The past year has been challenging for tourism businesses here in BC. With closed borders, travel restrictions and new health and safety rules, tourism has been one of the hardest hit industries from covid. But during that time, I’ve worked with several tourism businesses, both winter and summer operators, that have succeeded. Here are some of the things those tourism businesses have done to stay afloat and thrive during covid.
The most important thing I’ve seen tourism operators do is to pivot to their local market. In some cases this has meant designing entirely new tours, and more often, discounting those tours for locals. You simply can’t get the same prices from Canadians as you can get from Americans and Europeans.
To begin, it’s important to understand exactly who those local customers are, so in marketing-speak, we want to create some ‘personas’. The best way to do this is to look at any locals you’ve had in the past. Are they the same demographic as your foreign guests? Or do those locals tend to be families while your overseas guests were couples, or some other demographic? If you need help, consider working with a marketing consultant to sketch out those different guests, as this can really help with both designing tours and marketing them. In one case I helped a multi-day kayak tour operator, who would normally have overseas couples as guests, pivot to affluent local families. This worked out very well and is a new market for his business.
Successful tour operators I know have also met the provincial health and safety guidelines and have communicated those on their websites and made them part of their marketing. A generous ‘no risk’ booking and cancellation policy is also key, in case guests are unable to travel due to covid restrictions. For the most part, these businesses have shifted to private-only, ‘bring your bubble’ groups, and have not permitted any mixing of different groups.
I’ve also seen a strong focus on nature and the outdoors; people not only want to travel, they want to relieve stress from the pandemic and improve mental health, and it’s well known that being in nature does both.
The final thing I’ve seen successful tourism businesses do in the past year is make use of government support.
Of the multitude of programs out there, the CEWS has proven to be one of the most important. As a Canadian employer who has seen a drop in revenue due to covid, you may be eligible for a subsidy to cover part of your employee wages, retroactive to March 15, 2020. This subsidy will enable you to re-hire workers, bring on new staff, and ease you back into normal operations. This program can cover up to 75% of employee wages and is scheduled to run up until June 2021 (but with current lockdowns I’d be surprised if it’s not extended).
The CEBA is a zero-interest loan of up to 60K of which 20K is eligible for loan forgiveness if repaid by December 31, 2022. Funds from this loan can be used for any business-related expense such as hiring consultants, tourism marketing and promotion, or equipment related to new tour offerings.
The Recovery Grant is essentially 10-40K of free money from the government. Operators must demonstrate that at least 50% of their revenue is tourism-related with revenue loss of at least 30% since March 2020. Businesses must be currently operating, though seasonal or temporarily closed businesses are also eligible. Recovery plans are designed and executed with assistance from Small Business BC and funds are delivered within 3-6 weeks of the application.
The programs listed above are just a few of the many out there to help tourism businesses struggling due to covid. There are many, many more, depending on the sector and type of business you operate. One of the big shortcomings of all these programs is that they do not allow funding for new tourism businesses. To qualify, you must have been in operation and profitable prior to covid.
They also require time and proper accounting to complete the application process.
“One of the problems we’ve seen is tourism businesses not having their financials in order,” says Alex Buri, who manages the Tourism Resiliency Program for Northern BC Tourism. While the applications are complicated, they are a lifeline to struggling tour operators. He suggests reaching out to your DMO for help. Each of the six BC RDMO’s (listed below) has an expert on staff that will help you navigate the different programs and get that funding. Start here and then talk to your accountant to make sure all your paperwork is in order.
Businesses that have stayed open, have kept their staff and improved employee loyalty. Your people are probably the most valuable asset your company has. Many tourism businesses have also discovered an entirely new local market they had not known existed before.
On the tourism marketing side, I’ve noticed something interesting with businesses that have stayed open, vs those that have kept their doors closed to ‘wait out’ the pandemic; their Google search rankings have dramatically improved. This makes sense. Having your business marked as ‘open’ on your Google My Business page, as well as current customers posting reviews, seems to tell Google that you’re the best place to send search traffic to and your tourism SEO rankings will go way up.
While we all hope and pray for an end to covid and a return of those overseas guests, the strategies and government programs here will help keep your tourism business in good shape in the meantime.
If you need help with marketing strategy, creating new tours or marketing them, drop me a line.
(disclaimer: We’re tourism marketing experts not accountants, so please seek advice from your accountant for the most accurate information on grant programs)