Golden tourism ticket: Did N.L. government miss the mark on Come From Away?

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Golden tourism ticket: Did N.L. government miss the mark on Come From Away?

In a jam-packed hall in New York City last Sunday night, Gander mayor Claude Elliott found himself giving a Broadway audience something they couldn't find in or near the theatre: directions on how to find Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism website. 

More than a thousand people, including Broadway investors, producers, actors and special guests, gathered at Gotham Hall to celebrate the debut of Come From Away — many leaving with a keen interest to visit the place so lovingly depicted on stage. 

For some, it's a place they likely had never heard of before. 

It was a golden tourism opportunity that Elliott felt could have been used by the provincial government as a way to boost the region.

"It would have been nice to have someone there from the Department of Tourism to just hand out brochures to let people know, at least they could see the toll-free number to call," Elliott said.

Instead, Elliott and others from Gander acted as ambassadors of sorts, fielding questions about the town and the province. 

"[There's] only so much that we could do, we were telling them about the province."

Minister taking in show this week

The heartwarming musical which showcases what Newfoundlanders did in the days following 9/11 and the overwhelming thanks given by the nearly 7,000 passengers stranded there, has been the talk of Broadway since its premiere on March 12.

Come From Away has gotten major play in Canadian and American media and was named the New York Times' critic's pick. 

The show has been seen by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Jean Chrétien, as well as Donald Trump's daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump.

Producer and creative consultant for Come From Away, Michael Rubinoff, said it would have been nice to see provincial government officials on opening night.

"It was a real historical opportunity that was culturally significant, certainly for Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador and that's an opportunity to be celebrated," he said.

"If we can take that one step further to drive tourism I think in the nature of the story we're telling, I think that's a positive."

While Premier Dwight Ball received an invitation to opening night, the seats held for him went unclaimed.

According to the premier's office, there was a scheduling issue, with the Brier final happening the same night. Ball also stayed in the province because of a severe wind storm that knocked out power to thousands and left major damage to infrastructure and buildings. 

Ball is expected to see the show eventually, the office said.

'Blatant promotion' kept at a minimum

The Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation said it was advised by its United States public relations representatives to keep "blatant promotion" of the province to a minimum so not to "be perceived as vultures making profit off the disaster of others." 

"Though we did not have a paid advertising program around the promotion of Come From Away, we did encourage third party travel media stories, as well as shared content on social media and promotion through our key travel trade tour operators," the department said in a statement to CBC News Monday.

The department pointed to the positive impact of media coverage and private businesses offering Come From Away-inspired packages. 

A department of tourism development officer is working with the tourism industry in Gander "to deliver additional product experiences that reflect the warmth, hospitality and generosity that is showcased in Come From Away," the department said.

Asked why the province didn't place an ad in Playbill, it said the majority of people who read that are New York City tourists, who do not fall in the same market as a tourist who travels to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The cost to advertise in Playbill, a magazine for theatre-goers that promotes current stage productions, is estimated at $104,000 Cdn for the year, the department said.

Tourism Minister Christopher Mitchelmore did not attend opening night because the House of Assembly was sitting, the department said.

He and other department officials are attending the show on Wednesday. 

Both Ball and Mitchelmore attended the shows in Gander and Toronto. 

Opportunity for businesses, tour operators

Diane Davis, a retired teacher who inspired one of the characters in Come From Away, hopes businesses and operators prepare for the influx of tourists who will visit because of the show. 

"I think the opportunity is huge," said Davis.

"I think getting some promotional, souvenir-type items that any tourist might want to pick up, but especially knowing that there are people coming looking for these locations."

Davis said she met lots of people in New York who had a big interest in visiting Newfoundland. Now, she said, it's time for businesses and tour operators to prepare.

"We need to get ready because there's a big, vast clientele," she said. "Every demographic is seeing this show and hopefully considering coming to Newfoundland to see what it's like."

Having signs outside each location involved in the days following 9/11 would make a good historical addition to the region, Davis said, and it would come at a small cost.

Fogo Island Inn on board

Some private companies have already caught on to the importance the region played on a global level and sees the opportunity to tell tourists that story.

The Fogo Island Inn developed a Come From Away-inspired itinerary for guests prior to the show's opening in Toronto last year. 

Melanie Coates, director of business development for the inn, said the package guides guests through the Gander International Airport and the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Guests also hear from community leaders who know the story. 

"We saw it as an opportunity to provide a greater link between the community of Gander and Fogo Island, so that our guests can understand ... that we're not just an island, we're an island off the greater [province] of Newfoundland and Labrador," Coates said.

"Gander is the gateway and Gander is the town that inspired the musical and this is something that we felt would resonate with our guests."