By: Korie Marshall
There have been heated discussions about the Visitor Centre over the past year or so between some Valemount residents and Mayor Andru McCracken, both on social media and in person. One business owner especially has issues with the Visitor Centre selling retail merchandise. McCracken has told me he fears discussing the issue is tearing the community apart, but I think discussing it and getting to the root of the issue is the only way to get past the division.
As I see it, the situation is basically this: the Village has contracted a company to provide a service – the service of running the Visitor Information Centre. Part of the deal for providing that service is that business gets to use the Village’s facilities (that lovely new building the Village owns). And in order to make the contract economically feasible for both parties, the contractor is allowed to sell merchandise, something often done in Visitor Centres. I believe it is totally within the rights of the Village to make that agreement, and I believe our MLA Shirley Bond has said as much to one business owner who brought his concerns to her.
However it does kind of look like the Village is subsidizing a business – something that is not allowed to do under the Community Charter. Section 25 of the Charter says “a council must not provide a grant, benefit, advantage or other form of assistance to a business…” There are some exceptions if it relates to developing heritage property and resources or increasing knowledge about the history of a place, but I don’t think those apply here.
If the contractor could not sell merchandise, it would not make money, and therefore the Village would have to pay the entire cost of running and staffing the centre. That wasn’t budgeted for, and I’m sure it would cost far more than the $60,000 or so for the first trial year of opening throughout the winter, or $18,000 or so for just the summer. So the Village put out a request for proposals, and someone came up with a creative solution, one that would make the contractor some money and would not cost the Village too much. We’re lucky we have people here with the skill-set, experience and creativity to do it, or it might have cost a lot more.
So does it come down to how you choose to view the situation? I think one problem is that the Village obviously believes in the value of having a Visitor Centre – but it has done a poor job of convincing residents.
I know when I walk into an information centre I am looking for information like maps, advice on what to do, how to get around, and that is not the sort of thing I am going to pay for. The statistics in the recent report to Council from Adventure Management showed last summer, between May and September, they got almost 3,000 requests for maps and directions, by far the most of any category. The next four most common requests were information about parks, adventure recreation, accommodations and food and beverage. If the centre itself is getting good reviews, they must be doing something right in these areas. Requests for shopping and services were pretty low on the list, so maybe there is not a whole lot of opportunity to refer visitors to the other businesses in the area. But if the visitor centre wasn’t open, maybe travelers would wander into some of those businesses on their own.
That same report says the purpose of the Visitor Centre is to increase the length of a visitor’s stay and to promote return visits. Can a Visitor Centre do that? Or is it the place itself, the businesses, people, activities here that do that? I am sure having good information about the community and what is available and being able to match people to what they are looking for helps. But how do you measure that? How do you show you are doing that, and that it is working?
The report from Adventure Management talks a lot about how people enjoy the centre, and it shows statistics on who comes to the centre, but that is really what people think about the centre. It doesn’t show if they are staying longer or if they will return, or if those choices are influenced by having visited the centre. I am sure some of them are, but it is really hard to show that. McCracken says he knows some businesses appreciate the Visitor Centre, but I haven’t heard the businesses report that. VARDA said it appreciated the Visitor Centre staying open all winter because it sold $880 in trail passes and memberships for them, but that doesn’t sound like much to me. I’m sure it helps VARDA though if people can buy their trail passes using credit and debit cards.
The bottom line is, if people are stopping at the Visitor Centre all the time, that sounds great – but are they stopping at other businesses too? If they are, how do we know?
There must be dozens of tourism associations and probably hundreds if not thousands of marketing opportunities across the province, and businesses and communities are choosing to spend money on them – there is clearly a belief that marketing and promotion, getting information out there has value. But how much value?
The Visitor Centre is essentially a marketing tool, and my question is: are we getting the best bang for our buck with that tool? Or are there other ways we could be getting more bang for those same dollars? How do we even answer that question? I would like to hear from businesses that are seeing benefits from the Visitor Centre. Maybe the businesses themselves aren’t tracking it, but I am sure they each have a gut feeling. And each business that benefits is going to have a ripple effect on other businesses in the community. If we can see something tangible, then it might be easier to say what value we are getting.