Tourism Week Interview – Chuck Thibeault, Executive Director

Markham, ON – When most people think of a tourist, the image that comes to mind includes Hawaiian shirts, fanny packs and socks and sandals. For many businesses within York Region, Durham Region and Headwaters Region, that is why tourism is not top of mind as a means to grow their bottom line according to Chuck Thibeault, Executive Director of Central Counties Tourism, the provincially funded not-for-profit dedicated to supporting and promoting tourism throughout the region.

“A tourist”, says Thibeault, “is anyone who spends their hard-earned money in a municipality where they don’t live or work.” When your disposable income is spent somewhere else, you are supporting that economy, and it means more than supporting the places you visit.

Last summer, Thibeault, who lives in Georgetown tracked his spending while two of his children played in the Ontario Lacrosse Provincials in Durham region. Over the course of six days, he spent $1139 and did not stay overnight in a hotel. Expenses included meals out, gas, movies and other entertainment between games and, he jokes, the odd beverage after a bad game. He also purchased hockey equipment at a local sporting goods store.

“There is a trickle down effect of tourism spending”, says Thibeault. “The wait staff at the restaurants are busier and need to get their uniforms laundered more often, helping the dry cleaner stay in business. The staff at the sporting goods store get more hours because it is busier with non-residents and they spend their income in the municipality helping other businesses keep their doors open.” Tourism is more than selling fun, it is about keeping businesses open and the economy strong.

Small business is the backbone of the hospitality and tourism industry. “One of Central Counties’ priorities,” says Thibeault, “is to help operators learn how to become more tourism-ready.” The first step is to think about their business in the context of a destination. Thibeault says that if you are only thinking locally, then every like business is your direct competition. But when you think about your business in terms of being part of a bigger destination or visitor experience, then all of the like businesses are now your greatest ally.

“Car dealerships understood this concept year ago and built competing brands in the same location,” says Thibeault. “And suddenly all the dealerships were selling more cars because anyone in the market for a new car went to the automall because they knew they could do it all in one stop.” The same is true for visitors. You may not drive three hours to visit a hand-crafted soap store. But if you know there is also a potter, brewery, farm-to-fork restaurant, and a historic downtown, suddenly the three hours doesn’t seem as long because you know there is so much else to do. In fact, you may be tempted to find a great bed and breakfast and spend two days in the region.

This past year alone, Central Counties worked with over 600 tourism businesses and stakeholders to help them be more successful. This included working with communities as they developed tourism strategies and implemented wayfinding programs and collaborating with businesses to create compelling experiences that motivate people to come and visit. “Giving small business owners tools that allow them to spend time working “on” their business instead of just “at” their business helps the local economy,” says Chuck. “The thing that most people forget is that anything a business or clusters of businesses do that will attract and impress tourists, will also be positive for residents.” In fact, good tourism product often leads to more residents getting out and spending their money in the community when they invite family and friends to come visit.

This past year, Thibeault learned first hand of another economic spin-off of tourism. In Uxbridge, the York Durham Heritage Railway brought in Thomas the Tank Engine with the support of Central Counties. In addition to targeting the local market, CCT worked with the organization to drive visitors from the GTA and Eastern Ontario. Each of the four weekend, visitors to the train asked volunteers where the local real estate office was. “I had never thought of it before,” says Thibeault, “but the fact is for the most part if you decide to move somewhere it is because at some point you visited the area. In this case, people were experiences Uxbridge for the first time, fell in love with the town and investigated moving to the neighbourhood.”

For most hospitality businesses in Central Counties, tourism plays a part of the overall mix of visitors and is often incremental, not core. The role of Central Counties is to move the overall needle for businesses. “If at the moment your business sees 100 people per year, 95 of which are locals and 5 are from “away”, Central Counties wants you to get to 120 visitors a year where 105 are locals and 15 are visitors from other regions.” By working together to create compelling reasons to visit, this is possible.

“When it comes to tourism,” says Thibeault, “the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts”.