The sky is the limit for this Albertan business that takes travellers from around the world into majestic mountain settings.
Previous SEC case studies:
Passion drives the best in any business to excel. The Canadian Tourism Commission(CTC) has the passion to bring people to our country; it’s the fuel that drives the Signature Experiences Collection® (SEC) program forward into its second year and beyond.
Icefield Helicopter Tours and Kananaskis Heli Tours, AB, has been a SEC member for more than a year. Its owner, Ralph Sliger, is certainly passionate about tourism and the experiences his business deliver to visitors and is the next subject in the second series of SEC case studies in CTC News.
So what inspired you to get into the tourism business?
We got into tourism as a diversification of our original core business back in 1999. We also do charters and normal helicopter work. Tourism was a totally new market for us. As it turns out, it’s now our core business: we use more helicopters on tourism than on charters.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your enterprise today?
The biggest challenge is air access into Canada, or rather the lack of it. Air Canada has a monopoly on the skies and refuses to allow other carriers in. The US has 127 different airlines from around the world flying into America. Canada has seven. South Korea has 250,000 people who want to come to Canada. However, Air Canada only has 50,000 seats per year. Korean Air only has 50,000 seats. It just does not add up. It forces travellers who otherwise would come to Canada to go to the US. They might come to Niagara, ON, for a day or to Toronto, ON. But essentially people can’t do what they want to do. Emirates would like to bring A380s to major Canadian cities every day. In some cases like Toronto and Vancouver, three or four times a day. We have a shortage of about one million seats each year. Can you imagine what that million would mean for our national GDP if they were filled? And what that would do to the recession?
Tell us more about the experience you have that is featured in the Collection…
Soaring Spirit Heli-Yoga is an experiential tour. We fly people with their yoga instructor up to a high alpine meadow. The yoga instructor then warms them up for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their age and experience. That’s followed by meditation, relaxation and a walk. The instructor talks about the local flora, fauna and geology as they go. Then it’s time for more yoga and more meditation before a gourmet picnic arranged by their guide, Martha McCallum. Her gourmet sandwiches are to die for! They then walk down to a high alpine lake to be flown back again. The trip usually takes three to four hours, though we have had clients sometimes stay up there for six to eight. Usually, though, people have had a great time after just three hours.
Although the SEC program is only a year old, what’s changed for your business?
We’ve noticed that because we’re offering heli-yoga, which is different to the others, we’re also getting lots of requests for the other products we offer. We get a lot of requests for heli-yoga, of course.
In terms of visitors from afar, are you getting visitors from any new international markets or are you seeing a greater numbers from existing ones?
We go with CTC to a lot of the major shows around the world and we have found a substantial increase in visitors from places such as India. Before, we had next to no visitors from there. Now it’s a nice growing piece of our business. India is a good emerging tourism market for us.
Has your media exposure changed domestically or internationally?
Our overall exposure has improved, but that’s because we’re going out into the market. People don’t phone us up to make a booking because they’ve seen we’re a Signature Experience. They just don’t do that. There’s no doubt the exposure we’ve had through CTC-led advertising in magazines and online has helped, but we just can’t quantify it.
Do you have any new tourism products in the pipeline?
We have a new heli-horseback product. It’s a helicopter ride, then a horseback ride followed by a western barbecue. It’s three hours long and just $279 per person.
One year in, what do you think of the SEC program so far? Have you encountered any stumbling blocks? (You can be honest; we don’t bite.)
It’s not been a huge generator of business. SEC has been more effective for us in terms of exposure, especially over non-members.
Have you considered exploring business relationships or cross-promotions with other SEC members?
We do all the time; the heli-horseback product is an example of that. As is the rafting. We also team up with other business for tradeshows in places like the UK and Holland where CTC no longer runs them. B2B is the way to go rather than direct to consumers.
What’s been your biggest lesson this year as a tourism operator?
CTC is not selling Canada the way it should be sold. The provinces are providing mixed messages to consumers as to where they’re going. People should be coming to Vancouver, Canada, not Vancouver, BC. The messages are so mixed that some people just don’t end up coming. Therefore, CTC must take the lead. International markets should be CTC’s to look after and all the international offices run by the provinces should be closed. The provinces instead should pay CTC for their work in those markets. To be effective, CTC needs a budget of $250 million. Travel Alberta now has a budget bigger than CTC’s and that is a big, big problem for Canada. The government is just not supporting the tourism industry here. The brightest tourism minds in Canada don’t have the resources they need to get the job done. The government needs to get the message instead of protecting Air Canada to the detriment of all Canadians.
If you were to point to a big opportunity for Canada’s tourism industry, what might that be?
We should drop the branding, drop “Explore Canada.” It just doesn’t stoke emotion. “Incredible India” stokes emotions. We need to get back to our grassroots of moose, mountains and Mounties. That’s why people spend their money to come here. Our brand is our name—Canada. Our brand is not Explore. We operators have a passion for Canada as a whole country, and that is what we need to sell to the world. If we can’t get them to come to Canada, then they definitely won’t be coming to buy my product.