Passports, gas prices hit Canada travel

New passport regulations, gas prices and the rising strength of Canadian currency versus the U.S. dollar were identified as challenges to Canadian tourism.Experts from Best Western International, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC) and Aeroplan took part in the third annual travel expert roundtable held last week.

Despite these challenges, however, the country’s overall economic strength is contributing to a successful summer for the travel industry.

“It’s a mixed bag situation in Canada right now. Border states and cities are suffering from a lack of inbound travellers from the United States by car,” said Christopher Jones, vice president of public affairs for TIAC. “But the future looks good, especially if we diversify our destination offerings as a country.” In response, TIAC has partnered with Deloitte in the Destination Canada research initiative to identify ways to attract U.S. travellers.

The summer of 2007 has been strong for the world’s largest hotel chain. “Best Western is appreciating its third consecutive record-setting year in Canada,” said Dorothy Dowling, the company’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. “Room nights and net reservations were up 15 percent in June.”

This coincides with the hotel industry as a whole, according to HAC. The country’s nearly $18 billion-a-year industry saw overall occupancies go up by one percentage point. RevPar, a ratio used to measure a hotel’s financial performance, rose between three and four dollars in 2006.

ADVERTISEMENT

“As long as hotels keep their standards up and offer travellers what they are looking for, we will get through external challenges,” said HAC President Anthony Pollard.

Other hot issues that were identified by the panel included:

The importance of loyalty and partnership programs. “The average Canadian has more than five loyalty cards in his or her wallet,” said Sylvie Bourget, vice president of marketing for Aeroplan, the country’s leading rewards program.

Satisfying these repeat customers is critical because “loyalty programs are the third most important amenity for Best Western guests, behind high-speed Internet access and breakfast,” said Dowling. Best Western’s Gold Crown Club International rewards program has set itself apart from other hotels’ clubs by offering co-branded affinity programs that cater to specific lifestyle demographics such as NASCAR fans, Canadian Automobile Association members, and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts.

The Internet’s increased impact on travel. “Hotels must capitalize on the Internet’s increasing influence by updating their Web sites two or three times daily and providing relevant information on amenities, features and current events in the area,” said Pollard.

“Blogging, Internet and travel Web sites are the new version of word-of-mouth,” said Bourget. Sixty percent of Aeroplan’s bookings occur online.

For Best Western, nearly 40 percent of central reservation system revenue in North America is a result of bookings through bestwestern.com. “The Internet has transformed our business from five years ago and is now the most important reservations and communications channel for us,” said Dowling.

Potential in developing markets. Visitors from China have increased by 40 percent year over year and travellers continue to arrive in tours and groups.

“The potential for growth from China is immense. But the question for all of us is, Is our travel product ready to provide what travellers from China are seeking?” said Jones. “This market will never surpass the number of visitors from the United States, but it still represents an excellent opportunity for Canada.”

Combating Canadian stereotypes. TIAC recognizes that a shift in the perceptions of Canada must occur, which will require an increased marketing investment targeted at the country’s key inbound travel markets. Jones emphasized that Canada’s story needs to be told more effectively. “We risk being bland. We need to broaden the understanding of our product beyond moose and maple syrup to the many unique and exotic product offerings Canada has,” he said.

With the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the outlook for summer 2007 and beyond is positive. The Canadian Tourism Commission’s “Brand Canada” campaign is hoping to leverage a people-centric message, putting a face on the country to draw more travellers from around the world.
——-