With more than 30 products on offer, this small Prince Edward Island business offers travellers a glimpse into the real Canada.
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If you’re still learning your tourism ABCs, then E is for experience. It’s at the heart of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) Signature Experiences Collection® (SEC) program. Now into its second year and with more than 160 members to call on, its international exposure continues to grow.
Experience is also at the heart of a special Prince Edward Island business. Experience PEI is a local leader in providing adventures and trip for visitors, allowing them to get up close and personal with the real Canada. It’s more than worthy of inclusion in the second series of SEC case studies underway in CTC News.
Here, Bill Kendrick, who owns and runs Experience PEI alongside his wife Mary, reveals what drives them to consistently seek out new products to deliver to visitors as well as the opportunity they bring to expose travellers to exotic Canada.
Tong and Shuck, the experience featured in the Collection, highlights the work of Future Seafoods, an oyster farm at Salutation Cove, PEI. Visitors go out on an oyster dory to tong for the seafood treats themselves and also receive a lesson in the skills of oyster shucking.
Let’s take it from the top: what inspired you to get into the tourism business?
We got into tourism at the beginning because we wanted to start a B&B [Briarcliffe Inn]. We fell in love with a century-old farmhouse, bought it, did the reno and have been running it since 2001.
Experience PEI came from talking to our guests at the inn. They had two main questions: “Where do we go?” and “What do we do?” After the standard answers of “Go to Green Gables?” “Take a drive along the coast” and “Eat a lobster dinner” it got a bit thin. But we knew there was so much more to PEI than that. We started to notice that the people who came back and were the most engaged were those who had a local connection. They’d had a chat with a lobster fisherman, or a farmer at work in a potato field.
We thought there’s got to be a way to get people to interact with interesting islanders, so we started with a “meet the neighbours” concept. The very first experience we created was Tong and Shuck. In a cove below the inn is a private oyster farm with over a million oysters. The fisher thought I was crazy, saying that the work was hard, wet and dirty. But visitors see the work going on and they’re curious. This was an opportunity to give people a chance to learn about oysters, oyster fishing, the farm and the fisher’s family. He took some convincing but eventually agreed. Six years later, it’s our most popular experience and we now have over 30 experiential tourism products on our list.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your enterprise today?
Marketing the experiences effectively; it’s a matter of letting people know that these tourism products are available. At the beginning, we didn’t have clients every day. People don’t tend to wake up and say, “Today, I want to do something experiential.”
We’re well known in this area on the island. Tourism Prince Edward Island has really supported product development and to position PEI as a leader in experiential tourism. One of the practical challenges we face is that this type of product can’t be pre-scheduled. Oyster fishing depends on a high tide. Clam digging depends on a low tide. There’s a lot of complicated and labour-intensive logistical work to put these products together.
How are you promoting your membership?
There’s a link to the announcement of our inclusion on our web page for Tong and Shuck. We also add SEC among our awards in the e-mails we send to clients confirming their bookings. We see it as further validation of what we do and that it lends credibility to us as operators.
It’s early days yet as the program’s only a year old, but what’s changed for your business as a result of being a member?
We’re not doing anything differently, but we’re definitely getting more international exposure. We’re a small business, so we don’t have the resources for international marketing; being present in CTC’s efforts is great for us. We know that international travellers are looking for these kinds of personal, connected experiences.
Are you getting more international visitors?
Our numbers have grown over time, but last year we definitely noticed there were more than previous years.
Has your media exposure changed domestically or internationally as a result of being of a SEC member?
We had a number of travel writers come to PEI after this year’s GoMedia Canada Marketplace. Tourism PEI likes us as we’re consistently developing new products, so when travel journalists are looking for something new and different, we’re one of their first calls. We’ve had more international writers as well from Europe and Australia. We used to just get them from Canada and the US.
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.)
I found the process for submitting rather cumbersome. Some of the questions almost made you fudge your answers, especially on international marketing. So many of us are small businesses and just don’t do international marketing specifically. We’re on the Internet, which is of course available internationally, but that’s it.
Have you considered exploring business relationships or cross-promotions with other SEC members?
Not yet, but it would be interesting to look at, though I’m not sure how we’d tie up with a business in northern BC. Here on the island there are just two of us in the SEC. We’ve found that since we developed Experience PEI we get hired to go off island to hold workshops with other destination and provincial marketing organizations. You have to think like a tourist: they come to the Maritimes or Atlantic Canada, not just our island. If they do a great experience in Nova Scotia, they’ll want the same on PEI. It’s better for all of us.
What’s been your biggest lesson this year as a tourism operator?
We’re trying to make a move into the cruise market, which is an area of significant growth on PEI. It’s a whole new area. These people are only here for a day. We’ve connected with the higher end of this group, people who are looking for experiential products. To do so, we’ve adapted some products to handle larger numbers, while still being hands-on and experiential. It’s not a mass market—but then again experiential tourism is not mass-market either.
What are some of the challenges facing Canada’s tourism industry?
The CTC has done a good job in trying to enhance the Canada brand. I sense from travellers that they see the country as a wide open wilderness for adventure and beautiful scenery. But there’s so much more. As a nation we need to let people know that we’re much more than that. There’s beautiful scenery all over the world, so it’s hard to compete on that. We need to show how they [visitors] can learn and interact with our unique culture. We’re every bit as exotic as everywhere else—as Canadians we just don’t recognize it. We have to find a way and SEC is a great start.