Fortney: City, province make tourism pitch at national show

Fortney: City, province make tourism pitch at national show

Guldeep Singh Sahni, from India, checks out the booths during the Rendez-vous Canada tourism conference at the BMO Centre in Calgary on Wednesday May 10, 2017. Leah Hennel/Postmedia Leah Hennel Leah Hennel / Leah Hennel/Postmedia

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Guldeep Sahni takes a tour of Canada on Wednesday morning, visiting Newfoundland, Quebec, Alberta and the Northwest Territories — without ever leaving the confines of BMO Centre at Stampede Park.

“It’s my 10th time in Canada,” says the tour operator from New Delhi as he juggles brochures. “It’s always nice to come here.”

While he is just one of millions of overseas visitors Canada welcomes annually, Sahni is a V.I.P. at events such as Rendez-vous Canada, the country’s leading hospitality trade show led by Destination Canada and held in a different Canadian city each year.

The tour operator from India is one of more than 1,800 tourism delegates from 26 countries who have descended on the event’s host city this week.

On Wednesday, the setup in BMO Centre follows the “speed dating” approach, in which representatives of the country’s many regions get 10 minutes to pitch their offerings.

It’s a tourism matchmaking service that could reap big rewards. “We are a nation of more than a billion people,” says Sahni. “My clients like it here. There is scenic beauty, many comforts and Indian food in abundance.”

No wonder, then, that people such as Cindy Ady are thrilled to host in a year that also marks the country’s 150th birthday. “They walked around great neighbourhoods like Inglewood,” Ady says of one of the many tours provided to guests. “Now, they’ll go back to their home countries and represent Alberta and Calgary.”

When it comes to luring more visitors to this part of the world, there’s no time like the present. The economic downturn that kicked into full gear in 2016 also socked it to the province’s $8-billion tourism industry, most notably in Calgary. Since 2014, the city has seen a steep decline in business travellers, a drop that contributed to the 800,000 fewer visitors to the city in 2016 from 2015, and a loss of $100 million in revenue.

“That impacts our hotels, restaurants, everything,” says Ady, CEO of Tourism Calgary.

To staunch the bleeding, Ady says her organization and partners such as Travel Alberta and the province’s department of culture and tourism have worked together to increase the leisure travel sector, with great results. “We’re up 44 per cent in leisure travel this year,” she says, “at a time when Calgary needs it.”

On Wednesday, it’s clear the local contingent has some stiff competition from other parts of the country — the “Super, Natural” British Columbia section, where some international operators line up to talk to representatives from whale watching companies and luxury hoteliers, looks like the Brad Pitt section of tourism speed dating.

Royce Chwin, though, isn’t too concerned about other regions getting a bigger piece of the pie. “This will let the world know what Canada is about and what Alberta is about,” says the CEO of Travel Alberta.

“Alberta is very much punching above its weight,” he adds, noting that the 2016 preliminary numbers for international arrivals was above the national average. “Many of our communities are already taking bookings into 2018 and 2019.”

Besides, there’s more than enough pie to go around. At this year’s event, which set a new attendance record, a large number of delegates are from China, with some of those cities represented boasting populations of more than 20 million.

At the Edmonton Tourism booth, Katherine Florence is having fun talking up her city, she and her several colleagues all proudly wearing their Oilers hockey jerseys.

“It’s a great time to get feedback, find out what’s working, what’s not working,” she says of the annual event.

For people like Wing Man Ho, it’s a convenient way to learn as much as she can about Canadian tourism offerings all under one roof.

“Half of our customers visit Canada to see family,” says the tour operator from Hong Kong. “The other half, for the scenery and wildlife, which you have in abundance.”

Sahni agrees. “We’re crazy with people,” he says with a chuckle of his home country India, “so we like coming here where it’s not so crowded.”

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