With each passing day the burgeoning City of Saskatoon generates further attention as a multi-faceted community that makes it not only an outstanding place to raise a family but also for visitors from across the globe to experience as a vibrant, exciting tourist destination with its numerous attractions and events.
Saskatoon’s metropolitan area, now at 311,000 people and growing, has an effervescent history of being exceedingly proactive in terms of spearheading an event-based tourism economy with numerous business meetings, conventions and one-off cultural extravaganzas such as the Juno Awards along with such sporting events as the World Junior Hockey Championships and international curling competitions. The Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League and the Saskatoon Rush of the National Lacrosse League provide ongoing sports entertainment. Building from that sturdy base, the city has begun to make a name for itself as a diverse destination that is entirely capable of competing with the best on the world’s stage on many different platforms.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Todd Brandt, President and CEO at Tourism Saskatoon about the city’s continued tourism development, which is an integral aspect of the municipality’s overall economic prosperity.
“We really took a major step forward with the opening of the Remai Modern last fall, which is a major modern art museum now on the world stage,” begins Brandt.
The magnificent art gallery attraction represents a $100 million development that has created a critical mass of attraction-based tourism opportunities for Saskatoon that was never present before.
“As an ongoing major gallery it has a wonderful $20 million collection of Picasso Linocuts, which was a particular technique that Picasso became famous for using,” explains Brandt. “Many people associate some of his best work with Linocuts.”
Linocut is a printmaking technique first used in Germany in the early 1900s and is a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum is used for a relief surface. Most of Picasso’s acclaimed work in this area occurred between the years 1958 and 1963. A donation by a local philanthropist essentially purchased the entire collection that exists in the world – about 416 pieces in total. There has been a tremendous outpouring of media attention surrounding its opening as of last October and the New York Times has named Saskatoon as one of the 52 destinations to visit in 2018, riding to a large extent on the popularity and opportunity of the Remai Modern. While the gallery had been expected to be extremely popular upon opening, the first six months provided an even more impressive visitor count than had been anticipated.
Tourism and the Economy
The latest figures from Statistics Canada reveal that tourism-related jobs in Saskatoon now total beyond 15,400, which impressively accounts for about 9% of the entire city’s workforce. That figure will no doubt continue to ascend with more visitors coming to the city each year and several new hotels and restaurants having recently opened their doors for business.
“For the last eight years we’ve had about a 6.8% growth in hotel rooms to meet demand,” says Brandt. “We’re in that 2.8 million people annual visit range with business travelers and families coming on vacations.”
Business travelers represent a smaller total proportion of visitors but the overall revenue expectations associated with those travelers attending conventions is certainly higher. Brandt says the city has had excellent success over the past few years in securing both national and international conventions, conferences and symposiums.
“We do a national benchmarking with other direct marketing organizations (DMOs) across Canada and we’re performing well above average in generating business for Saskatoon, which is a very positive trend and we’re just building on that,” he remarks.
A major historical tourist attraction is Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a National Historic Site of Canada opened in 1992, representing nearly 6,000 years of First Nations history and the Meewasin Valley Authority, a conservation agency dedicated to conserving the cultural and natural resources of the South Saskatchewan River Valley. Meewasin is the Cree word for ‘beautiful’.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park is seeking to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status, and has a fundamental goal of advancing the understanding and appreciation of the evolving cultures of the Northern Plains indigenous peoples. Wanuskewin is a living reminder of the peoples’ sacred relationship with the land.
The city has engaged in a number of innovative initiatives such as Green Stem, which is the tourism’s response to appropriate demands by consumers on ensuring that the industry touches as lightly as possible regarding their footprint on the Earth and promoting environmental consciousness.
“We look at sustainable tourism activities and Green Stem is a program that we designed to allow small and medium businesses to sign up and do their own audit of their sustainability practices,” says Brandt. “It’s a sharing tool as well to help the entire industry push sustainable practices.”
The Green Stem site houses a library of resources for tourism businesses looking to incorporate environmental initiatives into their workplaces. Incorporating responsible and sustainable practices resonates with people on a global scale and it’s important to always be at the leading edge of the curve in that regard as a means of promoting tourism activities.
In 2016, Tourism Saskatoon was one of only a handful of internationally accredited destination marketing organizations here in Canada. It’s that type of commitment to excellence that helps separate Saskatoon from the vast majority of other cities not only in Canada but around the world.
“We are still the only accredited DMO in Saskatchewan and I believe there about 13 across Canada,” says Brandt.
Certification and recertification is an auditing process with 92 areas of investigation and is valid for four years. It’s not enough for a municipality to simply say ‘yes we do this’ but rather there must be proof. All aspects of governance structure, programming, sophistication and the level of staff training each play important factors. It’s meant to be a stamp of quality assurance.
“As a DMO people can trust us to be an intermediary between their wishes and ambitions and what our industry delivers here. We take it very seriously. It’s not a simple accreditation but we’re happy to do it,” says Brandt.
In addition to his many other duties at Tourism Saskatoon, Brandt has also been the corporate liaison with the Saskatoon Hotels Association in the city of Saskatoon and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
“We’re much more involved with Destination Canada now than we ever have been. I think it’s because of our international media work and our work on the convention side,” he says.
There is also a very successful cooperative program with Tourism Saskatchewan on the advocacy front. Last year there were 24 different advocacy campaigns to which Tourism Saskatoon participated on behalf of its 460 business members.
“We’ve seen a government that’s responded very aggressively to investing more into tourism and tourism marketing through Destination Canada. The country is posting great numbers and even though we’ve had weaker western economy for the past few years we’re climbing out of that and have to take advantage. Tourism needs to play a significant part of the economic recovery just like all the other business groups,” says Brandt.
Tourism Saskatoon also makes excellent use of the University of Saskatchewan as a resource to help lead the charge in attracting national and international conferences for Saskatoon. Brandt and his team regularly interact with senior researchers and directors at the school to develop strategies on ushering business into the city.
“Our biggest interaction with the university is a source of what we term our local leaders,” says Brandt. “Whenever we have an opportunity to look at a national or international congress many, many times there’s a leadership within those various associations that are employed on campus; every diversified discipline has people that sit on boards who are influencers.”
The university benefits because they’re receiving that high-level exchange of ideas and concepts in hosting a significant event and Tourism Saskatoon benefits from the direct economic impact. The third beneficiary is the Province of Saskatchewan because oftentimes major investors will attend these same congresses, so it proves to be a winning three-way partnership.
Keeping Young People Inspired
It bodes well for Saskatoon in having the second-youngest population base of any mid- to large-sized city in the country. Such a youthful presence reflects in the tone and character of the type of entertainment and the overall mix of activities that Saskatoon has to offer, including everything from paddle-boarding on the river to live music and theatre.
“We want to create a destination that excites them and retains them. We did a two-year program with Destination Canada and Tourism Saskatchewan to promote our activities to millennial travelers but it’s essential to have a product that matches the target,” states Brandt.
As another prime example of Tourism Saskatoon’s desire to reach out to the younger set, Brandt signed a three-year agreement with the International Basketball Federation to bring three-on-three street basketball to Saskatoon. A makeshift stadium was built downtown on Fourth Avenue at 21st Street for the first time last year and it was a phenomenal success with about 13,000 spectators taking in the action.
“It’s young; it’s urban and fast-paced with great music and we still have that for two more years,” says Brandt.
The International Basketball Federation was thrilled with both the volunteer effort and what the city was able to accomplish in hosting their first-ever showcase. In fact, Saskatoon was the only stop of the Masters World Tour in North America last year and only one of eight stops worldwide. This year the series has expanded to 10 stops internationally.
“Three-on-three is going to be part of the Olympic Games so we’re riding that wave of popularity of this new sport as well,” says Brandt.
The SaskTel Saskatoon Jazz Festival is a premier multi-day attractions that accentuates diversified the character of the city. The 10-day event continues to grow each year and is often mentioned on a list of the very best festivals in Canada. Artists come from across Canada and the U.S. to perform and the genres have noticeably diversified over the years beyond just pure Jazz.
Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan is another annual summer favourite that draws a large crowd of people to the riverbank to watch adapted Shakespearean drama. In addition to productions of plays by Shakespeare, the festival’s activities also include: art displays, medieval feasts; tours, workshops; matinees; and a free community stage.
Broadway Street Fair, Folk Fest and the Saskatoon Pride Festival are other well-established events that draw lots of people for fun times in the summer months.
“It’s a fairly extended run from early July right through till mid-August as far as summer festivals are concerned, and they of course are huge for us in generating traffic to Saskatoon,” says Brandt.
In the winter months local residents and visitors to the city can make their way to the Farmers’ Market to see the ice sculptures at the PotashCorp WinterShines Festival.
Sports Tourism and Recreation
An insatiable thirst to have professional sports in the city has been evident for quite some time. The first taste of success came when the Saskatchewan Rush of the National Lacrosse League moved from Edmonton into the 15,000-seat SaskTel Centre, which is frequently sold out for regular-season games.
“They play right across North America, which is great exposure for our destination,” notes Brandt.
One of the main infrastructure challenges from a couple of years ago that has been alleviated was that the city was running out of adequate facilities, including those capable of hosting national and international events. Brandt says the city is on the cusp of adding a new two-pad and two-sport court facility at the University of Saskatchewan. There was also a recent large upgrade to the junior football field. Approvals are also now in place to move ahead with a competitive track facility and other amenities in another part of the city.
2020 and Beyond
A number of major infrastructure projects are in the works for Saskatoon over the next couple of years, many of which will service to enhance the city’s tourism base. After our discussion, Brandt was on his way to attend a collective meeting to analyze a consultant’s report on the future of the SaskTel Centre, the city’s major arena at the north end. The complex acts as host to hockey, lacrosse, curling and numerous musical concerts. Discussion has focused on a new facility being built nearer the downtown core with the possibility of a new convention centre going up as well.
“Some of the structures and demands constantly change and you always want to stay contemporary. You want to remain on the ‘A’ side of the touring circuit because you don’t want to have to turn down events due to a lack of technical standards. We also would like to generate an opportunity of keeping people downtown,” says Brandt.
A primary motivation for having a new arena complex in the city centre is that it would help to keep people in the area, especially on evenings when the Saskatoon Blades or the Saskatoon Rush are playing. The ability to add more seating and private boxes along with improvements in technological infrastructure efficiencies would also reap greater economic rewards.
“We’re missing on that right now and it’s costing us millions of dollars in lost economic opportunities,” states Brandt.
Tourism Saskatoon is always mindful of keeping local stakeholders involved in what is happening in the city and what they would like to see moving forward. To that end, the organization conducts a widespread survey every second year to get the public’s opinion on the quality and value associated with accommodations, retail and restaurants and that can drive opportunities. Brandt has several things that are on the wish list of many citizens.
“I think we need a summer professional sports franchise. We have a couple of irons in the fire to augment when the Rush play, which is primarily winter and early spring. I think there’s a business economic opportunity to help that get established,” he says.
“The immigrant population continues to grow, and they bring a love of soccer,” says Brandt. “We need to get a top-notch facility.”
The continued growth of tourism initiatives will serve as a catalyst that ignites a number of exciting opportunities to host large commercial, corporate, sporting, entertainment and leisure events to increase the city’s already impressive profile on an international scale.