Canada glams up its tourism appeal with buzz marketing to a well-heeled crowd

Pedestrians in downtown New York City might be startled to hear Canadian northerners discussing an oncoming polar bear.

Once the bear has their attention, those within range of new “whispering window” ads that emit sound over the city’s sidewalks get a prompt on their cellphones to watch a free short video showing a mish-mash of Canadian scenes.

In Chicago recently, unwitting passersby who stumbled across what seemed to be a memory card containing a couple’s Canadian vacation photos were actually targets of another clever Canuck marketing ploy.

Once they plugged the USB card into their computer and clicked on the photos and MP3s from Canadian bands such as Malajube and Stars, they were redirected to a tourism website that promised adventure north of the border.

And a swank Manhattan rooftop party last month saw a well-heeled crowd sipping wine from Canada’s Niagara region and receiving hand massages courtesy of an Alberta spa, all part of a new wave of Canadian tourism.

The Canadian Tourism Commission, the agency that promotes Canada abroad, is turning to “buzz” marketing aimed at trendsetters who they hope can influence a social circle ready to throw buckets of money into travel.

As personal recommendations, blogs and reviews on websites overtake travel agents as the go-to places for vacation advice, the commission says it is trying to pair such novel marketing techniques with more traditional advertising. It’s a calculated effort to make this country a hot destination for high-end travellers.

The agency is a Crown corporation that receives $80 million annually from the federal government. And Canadians may be surprised by how their country is being sold in the commission’s target markets, the biggest of which is the United States.

Iconic Canadian images like the houses that line the shore in Lunenburg, N.S., are still in the mix but Greg Klassen, the commission’s vice-president, suggests Canada’s image is a little stale.

“We lack this essence of exotic, and in some places, cool, that a lot of Americans are choosing to go to,” Klassen said recently at his Vancouver office.

“We just have to reintroduce the idea that Canada is a pretty cool place, and we have this breadth and depth of amazing experiences (tourists) can have.

“There’s a perception out there that Canada is a vast but beautiful environment to go and see. . . but Canada goes beyond mere mountains and Mounties.”

So the commission is boosting more haute fare like so-called “glamping” – glamorous camping replete with hot water, a king-size bed and a five-course dinner.

As the country’s beleaguered tourism industry struggles under the pressures of a weak U.S. dollar, high gas prices and increasing travel restrictions around passports, the agency is looking for travellers with money to burn.

On the surface, the numbers are bleak: The latest figures available from StatsCan show travel to Canada hit a record low for the fifth consecutive month in March.

Foreign visitors made 2.3 million trips here that month, the lowest since record-keeping began in 1972. It’s also a 12 per cent drop compared to March 2007.

But the tourism commission says the numbers are misleading because while there are fewer people travelling to Canada, leisure spending from U.S. tourists, for example, is on the rise – from $3.9 billion in 1996 to $5.5 billion in 2007.

About 30 per cent of Americans fit these target audience – they hold passports and habitually travel outside the United States, Klassen says.

More importantly, they have money to spend.

“Our focus is to try and get as many well-heeled passengers to come here and spend their money,” he said.

“The number of air seats that come in from some of our countries into Canada are limited, very limited. You can fill up those planes with backpackers or you can fill up those planes with people spending $900.”

The agency targets international markets in Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom as well as cities such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

It’s not that Canada has given up on carloads of families crossing the border, Klassen said, but the provinces already market individually to that group of travellers.

The tourism commission targets travellers who fly, aren’t restricted by a budget and so aren’t sensitive to price fluctuations.

In May, the agency paid for a special version of the vaunted New York Times crossword puzzle that included some serious Canadiana – including the Rideau Canal, Emily Carr, Anne of Green Gables and Vieux-Quebec.

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