Mickey Dumont

The Portage Citizen

In a luncheon last this week to tourism stakeholders, Colin Ferguson Travel Manitoba CEO and Vern May, executive director of Portage Regional Economic Development, explained that maybe not all tourism roads lead to Manitoba and Portage la Prairie, but many do and others are getting used more.

The Travel Manitoba luncheon Dec. 12 was specifically to update local tourism stakeholders on the state of the tourism industry and Travel Manitoba’s goals. More importantly it addressed how the Portage la Prairie place brand is impacting both tourism and economic development.

Vern May speaking at the Dec. 12, 2018 Travel
Manitoba update in Portage la Prairie.    Mickey Dumont/Citizen photo

“We’ve had a pretty incredible 18 months as it relates to what we have been doing with our tourism program,” May said. “I’m pretty excited to be sharing with you some of the highlights and some of the low lights over the past year. Many of you have beeninvolved in that journey but this is the first time that we are going to speakpublicly about some of the stumbling blocks.

May is two years into his economic development job here. His portfolio has grown to include tourism, a previously underemphasized, underdeveloped and possibly disorganized industry here. May didn’t mince words while addressing the stakeholders. When first organizing local stakeholders, “the conversation was a mess. We couldn’t find consensus,” he said. “It really identified the need for us to start fromscratch.”

The message May was hearing is one of ‘that ship has already sailed’. In Portage the tourism portfolio fell to the economic development office until 2010. The city opted not to fill the position when the EDO (economic development officer) retired.

Responsibility then fell to a volunteer advisory committee and over time enthusiasm waned when funding didn’t match the vision.

“With no central direction, multiple agencies each with a stake in tourism, took on roles that supported their own mandate, but not necessarily each other’s,” May said.

A tourism website was being managed by the city’s communication manager, a social media platform was managed by somebody else and didn’t speak to the website and stakeholder groupswere claiming proprietary ownership of the Portage tourism brand without lettinganybody else that had a role plug in.

May explained, “even though the management of the tourism portfolio was very disjointed, it was considered to be working because nobody was asking for significant money.”

In 2017 the economic development officer heard from his city and rural municipality bosses, ‘we were happy with where we were at.’

The City of Portage had recently undergone a rebranding with “The City of Possibilities” and the RM was telling May, ‘we are not in the tourism business’.

“I needed to build a business case and illustrate that we were in fact in the tourism game. We are home to a $48 million dollar recreation facility; we’ve just invested roughly $1 million dollars in a campground renewal at Delta Beach and recognizing the shared municipal investment in the operation and growth of these facilities, who do we want to have pay for them: local taxpayers or visitors?”

Travel Manitoba statistics proving serious tourism dollars are spent in Manitoba and provincial traffic counts on how many vehicles bypass Portage la Prairie daily, added up to a multimillion dollar opportunity using assets already in place.

The hospitality sector is invested in tourism and sees dollars from the accommodation levy helpingbuild the product here that will in turn bring more business to its doors.

Portage la Prairie became the third Travel Manitoba place brand program which ultimately resulted in the “Island on the Prairie” brand.

May recalls the first meeting was “really a dog’s breakfast”. “The mix of priorities or direction people wanted to go was all over the map. I came out of that session completely deflated. I said ‘there’s no way from what we discussed today that we are going to get to a brand that is as awesome as Gimli’s!”

PRED and invested stakeholders stayed the course. “We engaged recreation. We engaged the chamber. We engaged the non-profits and by the time we reached that place brand reveal, we were ready to roll,” said May.

”What we heard today is the City of Portage has done an admirable job of focussing on tourism and rebranding,” said Portage la Prairie Coun. Brent Budz. “It’s very encouraging about the future of Portage looking at the number of stakeholders we see here today.”

Portage la Prairie Mayor Irvine Ferris listening to a Travel Manitoba tourism update.    Mickey Dumont/Citizen photo

Mayor Irvine Ferris said “it’s been an outstanding year in Portage and the region for tourism development. We see that optimism in the business community here and we also see a lot of businesses recognize the opportunities in tourism. We have a 75 room hotel coming that will be ready in August (2019), we have a number of new restaurants coming so others are seeing the opportunity in this region for further growth in this region for tourism.”

Ferris added the city and oft time tourism partner, the RM, recognize tourism is becoming increasingly important. “We will see growth in tourism here. Manitoba is being recognized around the world and Portage and area is an important part of what Manitoba has to offer,” Ferris said.