What we can learn from Québec's outdoor recreation offices
The idea of outdoor recreation offices for economic development is fairly new in the United States. Our neighbors in Canada have already figured it out.
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Outdoor business communities in many U.S. states have been lobbying their state legislatures to open offices for outdoor recreation, to focus on the business side of fun. So far, a few states have been successful, like Utah, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, and North Carolina.
But our northern neighbors in Canada have been ahead of us for quite some time. In Québec, there are “clusters” for all kinds of industries, to foster growth among like businesses. We asked Gilles Simard, director of the adventure travel and ecotourism cluster for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Québec, about these clusters and what we can learn from them as we push for our own organized offices.
1. Lots of businesses in the tourism cluster could be seen as competitors. How do they benefit from working together?
Our businesses have realized that what attracts adventure-seeking clients to our region is diversity of activities offered and not the product of one single business. We’re located in a remote area and the entire world wants a slice of the adventure market. Our companies work in unison to improve each adventure product better than if each one worked alone. They share a common development strategy based on three axes: first, enhance their efficiency and innovative practices. Second, foster the development of a skilled workforce, and finally, working together across international markets.
All collective projects take this direction, but when it comes time to deliver the product, rest assured that they’ll do everything possible to offer the best adventure experience for the clients in our region. In this regard, we don’t want to prevent competition amongst them. The delicate balance between collaboration and competition is the strength of the cluster. Collaboration encourages improvement and competition gets them higher.
In addition, each company has its own identity and two companies may not necessarily address the same client segment. Some companies that may be competitors initially, unite to form a pivotal offering to encourage tourists to travel to the region. Thus, outfitters, parks, and circuits have joined forces to promote the regions’ cycling experience on the Québec and international markets. Via ferratas did the same and formed the “via ferrata route,” even combining efforts with other Québec regions.
2. What advice do you have for outdoor businesses working to establish outdoor recreation offices in their states, as someone who has a lot of experience working with a cluster?
Initially, one must know that three essential conditions are required for a cluster to exist. There must be a sufficient number of businesses and outdoor organizations to enable projects and partnerships to exist. Thereafter, the socio-economic environment must be mobilized to support the cluster and facilitate project development. Finally, the cluster must have access to financial levers to enable businesses to achieve their goals. In general, the first two conditions must be united to generate the third, but a cluster will only be fully effective when all three conditions have been met.
Mobilizing companies in a collective approach is the most crucial step in the cluster’s existence. Getting businesses to migrate from an individualistic approach to a collective vision is not an easy task and for it to be successful, visionary companies must be actively involved in the process to convey and make their vision widespread. With a plan that’s well-defined and effectively communicated to all parties involved in a cluster, confidence in the approach will build, one action at a time. Mobilizing companies is only possible when they are directly involved in the process.
I also advise anyone who is interested in beginning a cluster to watch for additional existing approaches. Our best ideas are often inspired by initiatives observed elsewhere and adapted specifically for our group’s projects.
3. What’s an example of something your cluster has accomplished?
Adventure businesses better develop and thrive if they have access to appealing natural locations and quality infrastructures making these locations accessible. For example, our region has a long-established, 256 km cycling route that enables cyclists to travel in a loop around Lake Saint-Jean. Due to the circuit’s growing popularity, the local tourism industry has seized the opportunity and joined forces to benefit from this niche’s full potential. Our cluster prioritized the cycling experience and has supported the development of an additional 435 km of cycling trails.
The cluster also helped put up a sea shuttle service on the Saguenay Fjord to provide cyclists with useful means to travel from one cycling path to the other. These infrastructures attract a multitude of tourists to our region and adventure businesses benefit from it. Some even developed new experiences and services around these infrastructures.
4. Right now, businesses in the cluster are working together to do more with the English-language market and people in the United States. What role does the cluster itself play in organizing this effort?
Increasing the region and our cluster businesses’ presence on the North American English-speaking markets is actually one of the key issues we are addressing with our action plan. We take action in various ways to help businesses improve their penetration of these markets. Therefore, we work in close collaboration with the local tourism board so that they can better serve and promote adventure businesses.
For example, the cluster organizes and funds two trade missions per year that allow certain companies to participate in Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) events. These missions enable companies to interact with the environment’s buyers and influential players to stay informed with the latest trends in the industry.
We’ve also put up a project that will enable companies to improve and translate their marketing tools. The idea is to provide support to the companies in content creation for the English-speaking clients’ needs and translate these tools into impeccable English. We want this project to be much more than a simple translation of existing tools. It’s hoped that the project will also enable companies to improve the quality of information that they currently offer.
Lastly, we wanted to widen our destination’s reach and showcase our niche businesses to the entire distribution network and influential players. We hosted AdventureELEVATE 2016 in Saguenay to achieve this goal. The event enabled all of ATTA’s active members in North America to discover our region and develop an appreciation for our adventure destination.