O Canada, true north strong, but not free

O Canada, true north strong, but not free

I admit it. I am a proud Canadian. Sorry to offend those who think we’re the 51st state up here. Except for those in Quebec, Canadians speak the same language as our U.S. counterparts, albeit with a different accent. We shop at the same stores — the Gap, Wal-Mart, Old Navy — and we are excited to announce that soon we’ll even have Target! Travel to one of our large cities, and you’ll see the usual hotel chains too: Hilton, Marriott and most of the Starwood varieties. My goodness, you could mistake downtown Toronto for Chicago. Often it is, as many Hollywood films supposedly set in Chicago are really filmed on location in Toronto.

Flash back 10 or 20 years, when Canada was a poor cousin to the USA. Our dollar was lucky to hit 80 cents American (at our dollar’s lowest ebb, it was worth 62 U.S. cents). Unemployment was stubbornly 2 to 3 percentage points higher than the U.S. rate. Our economic picture was somber, and accordingly, we were ignored as an origination market for tour and travel, assigned second- or even third-tier status.

Well, wake up world, and especially our southern friends: Canada is on fire! Here are some facts that provide some perspective:

  • No housing or mortgage crisis here. The average house prices in Canada actually grew every year from 2008 through 2011. In Toronto and Vancouver, low interest rates have propelled the housing markets into what could be considered “bubble” territory. For perspective, my own home has almost tripled in value from my purchase price of just nine years ago.
  • The Canadian dollar now hovers around par with the U.S. dollar and often tracks above it, thereby increasing Canadians’ buying power. Canadian travel outside of the country has grown in double digits over the past three years as Canadians exercise their newly discovered economic muscle.
  • Canadian unemployment levels are lower than those in the United States and are in a range consistent with those experienced prior to the 2008 recession.
  • About 56% of Canadians have a passport, compared with just 37% of Americans. A passport is required for Canadians to travel to the United States, as it is for Americans to travel to Canada.
One look around my adopted hometown of Toronto (population 5.6 million for the Greater Toronto Area, according to the latest census) provides a “wow” factor. According to the local press, there are about 160 high rises — mostly condominiums — now under construction in our city. For comparison, the next highest total is in New York, which has about 55. A drive in downtown Toronto this past weekend revealed a sea of construction cranes.

So, as a hotelier, how do you take advantage of this vibrant, potentially untapped market? Canada’s motto, “True North Strong and Free,” is a good start, but unfortunately, it is not going to be free. Most American ad agencies haven’t a foggy clue as to how to approach this market. The questions I am often asked by even the brightest of this group are downright embarrassing. (Canadians, on the other hand, are very familiar with the United States, given strong penetration of U.S. stations on our cable TV networks.) Here are a few thoughts for you to consider:

  • Define the Canadian market that best suits your geographic needs. This is a big country; consider regionalized, targeted programs.
  • Try testing Canadian-targeted Google Adwords.
  • Look to participating with local CVBs or state tourism offices on their next mission to Canada. If they don’t have them, fix the situation.
  • Consider some FAM trips for targeted Canadian PR writers. (Again, don’t count on your U.S.-based agencies to get it right; chances are, they won’t!)
  • Consider participating with key Canadian tour operators.
  • Seek assistance from Canadian market experts.
It used to be said that when the United States gets a cold, Canada sneezes. Canada is doing fine, thank you, while the U.S. appears to be looking for some Tylenol Cold & Sinus capsules. And yes, you can buy them up here in Canada, no prescription needed … don’t get me started on health care differences!