Barrie and Simcoe County focusing tourism on domestic visitors, shop local during pandemic

The tourism and hospitality sector has been rocked by COVID-19, with business and leisure travel all but ceased, people in the industry locally are having to find creative ways to keep places like Barrie and Simcoe County top of mind as tourist destinations while respecting health and safety concerns.

One of Barrie’s biggest summer attractions–Kempenfest–which draws thousands of visitors– was scrapped due to COVID-19. The festival, which was scheduled July 31 to August 3, has put 50th anniversary celebrations on hold until next year.

Tourism Barrie is part of the City of Barrie’s recovery plan that is expected to be presented to city council in June.

“We are going to start with a gradual reintroduction of the city to the outside community.” said Kathleen Trainor, Executive Director of Tourism Barrie.

The reach to other markets will still be close to home, such as Collingwood and Orillia, encouraging people to visit Barrie to shop.

Trainor said the biggest concern, something they are hearing from other regions, is having an influx of people visiting and risking an added burden on the local health care system.

She said the marketing pitch is #ReDiscoverBarrie—aimed at the surrounding market as well as people who live in the city.

“Staycation is a focus. Getting people who live here to shop and eat local, fuel the local economy.”

The hotel occupancy rate in Barrie for April was 20 per cent compared to 68 per cent at the same time last year.

Retailers have been hard hit and that is why Tourism Barrie is placing a heavy emphasis on getting people who live in the city and close by to return to the shops.

Trainor said 13 per cent of Barrie’s employment is retail.

“People need to get the confidence to go and eat and shop. The patios will open. We want people to come back and have confidence retailers have policies in place to make their experience safe.”

In fact, Tourism Barrie is helping the retail and hospitality sector with those plans by offering safe serve webinars, teaching best practices.

“Local business is our community members and employers. Barrie is a big small business employer. We want people to buy from Barrie and not Amazon.” said Trainor.

At the regional level, Kathryn Stephenson, Manager of Tourism Simcoe County, said they did a pivot with their marketing as COVID-19 came into play in March.

“We shifted our work plan from Experience Simcoe County to Experience Simcoe County From Home.”

Picture via Simcoe County

It’s a juggling act, as many municipalities in Simcoe County have respectfully pulled the welcome mat to visitors for the time being.

Mayors from Lake Simcoe municipalities issued a media release before the May long weekend asking daytrippers to stay home, ditto for Wasaga Beach, while Tay Township asked cottagers not to come.

Stephenson said there is a glimmer of hope with golf courses and marina’s opening.

“We’re marketing to residents to shop local and support local tourism operators. Our website has listings for each of the municipalities, whether its food and beverage, artisans, virtual events and more.”

Stephenson said people can experience Simcoe County from home by going to the organization’s website to watch videos that highlight different tourist operators and how they have been able to pivot and become successful.

“There is also an awareness video. We don’t want people to forget about Simcoe County. We want to keep it top of mind. It’s targeted throughout the county, listing safe things you can do, like golf.”

With so much uncertainty, Stephenson said the work plan is always shifting.

Some resort operators are open, many are not, while several local hotels experiencing low occupancy have opened up as shelters to the homeless population.

Both Tourism Barrie and Tourism Simcoe said whatever happens, they will take their cues from local officials, health authorities and the province.