New branding and marketing initiatives unveiled to members at Manitoulin Tourism Association’s annual general meeting

by Isobel Harry

MANITOULIN—The Manitoulin Tourism Association (MTA) held its annual general meeting on Wednesday, October 1 in Manitowaning, hosted by Debajehmujig Creation Centre. In the theatre space tables were set up to accommodate several people at each, café-style, a buffet sustaining the dinner-time crowd throughout the evening while an overhead screen showed a rotating selection of evocative photos of the Island, creating a suitable ‘Manitoulin mood.’

Ron Berti, MTA’s president since January 2014, welcomed the members and called the meeting to order. Sam Nardi, of Sam Nardi Business and Tax Consulting in Little Current, the group’s accountant since 2011, presented the financial statements, showing a balance of revenue and expenses for the non-profit corporation in the year ending August 31, 2014.

Mr. Berti then presented the report of the director of operations, Shelba Millette, who remarked that 12 summer students had been funded this year to work at various events, in tourism booths, on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry and in both ferry terminals to promote Island tourism. Ms. Millette deemed the summer students energetic and enthusiastic, from their orientation through to the end of the season (June-August), giving tourism “a great boost.” While walk-in visitors to the Welcome Centre in Little Current were fewer this year, 8,423 compared to 9,441 in 2013, email information requests were up 72 percent from the previous year. Ms. Millette noted that 90 percent of visitors now book online before travelling. Indications are that ferry ridership is equal to or higher than last year’s numbers, although official figures have not yet been released. The MTA plans to introduce statistical surveys on the ferry next year to determine visitor demographics, interests, and feedback to better target its audience and assist in planning strategy.

So far this year, reported Ms. Millette, over 100 meetings were attended by the MTA, with municipalities, First Nations and funders, in an effort to communicate and develop its new strategic marketing and branding initiatives. Ron Berti further explained that the nature of the economy on the Island is changing and that tourism here and elsewhere is trending more toward cultural events, “We need to be open-minded to these changes, and to acknowledge them. Visitors don’t just want to buy, they want contact and a relationship with Islanders. We’ve never really looked closely at everything that we have here and how to market it, from Cape Smith to Meldrum Bay.”

“Culture,” continued Mr. Berti, is “the way we live our lives. Whatever and wherever the community is, the MTA needs to represent all of the Island through the culture of people’s lives, First Nations and non-First Nations, and we need to show its dual make-up.”

The MTA recognizes that “people travel to learn, and sharing our skills and knowledge is a great way to do that, whether about the foods, gardens, trees, water, information or culture, all the things that make the Island unique.”

Propped on easels were the new tourism posters in vivid jewel tones of emerald, gold and sapphire, designed by Mr. Berti, highlighting the Great Lakes region of Canada, with Manitoulin Island sparkling like a crystal at the centre. “We thought, how do we convey the idea of Manitoulin visually? Everyone recognizes the Great Lakes on a world map, so we decided to use that shape to identify the Island. The most fresh water in the world is in the Great Lakes, so people assume there’s fresh air and open spaces too. This is one of the new ways we are using to promote the Island.”

Ron Berti was a board member when MTA’s then-president Ken Ferguson stepped down in January and was elected to complete the term; he has a long history with the Island, having been hired in 1993 as general manager of the highly-successful Debajehmujig Theatre Group in its ninth season; he is now executive director and his partner Johanna Berti is Debaj’s director of outreach and education. Mr. Berti’s background in TV and film direction and design—he partnered with Total Eclipse film group to pioneer Canada’s music video industry in the 1980s, winning several national and international awards—and his career as art director and director for TV ad campaigns complement his current role as president of the MTA. He is an accomplished photographer, graphic designer and writer who seems particularly well-suited to translate the ineffable qualities of Island life and landscape into words and pictures that compel interest.

Another concept that Mr. Berti has envisioned in his mission to promote tourism by “putting the traveller first” was outlined at the annual meeting: the ‘Lands Map’ will “help plan and coordinate tourism destinations by getting visitors excited about where they are and where they’re going” on the Island. A work in progress, the map divides the Island and North Channel communities into four distinct “lands” or areas based on how the landscape changes from one to the other, “making it easier to talk about and more logical” for tourists to find their way around the Island’s 24 communities. The map will eventually show locations and distances between them and Mr. Berti would like to revive some of the old place names, such as Snowville and Squirreltown, to enhance visitors’ experience of the uniqueness of the Island, and to refresh Islanders’ pride of place and history. New signage is also part of MTA’s future plans to answer tourists’ “Big Question,” which is, according to Mr. Berti’s extensive research: what can we do here? Also required to answer that question is a need for more activities packages.

“This year,” adds Mr. Berti, “the MTA raised awareness of the Cup and Saucer hiking trail and the Mississagi Lighthouse. We need our major attractions—natural, historic, cultural, environmental—to remain important by taking them seriously. Because of their increasing importance in a cultural tourism strategy, we must consider that each of these may be enhanced and protected by an official management plan.” New partnerships are critical to this idea and Shelba Millette said that the MTA is more amenable now to partnering with councils, businesses and groups.

Nominations then took place for the board’s eight directors; Ron Berti’s term of office as president is until the annual meeting this time next year (2015). The chair of nominations, according to the MTA’s bylaws, must be a “neutral third party” and to fulfill that mandate, Kathy Grant acted in that capacity at the meeting. Ms. Grant is a resident near Manitowaning who is “happily retired” from her position as manager of the regional trauma program at London Health Sciences Centre and as a member of numerous other boards and committees; she gave an overview of the work of volunteer board members’ roles and responsibilities before the voting. Rita Gordon, of Gordon’s Park in Tehkummah, asked for a round of applause “in support of the new direction of the Manitoulin Tourism Association;” her suggestion received the enthusiastic endorsement of those present.

The 2014-15 board is made up of Ron Berti, Stan Ferguson, Lois Keller, Lorie Leeson, Perry Patterson, Amanda Recollet, Bonita Taibossigai and Dylon Whyte, “representing a wider swath of the Island” from Mindemoya, M’Chigeeng, Gore Bay, Tehkummah, Wikwemikong and Little Current. “We want to communicate with as many people as possible,” said Ron Berti. “Everyone needs new ways to gain interest and for their businesses to succeed within the new plan.”

When the Manitoulin Tourism Association started in 1952, he said later, “it was established with a membership that was primarily lodges and accommodations because tourism emerged from the guided fishing and hunting interests on Manitoulin Island. Today, membership is open to individuals, businesses, community groups, associations and other entities interested in participating in the tourism sector of Manitoulin Island and the North Channel.”

Mr. Berti adds that “annual membership fees range across a spectrum of categories, as do benefits and incentives. Part of the transition to a cultural tourism-based strategy has been to pilot new outreach categories to give broader and more diverse access to participation in tourism. This includes representation for markets and fairs, artist studios, annual community celebrations, museums and environmental groups.

“There is even a process for considering membership requests that do not fall into any currently established category. As with tourism as a whole, the MTA is going through a transition, or transformation. The new categories are responding to the transition, bringing in new members and building networks; membership is the vehicle to interact with and benefit from these networks. Each of the networks is self-determined but they come together under an umbrella of representation as ‘Manitoulin Island – Mnidoo Mnissing – the Heart and Spirit of the Great Lakes of Canada’.”

The new ‘look and feel’ of the Manitoulin Tourism Association’s branding and marketing initiative may be previewed at www.manitoulintourism.com