This week’s territorial tourism conference in Hay River is set to break attendance records for when the event is held outside of Yellowknife.
So says Brian Desjardins, executive director of NWT Tourism, of the gathering set for Nov. 5-7.
“We’re very excited to be hosting the conference in Hay River,” Desjardins told The Hub. “It’s an opportunity for the community to enjoy some of the economic spinoffs, as well as showcase what they have to offer.”
The conference – with the theme ‘Feeding the Fire’ – is expected to draw over 120 delegates, a number rarely reached when the event is held outside Yellowknife once every three years. Along with the conference aspect of the three-day event, which will include sector-specific roundtable discussions for operators, politicians and administrators, among others, NWT Tourism will also be holding its annual general meeting.
“It’s a great networking opportunity and we’ll be presenting our marketing activities for the past year to our members,” Desjardins said. “We’re here to discuss challenges, but also talk about some of the successes we’ve seen recently.”
As for Hay River itself, Jordan Stackhouse, the economic co-ordinator for the municipality, said he is pleased to see the chance for exposure.
“People don’t often get to come to Hay River,” he said. “If we can just get people to come here and see our town, we can show off how great it really is.”
Stackhouse said he and municipal administration began working on the bid to host the conference about a year ago, putting forth the hub as a transportation centre as well as having the necessary amenities to host the event.
“Hay River was a good choice, I think,” he said. “We have air and road transportation, as well as the hotel rooms, catering facilities and venue you need to host this sort of thing.”
As it stood last weekend, nearly every hotel room in town was booked and getting a flight from Yellowknife in the beginning of the week was growing challenging.
“Apart from all the spinoff benefits, just having people here to see our town is really good,” said Stackhouse.
According to Desjardins, NWT Tourism has made a commitment to host the conference outside of the capital city once every three years.
The non-governmental entity is overseen by a board of directors drawn from all over the territory. Members will vote to fill four spots on that board during the conference.
“Yellowknife is the capital city and most of the licensed tourism operators are located there,” Desjardins said. “We work with all our stakeholders in all regions, however, and we’re guided by our board.”
NWT Tourism’s marketing budget has nearly doubled in the past year, going from $1.6 million to $2.8 million, as a result of extra help from the GNWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment.
An increased advertising presence in Europe, North America and Asia has led to a rise in tourist visits in the territory, according to Desjardins, noting the number of visitors rose to 76,000 in 2012-2013 from 65,000 the previous year.
“We’re expanding into new markets and doing more in those in which we are already present,” he said. “Three years ago, we had 50 Chinese tourists. This year, we’re at 700.”
The sector that has seen the most significant increase is aurora viewing, jumping from 7,400 visitors to 16,000 last season. Sport fishing, however, has seen a decline in popularity with fewer tourists coming specifically for that, as well as those who do visit preferring shorter trips compared to the previously-popular week-long vacations.
While the majority of tourists still flock to Yellowknife, Desjardins said there are opportunities within his organization as well as within government to participate in a dialogue about spreading the wealth to other regions of the territory.
“Our marketing covers all regions,” he said. “It’s not Yellowknife centric. There are positions on advisory committees and on our own board in which people can have their say.”
Hay River-based tourism operator Kathy McBryan, co-owner of 2 Seasons Adventures and also a member of the board of directors for NWT Tourism, said the industry should be a priority for communities in the North, including Hay River.
“When one company benefits, the whole community benefits, because those dollars are spent there,” McBryan said. “When you have a strong tourism base, the whole community grows.”
— Sarah Ladik