How to sell suburbia: Mississauga grapples with tourism strategy

How to sell suburbia: Mississauga grapples with tourism strategy

Politicians and bureaucrats in Mississauga have an appetite to develop the city’s tourism industry, but what exactly does the city want to sell? 

That’s one of the questions key stakeholders are grappling with as the city develops its tourism strategy. In the midst of unprecedented transformation, Mississauga is slowly moving from an edge city to its own unique, urban centre.

“We need that one thing that we can be famous for,” said Coun. Pat Saito, chair of the city’s tourism board. “But, we don’t know what that one thing is going to be yet.”

City councillors and stakeholders have floated various ideas for how to lure people into Mississauga, including a downtown convention centre, a distillery district around the Hershey Centre, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, outdoor concert venue, football and/or soccer stadium or a state-of-the-art marina in Port Credit.

Saito said the city is looking into the feasibility of some of these projects, but without the capital budget to move ahead, the focus needs to be on what the city can offer prospective tourists.

‘It’s beside one of the world’s great metropolises’

Assets include the parks and beaches along the waterfront, salmon fishing along the Credit River, Port Credit, Square One Shopping Centre, the Hershey Centre, Celebration Square, the Living Arts Centre, Toronto Pearson International Airport and the many cultural festivals hosted by the city.

But, according to David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, Mississauga’s real advantage is its geography.

“It’s beside one of the world’s great metropolises and that’s not necessarily a negative. It’s kind of the nature of the beast,” he noted.

It allows the city to take advantage of Toronto’s many tourist attractions, while offering a “quiet and more peaceful environment” at a lower rate. Once the hotels are booked, travellers can visit the amenities in Mississauga on days they are not visiting Toronto.

‘It’s time we should stand up as a city’

There is reluctance by some stakeholders to align the city’s tourism efforts too closely with Toronto.

Mississauga’s tourism efforts are primarily driven by Tourism Toronto, the official destination marketing organization for the region, which includes Mississauga, Brampton and Toronto. But some councillors don’t believe Mississauga is getting enough exposure.

“It’s time we should stand up as a city and brag about our own culture, and support our own culture, and promote our own culture,” said Coun. Jim Tovey at a previous council meeting, adding local arts and culture groups in his ward have not received any promotion from the organization.

“We’re selling the entire region,” rebutted Andrew Weir, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Tourism Toronto.

Once tourists have booked the hotels and are looking for daytime activities, Weir said the organization promotes “areas of critical mass” in Mississauga including Streetsville, Port Credit, Square One and the downtown. He admits international tourists may not know those areas are in Mississauga specifically because telling them they have to travel to a different city could deter them from making the trip.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to blur those lines,” he said.

David Wojcik, president and CEO of the Mississauga Board of Trade, acknowledged the importance of the city’s partnership with Tourism Toronto but said there could be greater financial transparency if tourism is run at the local level.

Who gets what when it comes to funding tourism?

Tourism Toronto receives $9.4 million from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport annually.

It also receives between $20 and $30 million from the Greater Toronto Hotel Association (GTHA) through the destination marketing fee (DMF), a voluntary program that allows hotels to add a few extra percentage points to guest bills to help fund tourism initiatives throughout the region.

Hotels throughout the region can opt into this program, which is managed by the GTHA, a private entity. The GTHA then relegates a portion of that money to Tourism Toronto.

“We don’t know how much the GTHA takes in. All we know is what we get from them,” said Weir.

Mississauga’s involvement in the DMF has been minimal, but the lack of public oversight of the GTHA’s financial statements has led to some concerns about how much the city benefits from the current setup.

Terry Mundell, president and CEO of the GTHA, said all financial statements are a matter of private record, but the “vast majority” of the DMF is remitted to Tourism Toronto.

Hotel tax a ‘game changer’

Mississauga council recently approved the implementation of a hotel tax to help bolster its local tourism initiatives. Expected to generate roughly $10 million, the hotel tax will be used to support tourism throughout the city.

As per provincial legislation, the hotel tax will have to flow through Tourism Toronto, with all funds expected to be returned to Mississauga’s city coffers.

Queen’s Park has not yet finalized the regulations surrounding how the hotel tax will be managed or what entity will be responsible for overseeing the revenue.

What’s next?

The city will need to carefully consider who will be in charge of spearheading tourism within Mississauga.

“It wouldn’t be to anybody’s benefit to break from Tourism Toronto,” said Saito. “I think we should have a separate tourism office … but we capitalize off their (Tourism Toronto) global marketing. ”

The Mississauga Board of Trade sees value in the partnership but has expressed a desire to oversee tourism at the local level. 

“We have an established organization that already has a connection to businesses, attractions and hotels, so we believe that leveraging our organization would be a definite benefit,” said Wojcik.

Once a governing authority is in place, the next steps will be to identify Mississauga’s target audience for tourism and purse a digital strategy focused on selling the city’s assets.

“Unless Mississauga pursues its own initiatives, it’s going to be swamped by the communication and information put forth by Toronto,” remarked Soberman.