The City of Salmon Arm needs to rethink the way it handles tourism, beginning with a short-term plan to move the physical site of visitor services to city hall.
In keeping with recommendations from consultant Margaret McCormick in her Visitor Services Strategy, city council voted unanimously on Monday, Jan. 25 to move the ‘bricks and mortar’ of visitor services to city hall for the upcoming tourist season, at minimum.
With more than 30 years’ experience with B.C.’s tourism authority, McCormick presented a detailed report that drew compliments from council members, a few of them describing it as the best they’d seen. It determined that Salmon Arm and the Shuswap lack an overall tourism strategy.
McCormick noted that three groups have been providing tourism services to the city: Shuswap Tourism for destination marketing; Salmon Arm Economic Development dealing with the MRDT (Municipal & Regional District Tax Program) funds or the hotel tax; and the Salmon Arm Chamber of Commerce for visitor services. The city terminated the chamber’s contract to run the Visitor Centre in the old courthouse on Aug. 31, 2020, citing society’s shift to online marketing as well as the realities of the pandemic.
“You’re funding three different ones but your performance measures, your accountability and your decision-making is actually different for each,” McCormick said, noting that in this system unique to the Shuswap, the organizations have different mandates, different purposes and different roles.
McCormick also found that “Salmon Arm does not identify the importance of tourism in its own overall corporate strategy or actions…”
Coun. Kevin Flynn said he would like to see tourism in the city’s strategic plan, and asked how big a part of economic development tourism should fill. McCormick estimated 25 per cent at a minimum, saying that would give it the attention it requires.
McCormick said the 13 stakeholders she interviewed as part of her research wanted some type of ‘bricks and mortar’ visitor centre, not just a virtual version.
Salmon Arm’s director of corporate services Erin Jackson said staff support the use of city hall.
“We see that there is ample parking, access to washrooms, and there would be no overhead required. That could happen regardless of who delivers the service. If the city delivers it, it makes sense, and if we partner, we could also make that work,” Jackson said. She noted staff would collaborate with agencies already providing services.
McCormick recommended the city create a dedicated position to lead the strategy, someone with expertise in tourism, marketing, engagement with communities, digital strategies and staff management, preferably with a tourism program management education.
As well as the move to city hall, McCormick recommended having a mobile unit travel to places in the area where visitors are and where physical distancing is possible. She also suggested more digital engagement with visitors to provide accurate information and help them with trip planning. She emphasized the need to promote the shoulder season.
Another observation from McCormick was that more than 20 per cent of visitor centre inquiries were about the outdoors and trails in the area.
“As the sole digital supplier of this information, your Shuswap Trail Alliance website is in dire need of attention.”
She welcomed the news that council has allocated money in the city’s 2021 budget for the website.
Couns. Debbie Cannon and Chad Eliason serve on the tourism committee and support the initial plan to house visitor services at city hall, a factor that Mayor Alan Harrison said encouraged him to support it.
Eliason suggested: “We were super disjointed, and this is the first step, this isn’t the be-all and end-all, the first step in fixing our tourism and working with the partners that are delivering it…”
Cannon said she would like to see outreach kiosks as well as the services at city hall.
“I think what Margaret has delivered here is making us realize that tourism is more important than probably what some of us realize, how it affects every one of our small businesses… And instead of having it arm-length away, and not really taking ownership of it, this gives us the opportunity to bring it in, and even if it’s only just for one year, we can then see where it went and how we delivered it.”
McCormick, who lives in the Sorrento area, expressed her optimism.
“I believe strongly in tourism in the Shuswap and I think there is opportunity for significant growth. Actions this year are going to really set the stage for the tourism industry in the future.”