Festivals look for visitors closer to home

By Holly Nelson

Ottawa’s festival organizers are using new marketing strategies to draw more people to the city this summer, in light of changing trends in tourism.

“Festivals are a great hook to attract visitors,” says Mark Monahan, chair of the Festival Network.

The network is an association of 32 local festivals, including the Tulip Festival, the Cisco Systems Bluesfest and the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. Festival organizers join the association to share information, meet and broker different marketing opportunities.

“Visitors spend close to $900 million,” says Leslie Miller, president of the Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority.

Festivals alone injected over $32 million into the local economy, according to a 1997 study. That figure had more than doubled by 2001, says Monahan.

To maximize the number of visitors drawn to the city, festival organizers hope to cash in on a spring marketing campaign that will showcase the city’s attractions and festivals through print, radio, and television ads.

But attracting visitors this year has been more difficult than in the past.

Weather, travel fears and the economy are all factors that affect tourism, explains Dick Brown, executive director of the Ottawa Hoteliers de l’Outaouais Inc.

Brown says hotel occupancy rates in the city were down 12 per cent in February from 2001.

People are less willing to travel longer distances since September 11, says Monahan.

He adds that although people are becoming more at ease with travel, it has forced the network to look more regionally to attract visitors.

“We want to focus on people within driving distance, which is a new strategy,” says Monahan.

The strategy focuses on residents in Quebec, Ontario, and upstate New York.

The organizers of the Canadian Tulip Festival, which runs May 3 to 20, are increasing the number of festival attractions, extending the festivities by one week, and promoting the event to regions in Eastern Canada.

“The Tulip Festival is a major draw to kick off the summer season of festivals,” says Miller. “It’s bigger and better – and bigger and better is a big plus for the city.”

The Tulip Festival’s staff is trying new ways to attract visitors, including enlisting Ottawa residents for the campaign.

“We’re promoting a lot to the community to invite their friends and relatives,” says Doug Little, a spokesperson for the Canadian Tulip Festival. “This is a great time for people to come (to the city).”

The Tulip Festival’s marketing and programming budget has increased by almost $1.6 million for 2002—doubling its overall marketing program.

The additional funding is being used to bring the festival to new levels by advertising in gardening and floral magazines as well as tourism magazines they have not reached in the past.

Tulip Festival organizers are also focusing on attracting visitors from within Canada.

They’re attending a major flower show in Quebec where they’ll unveil “Tulipmania,” the theme of this year’s festivities.

While it is still early to judge the results of the festivals’ marketing efforts, local restaurants are hopeful the added traffic from the festivals will boost their profits as well.

“On weekends (during the summer months) volume increases by 20 per cent,” says Dale Laurie of the Excellent Eateries Group, which represents Bravo Bravo, Maxwell’s Bistro, Marble Works and other local restaurants. “And (revenues) increase by about 15 per cent.”

Laurie says that 20-25 groups, many from New York, have already booked reservations at Marble Works.

“These groups (of about 50 people each) are only in town for the festivals,” she says.