Destination management: How Alberta transitioned to a new model for tourism

Tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world – a testament to the resilience of the sector following the COVID-19 pandemic. But aiming for endless visitor growth leads to long-term challenges, putting destinations at odds with residents, communities, and the environment.

To charter a path for sustainable growth that transforms communities for the better, Travel Alberta adopted a more considered approach, shifting from a destination marketing focus to one of destination management.

We sat down with David Goldstein, CEO of Travel Alberta, to discover how their destination management strategy is supporting long-term economic, cultural, and social prosperity for communities across the province.


What is destination management, and why does it matter?  

Destination management is the ability to influence both the supply and demand side of the tourism equation.

Many organisations around the world market their destinations—putting “the prettiest dress in the window,” so to speak. But very few organisations get to decide what that dress is going to look like, and make sure there’s inventory for future seasons.

Prior to 2021, Travel Alberta was a traditional destination marketing organisation. But coming out of COVID, we adopted a relatively unique model where we develop and promote destinations, all under one roof, one centre of excellence. We call this our Bootstrap Plan, with three pillars: marketing, access and place.

Marketing is what we’ve always done – laser-focused promotion to travellers across our key markets. Access enables air travel to Alberta – as a fly-to destination, direct access to our destinations is key. And Place is developing tourism product – designing and building our inventory.

We shifted from simply marketing destinations, to being in the business of tourism.

This shift enabled us to support the 220,000 Albertans who make their livelihoods in the tourism, during a time when the sector desperately needed support. 

Now that you’re pivoting from destination marketing to destination management, how is Travel Alberta working differently?

We are one of the few destinations in Canada that doesn’t have visitation goals. Together across the sector, we’re working to grow visitor spend to $25 billion by 2035 – more than double what it was pre-pandemic.

Tourism is no longer just about attracting visitors; it’s about attracting revenue and investment. We want the right travellers, not just more of them. We’re working to attract travellers that will visit often, spend more, and travel in all seasons.

We also can’t reach our goals by exclusively doing what we’ve always done, in the places we’ve always been. While we will always support our Rockies and city destinations – our “crown jewels” that inspire travellers around the world – we also need to build the rest of the crown.

We’re strategically developing additional tourism product outside of our most popular destinations – “tourism development zones” that represent a significant opportunity for growth – and winter experiences that reduce seasonality.

Northern lights, winter sports, luxury rail travel, world-class farm-to-table and agritourism experiences, and all-season resorts are trip anchors for markets across the world and represent major opportunities for investment and development. Not to mention the incredible landscapes, diverse cultures, dynamic cities, world-famous festivals and events, and small-town rural spirit that we’re known for.

Extensive market research has taught us that our ideal travellers don’t want to fight the crowds. They don’t care about the photo op in front of the Eiffel Tower. They’re looking for those meaningful, unique experiences that will change them forever – to find out what it means to become Albertans for a moment, a week, or a lifetime.

Alberta might not be for everyone, but for some, we’re everything.

Are there any unexpected challenges that you’ve faced during this process? How did you overcome them?

To reach our goal of $25 billion in visitor spend by 2035 requires an aggressive destination development strategy to meet the growing demand for boutique tourism product. And while entrepreneurs of all sizes and maturity play a critical role in the fabric of a destination, we can’t get to $25 billion with nothing but yurts and cabins. We need a mix of accommodation styles with different price points, from high-end hotels and resorts to glamping and more accessible options.

Now, we’re showing investors around the world that Alberta is open for business. We’re working with different levels of government, tourism entrepreneurs, and private investors to bring forward year-round new attractions, new Indigenous product, and new boutique accommodations which represent a huge opportunity for investment and development.


Can you tell us more about how you’re partnering with Indigenous communities more purposefully?

Indigenous tourism has the power to create resilient, prosperous communities and provides a touchstone for international visitors to Alberta. We know that a third of international travellers are looking for authentic Indigenous tourism, and there are many Indigenous-led experiences to explore, from culinary and artistry, to medicine walks and outdoor experiences.

Our longstanding partnership with Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA) underscores our commitment to reconciliation, enabling meaningful strides in developing Indigenous tourism product while ensuring that Indigenous Peoples tell their own stories and reap the benefits of a thriving visitor economy.

Partnership and collaboration with Indigenous communities requires a continuous commitment to building long-term, meaningful, and reciprocal relationships. We undertook significant engagement with Indigenous communities throughout our Tourism Development Zones project and will continue those efforts to facilitate Indigenous-led tourism, in partnership with and led by Indigenous entrepreneurs and communities.

How are you bringing your tourism and hospitality industry along with you on this transformation? 

Tourism is Alberta’s #1 service export, yet many residents and communities still see it as nothing more than a seasonal invasion that disrupts resident quality of life, creating low-paying seasonal jobs with limited growth opportunities.

To create the necessary conditions for growth and an active investment environment, we need to establish a new narrative: tourism is an economic powerhouse. When our visitor economy works, we all do. In Alberta, over 200,000 people depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

We’re challenging a perception that the visitor economy is only about attracting tourists. As I said earlier – we’re looking for investment, not hips through turnstiles. Tourism creates opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to chase their dreams, while transforming a destination for the better.

Tourism and hospitality organisations, alongside local entrepreneurs, are the primary touchpoint for international visitors. They interact directly with the traveller and can be ambassadors, not only for their communities, but for tourism in Alberta as a whole. We’re collaborating across the sector to drive alignment so we’re all singing from one song sheet, creating a consistent and incredible Alberta experience for both travellers and the potential workforce who seek employment in the sector.

How are you measuring the success of your strategy? What sort of benchmarks and metrics are you using to show the impact that this pivot to destination management has had for the region?

We have a robust research and data analytics team that ensures that our strategic is based on strategic risk taking and a methodology that will deliver a robust return on investment.

For example, our air access recovery strategy saw incredible returns – from  2021-2023, Alberta recovered 13 routes representing more than 500,000 seats.

And our investments in tourism product are evaluated based on their potential for GDP growth and job creation – ensuring a strong ROI for every shovel in the ground.

Our Bootstrap Plan provided a three-year roadmap to recover tourism spend to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. By 2022, visitor spending had exceeded pre-pandemic levels at $10.7 billion. This accelerated recovery two years ahead of schedule is a testament to our destination management approach and the hard work of the many incredible entrepreneurs across the province.

Do you have a piece of advice for another destination marketing organisation that is looking to build a destination management strategy for their place?

Decide what business you’re in. Any destination can take the MAP (marketing, access, place) formula and apply it to their destination planning efforts, but you need to put the investment behind it.

This next stage of tourism growth will be characterised by strategic and coordinated destination development, growth of rural destinations, supports for a thriving Indigenous tourism sector, continued enhancements in destination access, strong growth in international markets, and bold investment attraction efforts that will define the future of our destinations.

While Travel Alberta was successful in aligning our mandate to empower us to make decisions for each of those elements, other organisations may need to partner with their governments or the private sector to obtain the same results. But it can be done.

It will require bold moves, strategic risk-taking, and a fanatical obsession with smart, data-driven decision-making.

Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that with us, David. 

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