend a few extra days to explore the community.
“If it’s a traveler that has their whole summer to travel, they are not concerned,” Therrien said. “They’re enjoying Yellowknife.”
Among those is a group of Alberta teens who were left without accommodation after being stranded in the city due to yet another closure of Highway 3. With no available campsites in town, Therrien opened up the visitors centre to them as refuge.
“We’re encouraging people to spend as much time as they need at the centre, come and use our wifi, come and hang out. We have a TV here if people want to watch the news,” she said.
Stranded tourists aren’t the only crowd being given a helping hand in Yellowknife. Visitor experience staff have been reaching out to commercial truckers parked around the city, who have been forced to wait days for the highway to open.
Venturing about the city, staff are handing out guide books and letting the unintentional visitors know about the loads of free spots to visit in Yellowknife, such as the museum, diamond centre, legislature and Old Town.
Therrien said the response has been very positive.
“Everybody has to be very understanding that this is out of anybody’s control, so it might be inconvenient, but getting upset about it is really a waste of energy,” she said.