A Sure Bet For Our Economy

March 08, 2016

Commentary from Paulette Hicks, President, Saint John Hotel Association

A Sure Bet For Our Economy

In our current economic climate, sure bets are few and far between. Many industries are struggling, particularly with Canada’s weakened dollar.

It’s time to shine the spotlight on a consistent contributor to our community’s economy that is here for the long haul.

It’s time to celebrate an industry that employs thousands of us in this region and was recently cited in the Globe and Mail as contributing a greater percentage of Canadian gross domestic product than mining, forestry or agriculture.

It’s time to stop seeing single multi-million dollar infrastructure projects as our only economic saviours, and remember that the world-class events we attract here often generate upwards of $5 million in a single weekend. That’s close to $250 million every year.

It’s time to recognize the value of tourism.

As a city, our greatest export is our culture. We attract 1.5 million visitors every year, and they love Saint John. Why should we be surprised? We’ve got the historic sites, natural beauty and welcoming locals that make a great, lasting impression – and keep people coming back.

Over the past few years, our tourism industry has shown momentum and 2016 looks even more promising.

Last year, we saw strong year-over-year hotel occupancy growth, with an average 12.7 per cent increase. In 2014, we also set an all-time record for out-of-province Canadian visitors, with the fourth best annual occupancy rate out of 26 tourist regions east of Montreal.

2016 should see these trends continue for a few different reasons. As recently outlined in The Globe and Mail article Tourism to the rescue, the low Canadian dollar means more Canadians will be staying closer to home for their leisure and business travel. The exchange rate – not to mention lower gas prices – will also attract our American neighbours in higher numbers than we’ve seen for many years. According to the Conference Board of Canada, U.S. travel to Canada increases 5 per cent for each 10 per cent decrease in the Canadian dollar.

Another huge factor is how well we market ourselves and sell our experience. We’ve made tremendous gains over the past few years, and these efforts are largely due to our community’s public-private Destination Marketing Office, also known as Discover Saint John – jointly funded by the Saint John Hotel Association and the City of Saint John.

Discover Saint John is widely regarded as a top performer within the industry and a best practice model that is envied and being emulated in other jurisdictions, including right here in New Brunswick. Their efforts bring long-term benefits to our region. They’re already bringing home national conventions, sporting events and much more for 2020 and beyond. How many other industries can guarantee economic contributions – in the millions – that many years in advance?

When tourism thrives, we all win. That was the message behind the Saint John Hotel Association’s recent campaign, We All Win With Tourism. Through our outreach, we focused on reminding our community of the economic benefits of tourism.

Strong visitation and repeat business generate additional revenue for many municipal programs, services and amenities. Most importantly, the money made from tourism in Saint John has the potential to go a lot further than most realize. Industry research shows that one visit is sometimes all it takes to attract new residents and longer-term investment, such as business growth or home ownership. Those are long-term benefits we can bank on.

In addition to marketing, we can further grow this industry by reinvesting in our tourism products and infrastructure. We have a history of making strategic investments that have had big pay-offs. Consider our Inside Connection Pedway System – it’s what helped rally our uptown tourism providers to work together to promote Saint John as a convention destination. Saint John is now home to a growing roster of world-class events like the East Coast Games and East Coast Music Week in 2017, an event that’s forecasted to bring $3.1 million to the local economy.

Tourism is critical to the success of our community. So much so that it has been identified as a priority sector in our economic development plan. A healthy tourism sector results in a proud, vibrant community for everyone, and we all have a stake in it.

Saint John has an amazing story to tell — we have a good opportunity and a greater responsibility to share it. Let’s place our bets on this winning hand, by rallying around an industry that is already contributing so much, to ensure it can continue to be the economic pillar this community needs.

Paulette Hicks is the President of the Saint John Hotel Association and General Manager of the Delta Brunswick Hotel.