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article imageEddie Friel talks destination development in Hills of Headwaters Special

By Katie Ryalen     Mar 24, 2014 in Travel
Orangeville - Tourism guru Eddie Friel highlights the importance of destination development in the tourism industry, and challenges the rural Ontario community of The Hills of Headwaters to tell the stories of its history, heritage and culture.
The world has changed for the tourism sector. With the Internet firmly established as the go-to resource for active and potential travellers, destination marketing organizations must reinvent themselves if they wish to remain relevant to the regional economies they are mandated to support.
At The Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association's annual tourism symposium in Orangeville (the first of three tri-regional symposiums in Southern Ontario) destination development is a major focus. Not only is it at the forefront of the association's ongoing tourism strategy, it is also the keynote topic of speaker Eddie Friel, who was invited to address registrants of the event.
"Place marketing," says Friel, "is taking two things that are the same, then telling stories about one of those things that add value to it, and differentiates it from the other."
But how does a sleepy and predominantly agricultural region like The Hills of Headwaters — whose most urban centre is Orangeville, with an urban area population of just under 31,000 — identify its place in the larger tourism landscape? And more importantly, what does it have that differentiates it from its tourism-giant neighbour, Toronto?
"Marketing places is about the history, heritage and culture of a community," explains Friel. "Like the [Dufferin County] museum, with its collection of things that are historic to this region ... it's about the accumulated memories. They are the stories of this place."
Eddie Friel is notable for turning distressed and declining urban centres like Glasgow, Buffalo, and Northern Ireland into premier tourism destinations. He's done this by encouraging communities to develop their destinations, to tell the stories that make these places unique.
In his keynote, he tells the story of the Belfast Europa hotel, the most bombed hotel of the Northern Ireland conflict. Inspired by hotel staff's refusal to shut down operations after its 35th bombing (at which time Mr. Friel was a guest there and had to be evacuated from his room), he maintains that every place has a story to tell, regardless of the challenges it may face in telling them.
"We cannot apologize for our communities," Friel insists. "We have to contribute something. If external forces are putting barriers in your way, you must find a way to circumvent them."
Those barriers may be obvious in a place like Northern Ireland, where the decades-long violence of The Troubles have left a scarred and traumatized community behind. But in rural places like The Hills of Headwaters, they are more subtle. The barriers in these places tend to be things like lack of funding, lack of infrastructure and lack of accessible information.
"Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) must manage how their assets are being utilized," advocates Friel. "You need to create the right infrastructure to appeal to visitors and deliver on the promises you make [with your place marketing stories.]"
Place marketing may be a novel idea to individual tourism operators, but for The Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association (HHTA) which supports them, it is a significant aspect of the organization's current marketing efforts, particularly surrounding the coming 2015 Toronto Pan-American Games, in which the region will host a number of high-profile equine events.
"The Games themselves are not our focus," says HHTA executive director Michele Harris. "They are only two weeks. But they give us the opportunity to showcase what we have here, and they provide us with a template for moving forward ... We need to take advantage of the legacy of the Games, and to brand and position ourselves as Headwaters Horse Country."
"And once [visitors] come [for the Games]," Harris continues, "we need to figure out how we get them to stay. This will be our next [destination] development project. We need to knit our arts, heritage and culture into Pan-Am equine [events] for visitors to experience while they're here."
Two further tri-regional symposiums will follow this week in York and Durham respectively, with international management speaker Donald Cooper slated as keynote. Destination development will continue as the main focus for the DMO and municipal representatives, tourism operators and other industry stakeholders who will be in attendance.
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