The Town of Fort Frances is looking to capitalize on its natural resources to drive tourism in the area.
During last week’s Town Council meeting, economic development officer Tannis Drysdale and Municipal Accommodation Tax committee chair Peter Howie made a presentation of the town’s Tourism and Marketing Plan to council. The report is the result of a study completed my Rynic Counsulting over the course of this past winter.
According to Howie the goal of the study and subsequent report was about more than just trying to figure out how to sell Fort Frances to tourists.
“The report… wasn’t just about the marketing plan,” he explained
“It was about identifying growth opportunities and product development for Fort Frances’ forest industry.”
That point is key to the presentation made to council, as one of the early slides indicated that developing the tourism sector is a key response to the closure and subsequent sale of the mill property. The slide noted that the town “deserves to be a place people want to visit, relocate to, and invest in,” with the Tourism and Marketing plan aiming to provide a roadmap to achieving those results.
Taking a look at occupancy rates at local hotels, Howie explained that part of the study looked at finding ways to bring people into town to visit and stay during the shoulder seasons, typically the spring and fall when there are fewer activities that are already bringing people to Fort Frances, such as the bass championship or recreational fishing.
“This was something that was top of mind when Rynic did its work,” Howie said.
“How do we build on the visitors we already have and how do we attract new visitors? And so there were various categories that were broken down as to how we do that and the first main category was the idea of nurturing our destination product experiences.”
Howie explained that the nurturing idea is broken down into two aspects: the “aficionado” experience, which would enhance Rainy Lake as an angling destination, and the “forageur” experience which would look into developing learn-to guided food experiences, such as foraging for edible mushrooms or other naturally occurring foods. Both of the ideas look to capitalize on abundant resources in and around Fort Frances and provide unique opportunities to tourists as a means to draw them to town and keep them here longer.
“It’s recognizing that growth potential in the tourism market is, particularly with younger generations, more experience based,” Howie said.
“And a food experience being a big part of that. So the specific vision was that Fort Frances be a capital of clean food learning, that we engage people come here that want to fish and hunt and forage and trap and cook their food, and for it to be a full fledged experience, which I thinks sort of takes our existing angling tourism and builds on it in value added way.”
Additionally, developing these plans could provide with business owners and other entrepreneurial spirits with new opportunities, as Howie said the role of the committee is not to execute the ideas in the report themselves.
The second aspect of the tourism plan revolves around driving occupancy rates in Fort Frances during the times of year where there are traditionally fewer tourists coming through. Examples given in the presentation for what can be implemented to drive those occupancy rates were things like enhancing ice fishing opportunities in the winter, hosting one or two shoulder season sport tournaments and creating a three day “Stay ‘n Play” market, which Drysdale explained would tie into proposals from HTFC Planning and Design’s Gateway to Fort Frances project in having a spot downtown that is open three days a week and encourages those who are passing through or waiting in line to cross the border to hop out of their vehicles and have some kind of experience before getting back in line. The general idea overall is to package up a place to stay and things to do in order to entice tourists.
“This is packaging up tourism,” she said.
“Just the way we would all go to Cancun, and we’d get our hotel and our drinks and we’d have two or three experiences all put together. Modern tourism is helped by packaging.”
The third step of the plan, Howie said, is to connect the dots of all the previous elements by nurturing the supporting atmosphere of the town by doing things like creating experiences, beautifying the downtown area and town entrances, enhancing wayfinding signage and enhancing trail and water equipment rental capabilities.
The final step outlined by the plan is to do the deed and actually sell Fort Frances as a destination, which Howie said involves taking steps in the short term to begin to build a presence and bring people in.
“We are taking the approach as a committee that we want to build some of these experiences first and before going into an ad campaign or anything of that nature,” he explained.
“We have been provided information in this report about how to build a social media presence and build content that we can use to promote this community to tourists.”
Tieing back into their comments about encouraging local businesses to take the lead on developing some of these new opportunities, Howie said that the MAT committee has directed the Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC) to use a portion of the MAT funds to create workshops to encourage entrepreneurial ventures.
“There are opportunities for people, even on a part time basis, to promote themselves through the Airbnb Experiences platform to offer local packages,” he said.
“Like local guidework, even basic things like taking people out to harvest wild rice or to go for a walk in the woods, these basic things that there’s potential for people to monetize their own knowledge of the local biosphere and hunting and fishing experiences, and in that nature. We’re hoping through these workshops to encourage people to do it and give them tools necessary to build up that type of business.”
Work will also begin on a tourism website for the town and a fully-fledged social media presence.
However, the wrench of the COVID-19 pandemic has been thrown into this plan, as Drysdale noted that as they will rely on MAT funds, the current situation will hamper what funds they have available.
“The MAT committee’s work, being that for the first time in the history of Fort Frances we had the opportunity to invest heavily in the tourism industry, and specifically market our community using MAT dollars, happens to coincide with probably and possibly the worst tourism season and year our community and our country will ever encounter,” she explained.
Howie notes that there has been some discussion about using MAT funds to help the town with economic recovery, and more money is being set aside to assist the town with some infrastructure projects, but said that at this point in time, “it is a bit premature… to say what our exact plans are, because we just don’t know how deep into this we’re going to get.”
Overall the plan is an ambitious and widescale look into turning Fort Frances into a true destination for people interested in experience much of what this corner of Northwestern Ontario has to offer, and with the right enthusiastic individuals and organizations could very likely set the town up for a bright future.
Development on the first phase of the town’s tourism website is expected to begin sometime this summer.