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Vancouver has never really had a tourism brand.
The city has succeeded as a travel destination largely based on its image and reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful, livable, and progressive urban environments. In 2017, Vancouver welcomed more than 10.3 million overnight visitors — the fourth consecutive year with record tourist arrivals.
However, Vancouver is long overdue for a specific travel brand promise that transcends its physical drama at the intersection of the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Ocean and downtown core. And one that goes beyond the open-mindedness, diversity and inclusivity baked into the city’s social fabric.
Therefore, Tourism Vancouver is developing a new destination marketing and development strategy leveraging the rise of global demand for transformative travel experiences.
“We believe we are a place, if we go to the essence of the brand, that connects people and inspires them to live with passion,” explains Ty Speer, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver. “Based on our surveys and research in our origin markets, we’re pretty comfortable with the idea that people are coming to Vancouver to reconnect with themselves, reconnect with others, and have a bit of a small, medium or large life-changing moment in time.”
To deliver on that strategy over the long run, Vancouver needs to maintain the quality of its urban user experience for both locals and visitors, which is challenging in the face of record growth year-over-year. To address that, the public and private sectors have been following mandates from the 2013 Vancouver Tourism Master Plan to inform sustainable development.
Among the primary takeaways from the master plan, the city has to continue to preserve and improve the integrity of the built and natural environments, and how people move between the two. More can also be done to help a wider breadth of the community benefit from inbound tourism, especially by dispersing visitors beyond Stanley Park and the urban center. And, the city needs to ramp up its leadership in smart city infrastructure to connect the visitor and local economies more effectively.
The master plan is presently being updated with a new Vancouver 2030 strategy report developed in partnership with Resonance Consultancy and Tourism Economics. Due out this summer, the new policy framework addresses growing threats related to overtourism, spiraling real estate costs, infrastructure capacity, labor shortages and climate warming, etc., through the end of the next decade.
It also investigates potential opportunities in smart technology, community building and advanced placemaking, among others.
“The Vancouver 2030 process analyzed both demographic and economic factors in each of Vancouver’s specific source markets to forecast future visitor volume,” explains Chris Fair, president of Resonance. “We then identified key supply-side factors that could accelerate or constrain that growth, which led to the creation of different distinct scenarios that outline a range of ways these forces might interact with each other to shape Vancouver’s tourism industry over the next decade.”
Vancouver has long been at the forefront of smart and sustainable tourism development. But like many global cities, the convergence of shifting urban economics, evolving travel consumer behavior and heightened competitiveness is rewriting the rules of destination marketing and management.
We sat down with Speer to discuss many of these themes in-depth, and how Tourism Vancouver and the city are collaborating to design the future of urban travel. The following has been edited for length.
Skift: What can you tell us about your new tourism brand strategy and campaign you’re gearing up to launch this year?
Ty Speer: We are in the final length of finishing up a new destination brand for Vancouver, which is really ironic because there hasn’t been one, so it’s not as though we’re re-branding, we’re actually branding. When you look around, you see the city brand or an economic commission brand or a Tourism Vancouver company brand, but the destination brand hasn’t been articulated.
One of the great things a lot of Vancouver residents often hear, which really brings home the message of why people want a taste of life here, is we get so many visitors who within a matter of hours say, “Wow. I could really see myself living here.” Right? That’s such a Vancouver thing to hear, and that says a lot about the brand that’s in that transformative travel piece.
I’m not expecting somebody to come here and have their entire life changed. We are happy to help someone come here and say, “You know what? I had a few days of just living a different way, and living the Vancouver way. And after sampling that, there was a change that I was able to make. One that I can integrate into part of my life when I go back home.” That’s firmly in our brand architecture.
Skift: When you say Vancouver is a platform for transformative travel opportunities, how does Canada’s long legacy of acceptance — celebrating diversity, inclusivity, openness, and progressive shared values — fit into that?
Speer: Well, that acceptance piece, to think about that for a second, is really, really important for us, and it came out very clearly in the brand work we did. During the process, somebody made the point that Vancouver is a city that’s really tolerant of all forms of cultures and races. But then somebody else said, “Actually, wait a minute. Tolerant is the opposite of what we are. We’re not tolerant, we’re absolutely accepting.”
For us, the fact that we are a very, very harmonious city with a huge blend of immigrants and locals to us is a really interesting thing. For people coming here, we’re amazingly approachable when it comes to learning something new about Chinese culture, or First Nations culture, or improving the environment, or how Canadians value community and innovation. Yeah, that part to us is a really, really important piece.
Skift: How has the Vancouver Tourism Master Plan influenced the development of the visitor economy in the last few years?
Speer: We’ve pushed forward a whole range of things that came out of the Tourism Master Plan, which was a helpful exercise on two fronts. It was very good in terms of bringing together our industry and organizations outside of our industry that are important to what we need to do. It was also good in articulating a whole range of things that, if done, would make a positive impact. In many ways, it was a massive optioneering document.
If you look at just a sample of specific things that we’ve acted on, there was a recommendation in the master plan to formalize a structure to pursue sports events, so we started that in 2014 with Sport Hosting Vancouver. We’ve built that up and that’s a pipeline obviously for events that attract visitors. Public Wi-Fi was in there, and we’ve worked very closely with the city as they’ve wanted to push their Wi-Fi agenda forward.
Also, Northeast False Creek is probably the biggest land development project that will happen over the next 20 years. We’ve been, as much as we can, right in the middle of that with the things that we think the visitor industry needs. Special events and programming is another, over and above sports. So there’s been a whole range of things where we said, “Okay, we’re going to focus on these now because we’ve got to get to a level of achievability.”
Skift: For visitors to keep saying, “Wow, I could really see myself living here,” Vancouver needs to make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success 15 years from now. How does the new Vancouver Tourism 2030 address that?
Speer: We need to continue to refresh our view of the future, so we’ve worked with Chris Fair and his team at Resonance to come at that from a different point of view. It’s a scenario and planning analysis. We’ve looked at a whole range of factors that you first take in isolation, and then you begin to blend those to get to, as close as anybody can, what the world might look like in 2030. And then we looked at the correlation between what it might look like and what we want it to look like. So, how do we begin to define the right mix of likely outcomes and desirable outcomes?
We also have Tourism Economics as a partner this time, so we’ve got a lot of economic analysis underpinning it, which wasn’t in the tourism master plan. The tourism master plan wasn’t a data-driven exercise; it was really a strategic and stakeholder-driven exercise. This is a much more analytical piece of work, so we’ve been able to assess, “If this factor dominates, what does that mean to our growth pattern? If that factor dominates, what does that mean if this eventuality happens?” Tourism Economics has been great about that, so we’ve got a good mix of strategy and analysis to help us look at scenarios that we think are appealing, and then help us realize them.
Skift: You mentioned that you’re supporting the City of Vancouver’s agenda to roll out public Wi-Fi. How does that benefit the visitor economy?
Speer: We’ve been looking at access to free Wi-Fi for a while. The city did phase one a couple years ago, which was very much underpinned by use of city infrastructure and libraries and community centers, so it didn’t have the reach we need. But they’ve now done phase two with Shaw Communications, which leverages infrastructure and Shaw’s hotspots, and now there’s much better coverage. So we’re now in a position where we can put a message out to our visitors that says, “You don’t have to go to Starbucks every time to get free Wi-Fi. You can log into this.” That really unlocks our ability to say, “Now that there’s a platform in place where we don’t have to have a conversation about roaming charges, what do we need to think about in terms of how we enable a smarter way for visitors to experience Vancouver?” We’re kind of in the middle of that right now.
Skift: So, the goal then is that blanket Wi-Fi means greater conversion? Travelers are more likely to access partner content and more likely to buy?
Speer: Well, it can be a number of things. Clearly, information is one. That’s great. We want to be able to do that. We know, as well, that a lot of visitors make a whole number of decisions in destinations to plan their experience. Like, “What restaurant should I choose?” Or, “I don’t know what I’m going do today, I’ll wait on the weather. Oh, it’s a nice day, okay, now I want to go to Grouse Mountain.”
How do we help enable that? We’re already in the ticket-selling business, so if you go downstairs to the tourism and visitor center you can buy a ticket to a whole range of things, but that’s a regional shelf front. Now, we want to take that regional shelf front and represent our members online with more transactional capability. Then, within as short a space as possible, we’ve provided visitors with a service that ultimately helps our members benefit.
But we’d like for it to also extend beyond that. We’ve got a little bit of work to do on this, but I would hope in time it allows us to go back and say, “How’d we do?” We all live and die in the recommendation economy, so we want the ability to go back and say, after an experience, “How was Grouse Mountain? How was Capilano? How was Stanley Park?”
But then, we also want to roll up to where we can say, “Here’s a proxy on the destination.” Every destination is a sum total of every experience and everybody’s opinion, so how are we doing as a destination? Because in the end, if some parts of the destination do really well, but other parts don’t, then you’ve got a dead weight problem. We want to deliver that visitor experience quality everywhere.
Skift: CitizenLab is a crowdsourcing platform that works with cities in Europe to pull citizen feedback on all types of urban themes. They’re expanding into North America for the first time to collaborate with the City of Vancouver on the Canadian government’s Smart Cities Challenge. Couldn’t a platform like that be used to close the feedback loop from visitors?
Speer: It’s the how. I think it’s easy to understand what you would like to do, and probably easy to understand why you’d like to do it, but how you do it is hard. I’m really interested. We’re not in conversation with CitizenLab ourselves. That may be something worth doing. I think what’s really interesting in that space is on two levels. One, and I’ll have to interrogate their platform, is where we could easily have that conversation with visitors to understand the good, the bad, and areas for improvement across the entire destination experience.
The other, which is very important to us, is the right means to engage with our citizens to make sure that we have our finger on the pulse about how they feel about visitors. Right? I think we’re the type of industry that local people should be proud and supportive of. I don’t want to just be accepted as an industry. I want tourism to be appreciated and valued and embraced by our residents. That’s got to be where we are.
People have got to know us and love us that live here, so it has to be a lot more than, “Yeah, it’s all right. Okay, we’ll put up with it.” No way. We’ve got to be much better than that, so these platforms and other initiatives allow us to understand how residents feel. I think they should eventually, and by eventually I mean in the next 12 to 24 months, be a core business vision for every DMO (destination marketing organization).
Skift: Sustainable tourism development is a huge conversation worldwide, but not only in terms of land and urban environmental integrity, but also equitable economic development. Considering Vancouver’s record tourism numbers year-over-year, how are you addressing long-term growth to ensure that a wider breadth of Vancouverites benefit?
Speer: Everything I said a moment ago about wanting to be an industry that’s appreciated and embraced relates to a lot about the sustainability of our industry. The starting point is if people don’t like you, that’s a risk to your industry. That’s number one. Number two is about making sure that we’re continuing to create opportunities and knowledge that help our industry businesses to be community builders, so they contribute to the communities that they operate in.
We’re arguably as significant in size and scale as any industry in the city, and like in most parts of the world, people don’t know that. The tourism industry is famous for being unloved, or invisible or under appreciated. So it’s very important that we get that message out that we make a contribution to the quality of life here. From a sustainability discussion, just take the restaurant sector as an example. The restaurant sector doesn’t fundamentally look at us and say, “Tourism is the most important market for us.” For them, the bulk of their revenue comes from locals. We totally understand that, but restaurants operate on really, really thin margins, and if 5 or 10 percent of their visitors are tourists, that might make the difference between a restaurant making it or not making it.
Or a festival making it or not making it, or an art exhibit being profitable or not being profitable. Although we operate at the margins from a scale point of view for lots of businesses, it’s also the difference between success and failure because we’re adding that extra contribution. So when we look at our broader purpose of why we’re here and what we do, it really is about adding to the reputation of the city and the quality of life here.
Skift: In other worlds, the conversation around the impact of destination marketing and management extends well beyond jobs, tourist spend, and tax base.
Speer: Absolutely. It’s not just about 65,000 jobs and $5 billion of economic contribution. It’s about this place is what it is, in part, because we make the contribution that we make. If we weren’t here, if you took us all out, lots of things would just start to shrink and fall over. That’s important to us from a sustainability point of view because it’s about sustaining the quality of life.
There are other more discrete things. We’re big believers in promoting simple things for visitors around public transport and walkability. Those are critical to being true to what the city is about. We’re big believers in promoting the opportunity to go rent a bike and pedal around the city. I think one of the biggest challenges with the word “sustainability” is every time you use is, somebody has a different definition. Sustainability for a lot of people is the environment, but if you look at the bigger picture, it’s all about long-term viability.
Skift: At Skift, we always talk about how cities are no longer cities. They’re networks of neighborhoods attracting different traveler segments. How are you striving to enhance the long-term viability of your neighborhoods outside the downtown core?
Speer: I think it’s important to always put into context that we’re a member-driven company, so we have about 1,000 members that we represent. We’re always thinking about how can we do as much as we can to serve up business opportunity for members. So that marries well with international transit people who are looking for — I almost hesitate to use it because it’s so overused — authentic experiences.
We go to great lengths promoting our different neighborhoods to say, “Okay, here’s a real Vancouver story for you to be part of.” It makes a lot of sense, especially for people that are interested in something a little bit different and are kind of on that wave. I don’t want to reduce it to, “This is what millennials do,” because usually when we say that it’s wrong. But it does allow us to speak to people in a different way, and of course it means trends like home-sharing and Airbnb.
It’s important that we’re able to say, “Look, Commercial Drive is a great day out.” It’s really interesting and a very different part of Vancouver. It’s not about mountains and water anymore and it’s not about a downtown experience. It’s about a neighborhood with interesting shops and interesting restaurants, and it’s easy to get to. So it’s all about continually reintroducing new chapters, and in an ideal world, maybe that gives somebody a reason to say, “You know what? I’m going to tack on a day.” In our world, as with any destination, one extra overnight stay times a large number of visitors is a massive contribution to all of our businesses and the destination.
Skift: A lot of tourism leaders are now promoting their local makers more to show the creative spirit of their indie entrepreneurs, and how they define and develop a neighborhood. It’s the whole Brooklynization or ‘Keep Portland Weird’ thing where local shops selling bamboo sunglasses or artisanal donuts create a more unique community identity. Does that resonate with you?
Speer: It sort of does. I think eventually you have to work backwards from how can you connect to the people. I’m not sure it’s maker-forward as much as it’s consumer-backward, right? Where is the consumer and how do I work backwards to extract something that’s of interest to them and then connect it with something here? It’s not necessarily, “Go find someone and push them at people.” I’d rather be pulling, and asking, “What do you like? How do I meet your needs?”
So let’s say you’re interested in sustainably-made bamboo sunglasses. I’ve got a guy for that. Right? I think we’ve got to work backwards from the customer and not just kind of assume that we’ve got a bunch of cool people, and customers are going to care. Although, I think eventually those lines just connect.
We’re going to definitely want to expand on all those passion areas that we can find, related to our new brand vision, that we think are meaningful to consumers, and put a human face on them. There’s no doubt about that. But, for us, it will ultimately be more about, “How do I give you something that’s meaningful to you?” I want to find out what you want, and I want to be able to serve up some information that shifts you from, “Okay, I was thinking about coming to Vancouver” to now, “I’m definitely going to visit and I’m going to have a deeper experience.” Then, we’re back into that world of, if you want to call it “transformative travel,” where we can deliver a customized experience that’s more meaningful to you and makes your time in Vancouver all the better.
Skift: Speaking of deeper experiences, Airbnb Experiences offer some really interesting opportunities, like one we did called: “Hang With a Vancouver Startup Founder.” British Columbia recently voted to collect provincial sales tax and bed tax from Airbnb. Does that shift how you might promote Airbnb and engage with the brand in any new ways?
Speer: In a word, yes. We’ve said for the past three years, there were two major criteria for us to be able to work with Airbnb. One was regulation and the second was taxation. Because we felt without either of those, we’re just dealing in a non-official economy, and as the official representative of the visitors here and visitor businesses here, we just couldn’t be in that space. The regulation will come into effect on the first of April, and the province is going to collect those two taxes, so PST, provincial sales tax, and the MRDT, which is hotel tax.
I’ve said this to Airbnb, “When you guys become legitimate, we’re ready to go.” The missing piece for us, which we’ll sort out in the next little while, is we have to figure out what the right membership structure is because we’ve never dealt with anything like Airbnb and 5,000 hosts before.
We’re ready to go, but we probably won’t rush into it on the first of April. I think there’s a near-term evolution. We’ve got to monitor how compliance happens. If, out of 5,000 or 6,000 hosts, depending on how you count on a given day, nobody signs up, then I’m going to pause because regulation without compliance isn’t really the framework of legitimacy that we need. But assuming that Airbnb drives good compliance, and they’ve said they’ve got very specific plans to drive that compliance, I’m pleased about that. Assuming that happens, we’ll get a membership structure worked out and we will start that work.
So, as I mentioned, we’re ready to go. I’ve met with Airbnb recently. They want to do stuff, we want to do stuff. We’re one of their top 10 cities in the world. China’s the number one outbound market in the world. It’s not rocket science to connect the dots.
Skift: What’s the vibe from the hotels?
Speer: Our hotel partners, which are core partners of ours, kind of moved past the “Airbnb is the enemy” thing a long time ago. The thinking now is that Airbnb just represents more competition. Nobody wants more competition, but I’m not dealing with hotel partners saying, “Make that go away.” They’ve moved on.
Skift: How might you work with Airbnb to promote home-sharing in general, and Airbnb Experiences specifically?
Speer: Well, it all depends. We sit down with lots of our members and work on all kinds of different collaborative promotions. Sometimes it takes the form of member missions in market to sell things. Sometimes it’s trade shows or cooperative advertising. I’ve seen advertising campaigns that take all kinds of forms. We can do a big digital play of course because Airbnb is about as powerful a platform probably as any travel company ever, arguably.
There are any number of ways that we could probably sit down and say, “Okay, how do we go out and find people that might be potential Vancouver visitors and message them together.” We could be a content provider to Airbnb. We’ve got some great destination content that might fit really well on their site.
Skift: So just to sum up, platforms like CitizenLab and Airbnb have been successful connecting the private and public sectors, and people to people, very effectively. So, ideally, it seems that an organization like Tourism Vancouver should eventually be able to plug into that some way to deliver more customized connectivity, right? That’s basically a big part of the premise behind smart cities and smart tourism.
Speer: Sure, of course, and it’s on our mind. Absolutely on our mind. I want those tools to be available, but I think the other thing we have to be mindful of is, Airbnb will do it anyway. They don’t necessarily need me; they’re in that space. There are other things, including tours by locals, and there are other different platforms out there where people are making businesses out of their local expertise and their local passions. It certainly will be part of how we take the passion idea, I think, to market
If somebody’s into seafood, how do we deliver on that? Somebody’s into yoga, how do we do that? Somebody’s into paddle boarding or scuba, how do we do that? I want to think about how we solve all of that, but I’m also mindful that there’ll only be a subset of our visitor base who really wants to go that deep. Some people will still say, “You know what? I want to go to Vancouver and I want to go on a cruise to Alaska. I want to spend a couple nights in a nice hotel. I want to appreciate fresh air, beautiful scenery, some nice meals, a little bit of culture.” They’re not going to go deep.
We’ve got to be in a position to say, “Okay, Greg is going to go deep. How do we help that? Sally is not going to go deep. We’ve got all of that.” Again, I’m a big believer in working back from the customer point of view, so we’ve got to be able to serve up as much or as little depth as somebody wants. It’s about understanding who our visitors are, and how we can help them.