This small Ontario business is big on experiences and local community; CTC’s program will help it attract new international visitors.
Northern Edge Algonquin is built on experiences—lots of them. From canoe trips from an eco-lodge in Algonquin Provincial Park, ON, to work on your watercolours or sea kayaking and yoga, everything has a strong local flavour.
One of Northern Edge Algonquin’s finest—Rails, Trails & Ales: Beer and Bikes Adventure—recently became part of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC)’s Signature Experiences Collection® (SEC). CTC’s new program will lead the way for Canada travel into 2012 and beyond. The second round of applications to join its membership list has just closed (115 strong and sure to rise), but don’t worry if you missed applying. There will be another opportunity next spring.
As part of the CTC News seriesof case studies on Collection members, Todd Lucier, Northern Edge Algonquin co-founder and retreat developer, lifts the lid on his business to reveal the ingredients for great experiences and what SEC membership means to him.
Previous SEC case studies:
Heartland International Travel & Tours
Celtic Colours International Festival
When did Northern Edge Algonquin get started?
We established ourselves in 1995 and our focus even back then was on creating experiences. We took people into Algonquin Park and then we’d bring along, say, a naturalist or a yoga teacher to explore the park with us. The way tourism was sold at that point was about the type of bed you had, what TV and how good was your air conditioning. People sat down, were served meals after ordering out of a menu and then at the end someone took their dishes away. Tourism then wasn’t about the most memorable parts of travellers’ experiences. We were different. Our “cabins” were canvas tents, not hotel rooms. Our mealtimes came from a buffet, full of local, cherished food. The plates were a mix: blue ones, red ones and brown ones; people didn’t care. Afterward, people finished their meals and came out to help wash up. It was a place for intimate, family-type conversations while busy washing and drying. Our focus was on presenting a hands-on experience.
When do you think the industry changed?
I was invited to a conference based around “tourism packaging” a few years back. I started listening, and realized that the presenters were telling people who run B&Bs, resorts and inns to do what we were doing already. From that moment, I was hooked on the fact we were in fact a tourism business. We could help others create meaningful and memorable tourism experiences.
When did you first hear of the Signature Experiences Collection®?
I first heard last year when it was announced. Our work [Northern Edge Algonquin] represents what Canada is truly all about. For example, paddling canoes, snowshoeing, drinking locally crafted beer and eating wood-fired pizza outdoors, but still close to a major city like Toronto. The Signature Experiences Collection® is really going to help travellers identify a variety of experiences across Canada.
Were you familiar with any of the CTC’s free toolkits prior to your business joining the Collection?
I’ve used the Experiences Toolkit several times online. And EQ, of course, helped us focus on our ideal guests.
What motivated you to apply?
Lots of small businesses deliver excellent travel experiences, but being profiled within the Signature Experiences Collection® helps others see we’re on the right track. If I’ve got a meaningful and memorable experience that screams, “This is Canada!” and my business is in there, then maybe others will change their approach and focus on creating their own unique Canadian experiences. Together we can create a compelling image of travel to Canada.
Was the application process straightforward?
It was easy to fill out. However, it would help if there were more things beyond just the marketing approach and more about the experience itself. Perhaps a deeper look at how you go about creating partnerships in your local community, or raising awareness of the flavour of your local community, or thinking about how your business strives toward continual improvement.
Tell us more about the experience featured in the Collection.
We run Rails, Trails & Ales in spring, summer and fall on bikes, taking people pedalling down backcountry roads. There’s also a behind-the-scenes tour of the Highlander Brew Co. to enjoy a pint and a bite or two. Then it’s off to the log and canvas cabins in the forest. Meal time includes artisan pizza-making: rolling the dough, putting on toppings and then cooking the pizzas in the wood-fired oven. Nothing tastes as good as that. We have other things going on at the cabins, too, like artisan-beer tasting or local music with singer/songwriters, or kayaking and nature trails to explore. In the winter we switch to the trails, to dog-sledding and snowshoeing as our way of getting folks around. Rails, Trails & Ales is a combination of adventure, nourishment and nature: a celebration, really. Being together round a campfire is a core, rich element. So is being in the forest, snowshoeing in such quiet or doing yoga by the dock on the floating platform. The stillness and quiet of nature is amazing. You want to bottle it and package it.
What kind of travellers does your business attract?
Broadly, our visitors are 50% domestic, largely from the GTA [Greater Toronto Area], then 25% from the USand the other 25% are international. Mainly they are Authentic Experiencers who want to paddle their own canoes and appreciate real food—not pre-packaged and deep-fried. These folks are connoisseurs of local. We also attract a lot of spiritual seekers between 40 and 60 years old. They’re rejuvenators looking to unplug and disconnect, so they appreciate not hearing trucks going by or the telephone ringing. We’re out of cellphone range, so our guests are not tied to theirs, instead connecting to the experiences they are engaged in.
What immediate benefits do you see for Northern Edge Algonquin now that you are part of the Collection?
Almost immediately after it was announced we were in the Collection we got phone calls from people wanting more information. Media picked up the news, too, so we got a number of calls from them. It’s definitely a credibility boost as a small business to be picked for the Collection by the CTC. I hope it leads to more knowledge about Canada for consumers and the travel trade internationally.
Are you promoting your membership? If so, how?
We’ve posted our membership on Facebook, on our website and in e-mail footers. We’ve sent a press release around to our experience partners who are super excited as they also get a boost from it. It’ll make it easier to partner with more people as it raises credibility within the community, which will lead to more innovation.
Are there specific international markets that you can see your business resonating in through the Signature Experiences Collection®?
Currently we get visitors from Germany, the UK, Australia, India, Dubai…probably 20 different countries. It’s really helpful for us that CTC targets its focus on just 11 international markets. For the future, I’d love to expand our reach into France and Mexico as well.