Emerging from the Pandemic to Record-Breaking Success

Discover Halifax
Written by William Young

Discover Halifax performs tourism marketing for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and its surrounding communities in the Halifax Regional Municipality. While destination marketing organizations are more commonplace in the tourism industry today, the region was an early adopter when Discover Halifax was enacted twenty-five years ago as ‘Destination Halifax.’

Since then, the organization has been leading efforts on behalf of its home region to ensure that Halifax maximizes its tourist presence in every way possible. President and Chief Executive Officer Ross Jefferson oversaw the organization’s re-launch and rebranding of its services seven years ago and is quick to praise the partnership of the HRM and the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia.

He feels that the model of cooperation between the organizations is unique, as many other destination tourism models may not have the level of cooperation that the groups have worked to foster. He believes that, to date, Discover Halifax has served the tourism industry well but is still in a crucial process of evolution.

Discover Halifax promotes its home region through three main programs. The first is its destination marketing program, which involves developing television, digital, and video advertising to promote Halifax as a destination, primarily to people outside of the region. This also includes talking holistically about Halifax as both a place to visit and a place in which to invest, as well as telling the story of the city to key markets.

Secondly, Discover Halifax competes for and takes part in a series of annual conferences and events to hold in the area, such as the North American Indigenous Games, which will be hosted by Halifax in 2023.

“From big to small, we are bidding on and trying to win events for Halifax,” Jefferson stresses.

The third is its visitor experience program, which works closely with business members in communities throughout the HRM—“from Hubbards to Ecum Secum,” he adds—to ensure that businesses are showcased to visitors through appropriate advertising and that the region’s experiences and communities will encourage visitors to stay longer and get the most out of the province of Nova Scotia.

Jefferson highlights two more programs that will be enacted in the coming years. The first will be a new office to support festival and events development in the community, and this aims to start in 2023. He sees an opportunity to bolster home-grown events and take a more strategic approach to planning and implementing conferences. The other new program concerns destination development, a service which will recognize the importance of great products and experience.

Discover Halifax will be dedicating resources to the right policies and investments to maximize the social and economic benefits of tourism, especially considering the success of its first-ever integrated tourism master plan from 2020. This plan has seen further investment into popular local tourism sites like George’s Island and Peggy’s Cove. The new programs will be financed by an increase in the hotel levy of one percent, a change which has seen full support from the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia and the HRM in what Jefferson describes as an unprecedented agreement.

As a large force for tourism, Discover Halifax was not immune to financial troubles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its revenue seeing an immediate drop of 85 percent within the first few months, he admits. This coincided with a dramatic increase in the need for such services, from visitor information to conference planners dealing with cancelled events and more.

Many “members needed us,” Jefferson recalls, and the pandemic was an incredibly difficult time for Discover Halifax to stay alive financially and respond to service needs. The organization received temporary grant support and, thankfully, had a healthy balance sheet for just such an emergency but still had to make tough decisions on where and when to make investments.

Much uncertainty, combined with long lead times for any proposed marketing campaign, led to a fraught time for Halifax tourism. Heading into 2021, local communities needed activities due to the rates of cancellation and closure in the province, and, with pandemic measures slowly but surely loosening, many expected a rapid return of visitors to Halifax and did not want to disappoint them.

Discover Halifax also had to ensure that the local labour force for hotels, restaurants, and the like was ready for a potential heavy influx of demand. With its campaigns ready to go for 2021, Discover Halifax saw a rapid recovery for all its efforts. Its strong preparation led to a tremendous mid-season recovery in 2021, and 2022 has seen an even greater return, with visitation outgrowing previous years by a significant margin.

The sixteen-week period of summer in Halifax even ended up beating all-time tourism records for the region. It took a considerable amount of work to re-book activities, but many exciting events are still on the horizon. Jefferson mentions the hosting of the World Sailing Championships in Hubbards, the World Canoe Kayak Competition in Lake Banook, and the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championships in Halifax as part of the gains of a bountiful 2022.

“The goal is to try and emerge from the pandemic better than when we entered,” he says, adding that despite the pandemic being very difficult for Halifax—and for the tourism industry in general—Discover Halifax is stronger overall, especially due to expediting its investments and opening new hotels across the province. Discover Halifax also obtained help from Dalhousie University’s MacEachen Institute, which has enabled the organization to anticipate scenarios that seemed uncertain and better prepare for the future.

The tourism industry is still seeing the same global challenges as those affecting the transportation and logistics industries—like staffing and lead times—but is also seeing many improvements and the anticipation of the return of international visitors in 2023 is beginning in earnest.

Moving forward, Discover Halifax will be attuned to social responsibility while advancing tourism and taking a much broader approach to working with local populations, since 210 communities across the HRM are looking to benefit from these approaches.

“Sustainability… and the environmental impacts of travel are key,” Jefferson explains. Discover Halifax wants tourism to grow responsibly and in a way that benefits everyone involved.

“The strength of a destination is from the relationships that it has,” he says. “It is naïve to think that destination marketing drives tourism. It’s the integration between partners that does so.”

Jefferson touts the community-level work done by the organization. The HRM alone is the size of Prince Edward Island by both territory and population, so Discover Halifax continues to rely on member businesses to know what is going on and continues building community, as it is the nuances in each community and the unique offerings of each that is most appreciated by visitors.

“We’re proud of the vision we have in working with community partners, [but] we have a lot of work to do,” he affirms. This work will see Halifax and its communities benefit from a newfound zeal for travel among people kept inside by the pandemic lockdowns, and Discover Halifax feels more than up to the challenge of promoting its home to all who seek it.    

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