With falling tourism numbers, more conventions could save us

The tourism pie is shrinking, and the Yukon will need to market itself extra hard to capture its piece, say Yukon tourism officials.

The tourism pie is shrinking, and the Yukon will need to market itself extra hard to capture its piece, say Yukon tourism officials.

With leisure travel on the rocks, conventions may be a significant factor in saving the territory’s tourism dollars, Yukon Tourism Bureau managing director Maureen Bundgaard told council Monday night.

In 2008, Whitehorse cut funding to the bureau by a third — reducing its $30,000 allocation to $20,000. A small portion of the bureau’s approximately $400,000 budget, but an unwise trend at a time when conventions may be increasingly critical to keeping airplane seats and hotel rooms full.

“Recognizing that economic times are tough, we really have to stay on top of our marketing — we can’t slack back,” said Bundgaard.

From April to September, conventions organized in part by the bureau generated more than $4 million for Yukoners, said Bundgaard to city council.

“That’s higher than most years have been for their whole 12-month period,” she noted.

At Whitehorse’s Westmark Hotel, conventions accounted for 17 per cent of 2008 room occupancy — compared to 25 per cent resulting from cruise ship and bus tours, said general manager Heather McIntyre.

The efforts of the convention bureau were praised at the fall round-up of the Yukon Tourism Industry Association, said Bundgaard.

“Businesses were saying, ‘Thank goodness for the conferences because the other sectors in tourism were down,’” she said.

The increase in convention revenue came amid a generally poor year for Yukon tourism.

Overall, the Yukon, saw an eight per cent reduction in its 2008 tourism numbers, something that was “consistent with other jurisdictions across Canada,” said Pierre Germain, director of the Yukon’s Tourism and Culture Department.

American travel to the Yukon has been declining for five consecutive years, and US travel to Canada saw an 11 per cent decline in 2008. The Canadian Tourism Commission identified “conventions and long-haul US trips” as critical sectors to resurrect the fledgling Canadian tourism market.

“If the Yukon is looking at the meeting and conventions market, I think that is in good parallel with what we’re doing nationally,” said Randy Williams, president and CEO of the national Tourism Industry Association.

Convention marketing is particularly important for the Yukon, as numerous southern businesses and associations are simply unaware the Yukon has the infrastructure to sustain conventions.

“It’s surprising that a lot of organizations don’t realize what sophisticated meeting venues we have,” said Bundgaard.

Convention delegates are traditionally “higher yield” visitors, said Williams.

“It’s a market that sees a lot of money spent per visitor, versus leisure travel,” he said.

Unlike other tourism industries, the conventions market is more immune to market changes.

“It’s a little bit shielded from the economy — there will still be meetings and conventions occurring, even in a smaller economy,” said Williams.

Conventions also provide unique opportunities for bumper travel: leisure travel that a delegate may pursue in the days preceding or following a convention.

Because we’re competing with easily accessible southern cities, Yukon tourism officials say that marketing the Yukon as a convention destination is more important than ever.

“We have to mine it, and we have to mine it well, and that means spending money, not cutting back,” said McIntyre.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com