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Until borders reopen, tourism leaders in Atlantic Canada have been left with the task of coming up with new ways to promote their provinces, including focussing on staycations.
"We all believe we know a lot about P.E.I., but if we really stop and think, most of us have the same places we tend to go to regularly," said Brenda Gallant, director of marketing with Tourism P.E.I.
"And, there are little hidden gems that many Islanders have not gone to. It might be living in western P.E.I. and hardly ever going to eastern P.E.I., and vice versa."
In late February, Gallant presented the province's annual tourism marketing plan for the season. A takeaway from the strategy was attracting more residents from Alberta. But in a matter of weeks, as the coronavirus (COVID-19 strain) pandemic became more of a reality on the Island, that plan needed to to be set aside.
A challenge for P.E.I. was halting tourism advertisements already booked in other provinces and countries.
"That requires a lot of work behind the scenes because obviously it's not just one phone call. You're talking about everything from a billboard to print advertising, digital advertising, and from many perspectives on the digital side because that's a big part of our advertising, (and) television," she said.
"I'm not aware if it's ever happened before where you have a campaign and market it and you completely stop it. Certainly not in my time."
With the regular marketing plan on pause, the province invoked a three-phase approach — response, restart and reimagine. The response phase was hitting pause on the initial marketing campaign while the restart phase involves the interim campaign in other provinces as well as coming up with a plan for staycations.
P.E.I. is preparing to launch an interim campaign on June 1 in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. The message for potential visitors is that when it's safe, and when things are ready, P.E.I. is here for you.
Gallant said it is more of a reminder and, from a marketing point of view, not a strong call to action in order to be respectful of people who were unable to travel. Other provinces have already launched interim campaigns. In terms of staycations, P.E.I. has hired Charlottetown's Insight Brand & Marketing Studio to work on the campaign.
The final phase — reimagine — will involve a reassessment of P.E.I.'s available tourism product offerings and what will appeal to visitors.
The plan is for P.E.I. to return to its regular and familiar marketing campaign aimed at "mainlanders" to "Come find your Island" in only those provinces where travel restrictions have been lifted while the interim campaign message will remain in other provinces.
The idea of a tourism bubble, allowing travel with New Brunswick, has recently been discussed. But P.E.I. Premier Dennis King's recent decision to allow 2,300 seasonal property owners to apply to return to the Island has raised new concerns in New Brunwick with the bubble idea.
Gallant supports a bubble as a great way to help the Island's economy since New Brunswick (and Nova Scotia) make up a significant portion of P.E.I. tourism visitors each year. But a bubble should only happen if it is safe to do so from a public health perspective, she said.
Darlene Grant Fiander, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia, understands her province is a bit behind its neighbours in terms of reopening phases.
But she still wants to see Nova Scotia be part of a regional travel bubble when the time is right.
"There is growing optimism that Nova Scotians will travel and certainly then, on a regional level, people will start to move."
The key for tourism businesses is to realign with the idea of a staycation, which involves holding virtual openings to show residents what there is to offer. She said there are uplifting stories about how some businesses have found ways to operate diffently and focus on buying local.
As a tourism industry leader, the pandemic has been challenging for Fiander to provide answers to members during these unprecedented times.
"I think it's been humbling. Again, I don't think you can really grasp the significance of what's going on and the long-term ramifications of how the business world will be different because there will be businesses that can't survive. They can't take on more debt. We'll get through it and life will go on, but certainly it's been humbling to talk to people who have invested everything and they're scared and trying to figure out how to move forward."
With 1.6 million visitors to P.E.I. last year, making a staycation work on the Island with its roughly 158,000 residents will be a challenge. But Gallant is impressed with how P.E.I. businesses are willing to change under these circumstances.
"If you look at tourism businesses, they put their heart and soul into their businesses, and that's why we have a successful industry, because the industry cares."