Place branding for rural destinations

Differentiating your place can be a challenge - particularly if you're a rural destination. Andrew Redden, Tourism and Economic Development Manager for Hastings County, shared his experience of marketing a rural place for tourism and talent - and how collaboration can be key to unlocking new opportunities.

Can you give us a quick understanding of how your organisation has changed over the last five years? 

Over the past five years, I would say that our organisation has changed through the way that our County Council chose to invest in tourism marketing in 2017, and approved the development of a new branding and positioning strategy. Our economic and tourism development staff levels went from one full-time Manager, a part-time Tourism Development Coordinator and part-time Small Business Coach to converting the two part-time roles to full-time and adding a full-time Marketing Coordinator. Five years ago we were mainly focussed on economic and tourism development and now we are also actively engaged in tourism marketing.


And how do you anticipate your organisation evolving to meet the challenges of the new decade?

How I anticipate we will evolve is by continuing to review and refresh our Economic Development Action Plan and associated Tourism Development and Marketing Plans. We are currently refreshing all of our Plans and this was done through various consultations, collection of the most up-to-date statistics and data available, recognizing new trends and challenges, and conducting in-depth interviews with all 14 members of our County Council.  


There’s been a generational shift in tourism growth markets and investment decision-makers recently. How has this impacted on your own strategy?

What I have found is that experiences are what people are wanting as opposed to simply watching or observing.  For example, if there’s a sled dog race competition, can there be a space where spectators/families can go for a short dog sled ride? Does a Bed and Breakfast offer just a bed and a morning breakfast or do they also offer free trail passes and snowshoes or skis to head out on the trails nearby? Does a local artisan butcher just have a retail outlet to sell their product or can they also collaborate with a local restaurant/chef to provide some packaged dinner experiences featuring their product? I think these sorts of trends have impacted our strategies meaning it’s more than simply marketing to people to come and explore our area - now we're inviting people to come and “experience”.  


We’ve seen an increasing number of destinations exploring alternative sources for funding. Has the funding model for your organisation transformed at all?

One of the opportunities we’ve been exploring is the possibility now to implement a Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT).  Some communities in Ontario have already implemented a MAT which helps financially support their tourism marketing efforts. Some cringe at the thought of a “tax”, but the benefits of this is that it’s not the local taxpayer that is charged, it’s the visitor who pays an additional small percentage on their overnight bill which is collected by the local municipality to help go towards tourism marketing.  It could for some communities generate several hundred thousand dollars each year to go towards tourism.


What do you consider to be your single biggest challenge currently?

Currently the biggest challenge is probably the changing workforce and availability.  For instance, we recently surveyed a cross section of 89 businesses across Hastings County. 57% of the businesses we surveyed indicated that they are somewhat or very dissatisfied with the availability of qualified workers. 32% were somewhat satisfied. Related to this, we have discovered that across our region only about half (50%) of our working age population are working or actively looking for work.  We are wanting to dive into this matter further and find out why. Is it due to an aging population and retirement?  Mental health issues?  Single parents not able to afford child care?  If we cannot provide a reliable and qualified workforce, it’s a challenge to attract new business who need to hire. 


Could you explain how you’re responding to this?

A recommended action in our refreshed Action Plan going before County Council in early 2020 includes a recommendation that we establish an Action Team to review the workforce challenges and concerns.  It also involves working with our regional Centre for Workforce Development as they are reviewing this matter and trying to survey the working age population that is not employed to learn more about “why”. We also plan to collaborate with the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council (EOLC) who also has identified Workforce Development and Deployment as a strategic priority.  


Are you exploring collaborative possibilities with another destination? If so, who and how? 

We have a great working relationship with the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism organisation (OHTO). They are a Regional Tourism Organisation (RTO) funded by the Province of Ontario.  We regularly collaborate with them on various marketing initiatives and programmes.


Why is it important for city governments, destination marketing organisations and investment promotion agencies to share place branding best practice at events like City Nation Place?

I remember one time someone said if “we keep sharing our best practices people will steal our ideas!”. However, I think it’s important to be neighbourly and “end the hockey wars” by not fighting against a community nearby but to instead work together, share knowledge, resources and even collaborate. Each community is unique and while there are similarities, if we focus on our unique attractions and “places” we can share best practices I think on how best to build and promote “place”.


And lastly, if you had an unlimited budget, what’s the first thing that you would implement?

Our County is one of the only communities in Ontario (possibly the only one) to offer the services of a  small business coach. Our “coach” is a full-time staff person titled a  “Small Business Coordinator” who provides free 1-on-1 coaching to anyone who wants to start a business here, and to those in business currently who are looking to improve their marketing, financial management or some other aspect  of their business. The Coordinator does not have an office, but rather visits people at the local coffee shop or at someone’s place of business. A  challenge, however, is we are Ontario’s second largest County, close to the  size of the Province of Prince Edward Island, and therefore numerous hours are spent travelling to-and-from a meeting. If we somehow had access to an unlimited budget, it would be nice if we could expand on this program and add another “coach”. Having at least one more person in this role would allow us to  support more local people and businesses.  

Interested in learning more? Check out our latest place branding articles.

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.