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Lake Country sees influx in tourism opportunities

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Last year Ontario's Lake Country had its best year ever.

That was the decree last week from Rob Furlonger, chair of the tourism marketing board which services Orillia, Oro-Medonte, Rama, Ramara and Severn.

The reason for 2016's success, explained Jennifer Whitley, executive director of Ontario's Lake Country, was because of the influx of opportunities for Lake Country, including new partnerships with Simcoe County and the regional tourism organization (RTO7) that oversees the counties of Bruce, Grey and Simcoe.

That allowed Lake Country to increase its presence online, with web traffic up about 53% over the previous year. Social media reach jumped even further, up by nearly 80% in 2016.

That awareness is one thing; getting people into the region is another. Lake Country doesn't actually do bookings, so it doesn't have the actual data itself. But when businesses partner with the group, they are required to provide information through surveys about the effectiveness of the campaign.

"It's really hard for us to track that kind of thing, but based on talking to the businesses we have in the area - for example, the hotels - their numbers are up," Whitley explained. "We were able to calculate a comparison that hotel numbers for the Orillia area were up by about 3.6% in 2016 in comparison to 2015."

The hotels also helped provide Lake Country with some other hard data. Last year, more than 3,500 visitor surveys were analyzed. The organization has been collecting these surveys for a number of years, but just recently, thanks to a stronger partnership with the county, it can take some of the information contained in the surveys, such as postal codes, and target its marketing initiatives in a more focused manner.

"It really helps for the hotels to understand who their visitors are, where they're coming from and what they're interested in," Whitley said. "It's telling us how to market to these people. What do they do and what's the best way to attract them."

These surveys have had their flaws though, as they are based exclusively in area hotels. Bed and breakfasts or other attractions have not given out similar surveys, meaning the 3,500 or so from last year might not be as accurate a pull of visitors as would be beneficial. However, the number of surveys returned are far greater than the 1,000 usually needed to pull out usable data.

Beyond the hotels, businesses are seeing anecdotal increases across the board.

"In talking to some of our attractions and other places, they are seeing an increase in the number of visitors that are coming to the area," Whitley said.

The goal is to maintain that momentum in 2017 and look to promote the area more for mid-week visits and during the shoulder season.

"We have some good packages offered by accommodators in the area," Whitley said, pointing to a Tuesdays-are-free promotion at Bayview Wildwood Resort in Port Stanton as an example. "Looking at different catchy things that would encourage people to ideally come up during mid-week so we can get those people in the normally quieter time."

The annual general meeting also returned the group's board of directors and featured presentations from a variety of tourism partners in the area.

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