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The weather may be colder, but things are heating up fast when it comes to the winter tourism season in Waterloo Region.

 

In fact, tourism spending in Canada in general is expected to recover quicker than anticipated according to Destination Canada’s latest tourism outlook which is predicting a return to 2019 levels by 2024, up from 2025 as predicted last spring. As well, the report indicates Canada’s tourism sector could generate more than $142 billion by 2030 which represents a 35% growth over the next decade.

 

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Explore Waterloo Region CEO Michele Saran, noting that domestic travel has recovered much quicker than international visits.

 

“When you’re talking about Waterloo Region, keeping in mind we receive 96% of our visitations from the GTA, we expect to be fully recovered here to 2019 levels by 2023,” she says. “In fact, we’re almost there now.”

 

Michele credits this local rebound not only on a growing pent-up demand for travel opportunities following pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, but the fact the region has so much to offer.

 

“When you talk about the winter season, in Waterloo Region we always do quite well,” she says. “Interestingly, I’ve never seen a destination that doesn’t take a hit at this time of year except for us, and Christmas really seems to be our ‘thing’.”

 

Michele credits the numerous holiday festivals and activities for providing a major boost to our local tourism and hospitality sector, including Cambridge’s ‘Winterfest’ which offers numerous events and displays until the end of the month, Kitchener’s recent ‘Christkindl Market’ and KWFamous ‘Holiday Pop-Shoppe’, as well as Bingemans’ ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Gift of Lights’ events.

 

“Everybody (tourism operators) seems very positive about this season,” she says. “And we’ve been doing our Road Trip campaign for the last few months on social media, and we’ve been talking about winter and amplifying all the fabulous things you can do within an easy drive of our target market.”

 

Besides Christmas activities, Michele says Waterloo Region is loaded with a variety of winter attractions such as Chicopee which should be welcoming skiers and tubers soon, as well Shades Mills Conservation Area in Cambridge for walking and cross-country skiing.

 

As well, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada has once again started its plant tours, which provide an inside look at its Cambridge facility via a motorized tram.

 

“Also, St. Jacobs and Elmira are always beautiful and magical places to visit in the winter,” she says, adding Explore Waterloo Region has been encouraging people to utilize the Ontario Staycation Tax Credit. 

 

The credit, which expires at the end of the month, allows Ontario residents to claim 20% of their eligible 2022 accommodation (cottage, hotel, or campground) expenses up to $1,000 as an individual or $2,000 if you spouse, common-law partner, or children, to get back up to $200 as an individual or $400 as a family.

 

“We’re actually lobbying as an industry to keep the tax credit in place for next year as well,” says Michele. “As you know, we were the first industry hit and the hardest hit and the last to recover, so we would love to keep this value added as part of our marketing arsenal.”

 

In terms of any potential threat from what has been dubbed as the ‘tripledemic’ (Flu, RSV and COVID-19), she remains optimistic that local tourism operators are prepared.

 

“I think everyone in the tourism industry is really good at listening to public health recommendations, and because our industry was the first hit, we’ve had to create all different types of scenarios about how to open safely and serve the public,” says Michele. “We’ve become really good at it and have a lot of practice.”

 

Visit Explore Waterloo Region to learn more.

 

A few things to check out:

  • Cambridge Winterfest – runs until Dec. 31 and features light installations and a variety of events in all three downtown cores.
  • Bingemans - Jingle Bell Rock, runs until Jan. 7 and outdoor light displays, surrounding a 40-foot dancing tree illumination. Gift of Lights runs until Dec. 31. Drive through holiday light display featuring over 300 animated and static light displays.
  • KWFamous Holiday Pop-Shoppe - Until Dec. 30 featuring more than 80 local makers and creators taking part at shop located across from Kitchener City Hall.
  • Jakobstettel – Celebrates 170 Years of St. Jacobs, featuring a series of events until Dec. 18.
  • The City of Waterloo hosts  Winterloo on Jan 28, 2023
  • Toyota Plant Tour – a 90-minute tour of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada’s Cambridge facility. Tours currently run Monday to Wednesday.
  • Chicopee 

 

*  With files from the Toronto Star    

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As travel levels continue to ramp up towards even higher volumes than they were before the world shutdown due to COVID-19, the Region of Waterloo International Airport is ready to handle any surge.

 

“We’re probably in the top-10 of busiest airports in the country as far as movements but we’re also in the top-20 when it comes the number of passengers,” says Chris Wood, General Manager of the Region of Waterloo International Airport, noting he expects the airport will soon see that passenger ranking move up to the 12th to 13th busiest spot.

 

Chris says the airport is expected to welcome at least 500,000 passengers in 2022, which is slightly less than its initial projection due in big part to the arrival of the Omicron variant but expects to see that number double next year.

 

“We should be able to hit those numbers, with everything being equal,” he says, adding the opening of its new 12,000 square-foot domestic arrivals building in April – part of its $35 million Airport Terminal Expansion Project – is a continued sign of the airport’s importance to the economic vitality of the Region.

 

“Every thriving community has a big, bustling airport. Why should we be any different?” says Chris. “You can’t go to a world-class city anywhere without an airport being part of that.”

 

Currently, WestJet and Flair Airlines are providing a bevy of flights from the airport to a variety of destinations including Calgary and Edmonton, AB, Cancun, Mexico, Winnipeg, MB, and Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. In fact, this summer Flair has unveiled several additional destinations including Charlottetown, P.E.I., Deer Lake, N.L. and Montreal, QC, starting in July.

 

“We do expect Sunwing to return in the winter,” says Chris. “We also have an agreement with Pivot Airlines and expect them to arrive later this fall, but we don’t have a firm date yet.”

 

He says Pivot will offer several flights daily to Ottawa and Montreal, providing a key component in building the airport’s business clientele.

 

“We’ve kind of morphed into a low-cost carrier dream airport because we have a very large and affluent population that has been starved of non-stop service for many years, and we also have a very affluent business community,” says Chris. “But we haven’t really catered as much to the business community.”

 

He’s very candid when it comes to the struggles the airport has had trying to attract more business flyers, noting that smaller business owners and entrepreneurs are more cognizant of their finances so utilizing a low-cost carrier makes sense to them.

 

“But if you’re not paying for your own ticket, it’s more difficult to get people to use the services that are currently here,” says Chris, adding frequent flights a day out of Pearson Airport offered by larger carriers like Air Canada are more convenient for many business travellers.

 

Currently, he says at least 80% of travel at the Region of Waterloo International Airport is leisured based adding the split between business and leisure travel was about 50/50 when American Airlines offered nonstop flights to Chicago from 2011 to 2016.

 

“We saw a lot of people going to Chicago and beyond for business. But if the right type of service comes in, I think the business community would definitely use it,” says Chris, adding Pivot Airlines will be a great draw and caters to the business community thanks to its multiple flights daily to various business locations.

 

When it comes to attracting airlines, he says the process is extremely difficult since airlines must be very strategic where they place their inventory.

 

“The airlines get it. They know there is an opportunity here, but they also know there is more of an opportunity at Pearson,” says Chris, adding carriers like Flair that are destination-based and not interested in connections or using a hub and spoke model, can be easier to attract.

 

“But we’re happy to talk to any airline about service and we’ve got the facility now that can handle them,” he says, crediting Waterloo Regional Council for its continued support. “We can ultimately contribute to the bottom line of the Region.”

 

Chris says the ‘gold standard’ for a regionally operated airport in Canada are Kelowna and Abbotsford, B.C., and that Regional of Waterloo International Airport is quickly approaching those levels.

 

“It’s a model we hope to achieve and we’re getting closer,” he says.

 

To learn more, visit Region of Waterloo International Airport.

 

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The forecast is looking good for the summer tourism season in Waterloo Region.

 

After two years of uncertainties, restrictions and pivoting due to the pandemic, the hospitality and tourism sector is poised for a significant comeback.

 

“Everything is coming back this summer,” says Michele Saran, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region. “There is so much pent-up demand, and it seems like the concerns about COVID-19 are receding and people are feeling a lot more confident to get out and about.”

 

Compared to last year at this time, she says tourism operators in Waterloo Region, including hotels and attractions, have already seen a higher demand in the first quarter of this year.

 

“It’s going incredibly well so far, but there are still labour shortages and supply chain issues,” says Michele. “I know some of our hotels can’t run at full capacity just yet because of these shortages which is a shame because we’ve been hit so hard the last couple of years.”

 

To offset some costs surrounding the implementation of health and safety protocols to keep patrons and employees safe, Explore Waterloo Region and RTO 4 (Regional Tourism Organization 4 Inc.) distributed nearly $600,000 to support 125 attractions, hotels, and other operators in 2020 and 2021 through the Tourism Adaption and Recovery Program (TARP).

 

“Our industry was the first hit, hardest hit and the last to recover is what we say, and we still have those impediments in a way with these labour concerns,” says Michele.

 

She says this summer Explore Waterloo Region is taking a ‘divide and conquer’ approach when it comes its marketing tactics.

 

“As we are easing out of COVID-19 we’re looking to our local operators and BIAs to market our region to local residents,” says Michele. “We as Explore Waterloo Region are expanding a little further out with our marketing focus and trying to encourage people from the GTA to get out of the city and come to a place where it might be a little less urban, but with all the amenities of the big city; close to nature where they can get out and enjoy walking and bike trails and still have incredible culinary and cultural experiences, just with a little less of the crowds.”

 

Michele says the many festivals and attractions Waterloo Region has to offer this summer will be a big draw, such as the Cambridge Scottish Festival and the Canada Day celebrations which features a parade and returns to Riverside Park with fireworks.

 

“People are feeling a bit safer in being groups but still outside,” she says, noting this should be a good summer for domestic tourism due to long lineups at major airports which has been blamed on staff shortages and COVID-19 screening.  “There is still a little bit of concern about travelling internationally so I think this is the summer we really have to take advantage of the opportunity to get people in and around Waterloo Region to come and experience everything we have to offer.”

 

For a detailed look at what’s available, visit Explore Waterloo Region.

 

A few summer highlights in Cambridge:

  • Kin Carnival (May 26)
  • Cambridge Tour De Grand (June 12)
  • Cambridge Celebration of the Arts (June 17 – Civic Square)
  • Host Springs Music Festival (June 25 – Central Park)
  • Cambridge Celebrates Canada Day (July 1 - Riverside Park)
  • Thursday Night Live Performances (July 7, 14, 21 and 28 - Mill Race Park Amphitheatre)
  • Hespeler Village Music Festival (July 9 – Forbes Park)
  • Cambridge Scottish Festival (July 15-16 – Churchill Park)
  • Forbes Park Movie Night (Aug. 18 – Forbes Park)

 

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As the world slowly begins to reopen in wake of the pandemic, thoughts of visiting other places are very much on the mind of many.

 

Trave expert Judy Silva-Foye, Branch Manager at Vision Travel in Cambridge, says the pent-up demand for wanting to travel is growing steadily as restrictions continue to be lifted and vaccinations roll out.

 

“People are tired of being confined to their homes. They’re tired of being scared and not being able to socialize. They’re just tired period,” she says. “There is a huge demand right now for travel and I believe when the floodgates open, there will be a lot of people who just want to travel.”

 

The indication, currently being seen in the U.S., is clear that leisure travel is already beginning to rebound toward pre-pandemic levels as travel experts like Judy field numerous inquiries from people looking to book holidays for later this year and next.

 

But what about those travelling for business?

 

According to Fortune magazine, it was estimated that until the pandemic struck in March of 2020 decimating the entire travel sector, corporate travel accounted for roughly $300 billion of the global airline industry’s $800 billion in revenue and represented about 50% to 70% of its profit basis.

 

Companies during the greater part of this worldwide crisis quickly began to rely on Zoom meetings with more success than many had initially predicted, not to mention saving millions on travel with an expectation this trend will continue.

 

However, this may not be the case. According to a Wall Street Journal report earlier this month, many companies that have learned to do without travel during the pandemic say they are ready to start packing their bags again instead of defaulting to virtual alternatives. In fact, several high-profile events, such as the TED conference, are returning to an in-person format this summer.

 

“I think Zoom has filled a void and has allowed people to realize it can be an option. But I firmly believe it will not be the main option,” says Judy. “I see it as a secondary choice for some of those lesser calls or meetings that don’t require people travelling to discuss an issue.”

 

A survey conducted in mid-June by Statista – a German-based company that specializes in market and consumer data – contacted companies in several countries, including Canada, to get a sense of what their travel plans are.

The results among Canadian companies were as followed:

  • 18% said they have no plans to resume travel in the near future;
  • 52% have considered resuming travel in the near future, but have no definite plans;
  • 18% said they plan to resume travel in the near future (1-3 months);
  • 12% said they were unsure.

Judy says her company’s corporate division has been fielding many inquiries recently for business travel and have been signing new accounts.

 

“We have a bunch of new businesses that want to turn to a professional service to handle their business needs,” she says, adding human nature will play a key role in the recovery of the sector. “Human beings are relational. We were made to interact with other people so I expect travel will come back.”

 

According to Businesswire.com, which wrote in May about the Key Trends in Business Travel (2021) report, the lasting impact of COVID-19 will continue to affect the travel industry well beyond 2021.

 

Some of the key highlights in that report include:

  • Traditional reasons for business travel may see a decline, but a new kind of business traveler may emerge. As many employees may have become remote workers due to the pandemic, the industry can see an uptick of visiting colleagues when restrictions fully recover.
  • As vaccine rollouts are gaining traction across the world, it is opening-up the opportunity to travel for many. Important nations with high percentages of business travel are also far along with vaccination progress. The U.S., where 20% of domestic travel in 2019 and 2020 was for a business purpose, is progressing well with its vaccination program for example.
  • Many companies are focused on reducing emissions and carbon footprint to reach a sustainability goal. These companies will have sustainability practices in place with a corporate sustainability policy. However, many companies do not incorporate business travel into a sustainability policy. Some methods of travel can be extremely harmful to the environment, and it is the company's responsibility to ensure that sustainable options are always considered.

For Judy and other travel professionals, if there is one ‘positive’ takeaway from the pandemic is the fact that working with a travel agent can be vital in times of crisis, considering the many Canadians who were left stranded when COVID-19 hit.

 

“I think consumers can now see how important it is to actually deal with a professional,” says Judy, adding their connections to tour operators has been key. “We probably managed to get refunds for people faster and helped them navigate the unchartered waters of these trying times. People have realized how important is to have someone in your corner who has your back.”

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The sign outside the Hamilton Family Theatre in downtown Cambridge which usually is ablaze with light announcing current and upcoming productions for Drayton Entertainment has remained blank for some time.

 

But with vaccination rates rising and COVID-19 infection numbers continuing to slide downward, there is a growing sense of optimism in many business sectors, including tourism and sports and recreation, both which generate a hefty spinoff in our local economy and have been hit extremely hard by this crisis.

 

“It (optimism) permeates our industry because the pandemic has reinforced to many arts organizations about how important the arts are to so many Ontarians and recognizing the role they play contributing to a healthy and prosperous society,” says Steven Karcher, Executive Director of Drayton Entertainment. “I don’t think people realized how much they enjoy and appreciate the arts until they ceased to exist.”

 

He recalls how overnight the world changed for Drayton Entertainment in mid-March of 2020 when it was forced to cancel the run of its first show of the season Kinky Boots, which quickly led to pulling the plug on the entire theatre season at its seven stages.

 

“It was a difficult but necessary decision,” says Steven, noting how the company, which is also a registered charity, lost 100% of its revenue and had already incurred the pre-production costs of preparing 832 performances for its 2020 season. In fact, he says an increase of 20,000 tickets over the 2019 season had already been sold.

 

He says recovery will be a ‘multi-year’ effort and that for an arts organization like Drayton Entertainment, it is not something that can rebound in six months.

 

“We’re not able to just take our product and simply put it on a shelf and pivot to reopening with a notice of 48 hours,” says Steven. “We’re talking about an artistic process that takes anywhere from six to eight months in order to realize the end result that people will be seeing on stage.”

 

For sports organizations, detailed planning is also required to prepare of an upcoming season.

 

Indoor Soccer Park Sign“I think we were always optimistic there was going to be a season for our recreational league kids,” says Derrick Bridgman, General Manager of Cambridge Youth Soccer, referring to the 2020 season.

 

He says planning had started in March of last year to prepare for the upcoming season and that 1,000 children had registered to play outdoors when the scope of the pandemic became clear.

“At first we didn’t know how long it was going to last or was it only going to be that ‘magical’ two weeks, or would it be done in a couple of months so we could get our season in,” says Derrick.

 

He says thanks to a comprehensive return to play plan created by the Ontario Soccer Association, his group was able to see a limited amount of action on the field and by the end of last summer had managed to see a few games played.

 

However, that changed in the fall when new restrictions came into play and affected Cambridge Youth Soccer’s Fountain Street North indoor facility, which the group also rents to external users.

 

“We thought it (pandemic) would be behind us when it came to our indoor season but unfortunately there was such a significant impact on indoor sports,” says Derrick, referring to the indoor capacity levels which at one point only allowed up to 50 people – players included - at a game. “We had to get resourceful and creative, just like a lot of other sports organizations and try and maintain a positivity not only for our staff, but for our users. I think a lot of parents just want to get back to normal.”

 

He says there is a sense of optimism for the upcoming season, noting seeing those between 12-17 getting vaccinated has been a positive step. However, he says his group, like many sports organizations, remain at the ‘mercy’ of the province, health officials and the City of Cambridge whom they rent fields from in terms of possible restrictions.

 

“Also, there are parents that aren’t comfortable yet putting their kids back into sports until they’re confident the pandemic is over,” says Derrick, adding his organization is now looking to start its 2021 season the weekend of July 11 in accordance with the province’s three-step reopening plan.

 

“The government has been intentionally vague, in my opinion, in how it has crafted some of the wording when it comes to sports and recreation,” he says. “I think they did that on purpose so provincial sports organizations can amend their return to play documentation.”

 

Minto Schneider, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region, says the sports and recreation sector is returning a little faster than others.

 

“We’re also seeing conferences rebook as well. It’s happening, but happening slowly,” she says, noting experts are not predicting a full economic recovery until 2024. “Part of the challenge is that leisure travel will likely rebound more quickly, but business travel is not rebounding as quickly since conferences generally have a further booking window.”

 

Minto says also having the U.S./Canada border closed and seeing conferences cancelled in the GTA has also affected local tourism due to the substantial spinoff visitors bring to the hospitality industry in terms of hotel stays and restaurant visits.

“One of the things that really drives the tourism business in Waterloo Region is group business, whether it’s a sports tournament or a conference. Those are the things that really drive our visitor traffic,” she says, adding there have been limited ‘windows’ between lockdowns for potential visitors. “We’ve had to be very cautious of how we promote our region. We don’t want to be seen as trying to attract visitors from other areas, particularly at a time when Toronto and Peel were in the ‘Red Zone’. It’s been challenging.”

 

But in turn, Minto says Explore Waterloo Region has been promoting the region to its own residents, encouraging them to get out and see what exists in their own backyards.

 

“That’s been the silver lining to this whole thing. We’ve been able to, hopefully, create ‘ambassadors’ for Waterloo Region within the region itself.”

 

In the future, Minto also says more conferences will operate using a hybrid method, allowing participants the opportunity to attend in person or virtually.

 

“This will be great because never before will so many people have the have opportunity to learn more,” she says.

 

Several virtual initiatives launched in the past year by Drayton Entertainment have also helped his organization, says Steven. Among these was a virtual variety show engaging more than 40 artists using the video platform Vimeo.

 

“We were completely overwhelmed by the uptake on that,” he says, adding the show was viewed by more than 80,000 people worldwide and came away with 125,000 impressions.

 

This was followed by a cabaret series via Facebook, plus Drayton Entertainment has continued its ‘world famous’ 50/50 draw online.

 

“We’ve been able to give away significant jackpots in the three months we’ve been running that,” he says, adding having the 50/50 draw has also ensured Drayton Entertainment fans and supporters remain feeling connected to the organization.

 

And although a virtual component may still play a role for Drayton Entertainment once audiences are allowed to return to its theatres, Steven says it will never replace the feel of having a live audience.

 

“One of the things people don’t realize is how imperative a live audience is to not just a live theatre experience, but any live cultural experience,” he says, adding people crave the ‘connectivity’ of being together, even when it comes to family gatherings.

 

Minto agrees and says vaccinations and initiatives, such as the rapid screening kit program launched by the Cambridge and Kitchener Waterloo Chambers of Commerce, and Communitech, have been beneficial to the community.

 

“I think it has given people confidence that they can go to work. In our industry, we’ve had staff who’ve been afraid to go back to work because they hadn’t been working for a while and want to make sure they don’t bring something home with them to their families,” she says, adding Explore Waterloo Region and the Chambers continue to work with other partners to ensure the most up-to-date and reliable information is conveyed to all their stakeholders.

 

“I think everyone is really looking forward to a time when they can actually open their businesses and welcome people back,” she says.

 

For more on Explore Waterloo Region, visit http://www.explorewaterlooregion.com. For information about Drayton Festival, visit https://bit.ly/3z2aqop. And for more on Cambridge Youth Soccer, visit www.cambridgesoccer.ca

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