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Regional tourism plan stays within limits

On a day that plays out like an advertisement for immediately booking a trip to the sunny south, Susan Cudahy is charged up about tourism opportunities in Waterloo Region. Of course, that may have something to do with just having spent some time in Mexico, which can tend to make one a little more sanguine about yet another snowfall.

There’s nothing about January that prompts anyone to say, “Let’s spend a couple of weeks in Waterloo Region.” Let’s be honest, there’s little reason to do so at any time of the year, which is why the Waterloo Region Tourism Marketing Corporation (WRTMC) that Cudahy heads focuses on daytrippers and those looking for a weekend getaway.

The target audience for the group’s marketing message is older women, followed by family women 25 to 45 years of age. The reason being that when it comes to family decisions about where to go, it’s the women who get things rolling, Cudahy informs Woolwich councillors this week, part of an update about WRTMC’s first full year of operation, it having been launched in 2007.

As a single guy, I can see why the organization is looking elsewhere: If I didn’t live here, there wouldn’t be much reason to come to Waterloo Region in my leisure time. Sure, there’s a business community that’s the envy of many other parts of Canada – even in these uncertain times – but that’s not a draw when it comes time to book a vacation. Europe is my preferred destination when it’s time to holiday. Weekend getaway? Chicago, New York and Boston, to name a few, spring more readily to mind.
Clearly, then, I’m not WRTMC’s demographic. No, the target is those women within a two-hour drive of here.

The local tourism operators have their eyes firmly set on Torontonians looking for something a little different to do on Saturday, or maybe opting for a getaway – a spa weekend and a little local colour, perhaps.

St. Jacobs is, of course, the centerpiece of the region’s tourism industry. It has international brand recognition, and has proven exceedingly successful in drawing tourists from both near and far. As events go, Oktoberfest claims the highest profile. But what else makes for a unique experience, here in an area bereft of geographic interest, scenery or attractive architecture?

Plenty, apparently, says Cudahy … and convincingly.

“There are some real hidden gems in the region: the arts scene, galleries, theatres. There’s a lot of underground stuff that’s kind of funky that we’re just starting to discover.”

Her group is keen on wrapping together a number of experiences to entice visitors out, or to perhaps extend their stay. A big show at the Centre In The Square or event at the celebrated Perimeter Institute, for instance, could be the catalyst for a weekend stay at a much lower cost than seeing the same performance in Toronto.

The idea is to pique peoples’ interest about the possibilities of discovery that await them if they venture this way. But it’s all done within a realistic framework: This isn’t Niagara Falls or any other locale with an obvious hook.

“We don’t believe we’re a destination that’s going to rival St. Lucia,” she says as yet another snowfall envelopes the region. “There’s not that huge iconic draw to the area.”

In the absence of a massive waterfall, soaring peaks, canyon or even a waterfront, it’s the little things that count.

In the next little while, for instance, she’ll be telling ghost stories, as the tourism group gathers up tales about haunting and other observances of spectres in the region, including the ghost at the Waterlot Restaurant in New Hamburg.

Along with the leisure side of tourism, WRTMC also promotes the region as a good place for business meetings and conventions, playing up the high-tech business and research community. All of the other pursuits – the arts, recreation and fine dining among them – are highlighted as diversions for the spouses and families of those visiting here for business purposes. It’s something of a package deal.

Perusing the website (www.explorewaterlooregion.com), it’s easy to see there are far more things on the go in the area than those of us who live here are aware of. Particularly useful for residents is the comprehensive listing of events. Again, the goal is to draw in even locals, inviting you to discover something new about your own backyard … and perhaps part with a few dollars in doing so. In that regard, it’s very much a buy-local effort when the best prescription for the economic downturn is to keep money in local hands.

The “staycations” that became popular last summer due to high gas prices – “people weren’t heading up to the cottage as much, and were parking the motorhomes” – are also a good fit in tougher times.

Today, however, I think I like the Mexico idea a little better.

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