Travel Alberta wants U.S. visitors to see the warmth in province's winter experiences

Tourism Alberta's videos feature wild ice skating adventures with mountain backdrops. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
Tourism Alberta's videos feature wild ice skating adventures with mountain backdrops. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

Travel Alberta is promoting winter travel across the province with a U.S. ad campaign that the tourism industry says shows early promise.

Catchy Instagram and Facebook ads gracing feeds and timelines in California, Texas and New York are touting Alberta's winter wonderland — trying to entice a type of traveller who comes to the province spending more cash and staying more nights than Canadian counterparts.

The multi-faceted campaign, which launched last September, starts with airlines. Travel Alberta chief marketing officer Tannis Gaffney said working with Air Canada and Westjet to connect their targeted states through direct flights was the first step.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

Then, there are the web-based ads.

"Americans are very interested in coming to Canada for our wide open spaces, our welcoming nature, our friendliness," Gaffney said.

The campaign uses lines like: "You've never experienced a winter like this" and "Winter is where things really heat up in Alberta."

And, of course, videos full of stunning views of the Rockies and a soundtrack to carry the slow-motion scenes of skiers, a winter fly fisher, hot tub splashing and the occasional wild horse.

An unpaid actor in all of this, Gaffney mentions, is Pedro Pascal and The Last of Us crew, doing the work in interviews to plug the province.

"There is no influencer we could hire that would be better than Pedro Pascal," she said. "He said something about Canmore, he was talking about High River, I saw him talking about Nanton, Fort Macleod. That's priceless."

They are already trying to capitalize on the series' success with itineraries for fans, she added.

For the tourism industry, Gaffney said, getting U.S. visitor levels back to 2019 levels is what businesses need to recover.

Canadian travellers are showing up, but because many of those visits include crashing on a couch at a friend's place or visiting family — they aren't spending as much.

"An American visitor will spend more," Gaffney said. "They stay longer and they spend more money. And it's not just the U.S. in general. We're really strategic about three key states."

When the campaign launched, Rachel Ludwig, CEO of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis, said her hoteliers noticed immediately as U.S. travellers began making reservations.

"You could really tell that the campaign was very successful in that regard," she said.

American travel still behind 2019 benchmarks

Comparing U.S. bookings and visitation to the 2019 benchmark, Ludwig said last year's winter was 63 per cent behind, while this winter fared better, at 36 per cent below 2019 numbers. She said it's a sign that U.S. travellers are ready to come back and that things are moving in the right direction.

"We cannot expect the floodgates to open straight away," Ludwig said. "I think we are definitely on the way out of the pandemic lows and into some recovery."

And winter, along with shoulder seasons, is a focus for tourism groups because most of the travel interest lands in the summertime. And that can make it tough to sustain the high and low demands throughout the year.

"It's really challenging currently to run a tourism business in the Rockies. Considering you have so much business in the summer and then in the winter you are lacking in cash flow," Ludwig said.

Calgary's focus on winter paying off

Calgary is trying to become more of a winter city, and that strategy is showing early promise, according to Tourism Calgary. In February, Chinook Blast along with Nitro Rally Cross drove visitation.

"February we saw an eight-year record in occupancy at the hotels — we believe from these events as well as the increased film and television productions that are happening in the city," said Jeff Hessel, senior vice-president of marketing with Tourism Calgary.

Visitors coming to Calgary are treating the city as a home base for winter adventures like skiing, snowshoeing and sledding.

But when booking a trip, one of the first things travellers want to look up, after securing a hotel booking, is where they might eat. And that's where Hessel said Calgary has an upper hand.

Colleen De Neve for CBC
Colleen De Neve for CBC

"Calgary's been really building a reputation for our culinary and food area and really getting a lot of global exposure with that," Hessel said. "We've seen articles about our culinary scene in Toronto Star, The Washington Post and the U.S. Food Network."

The big test for Alberta's tourism industry, and the return of international travel, will come this summer. Some tour operators are already seeing an uptick from 2019 bookings. In Calgary, Hessel said, travellers appear to be comfortable booking ahead for festivals and hotel stays.

"Anecdotally, we're hearing really strong information for a solid summer this year in Calgary," Hessel said.