Changes to tourism funding creates dilemma for guest ranches
By Faye Bayko
Destination BC’s new Co-operative Marketing Partnership program and the competitive funding model it represents introduced criteria last year that demanded applicants take a hard look at who and what they are. For this year, they are demanding even more.
“So, six months into this new year, because (2016) was our first year launching, my manager and our director met with the sub-committee to review where we were, how’d it go, you know learnings that we’ve had so far,” explained Aimee Epp, Marketing Co-op Programs Coordinator at Destination BC during a November phone interview. “One of the strong recommendations was the involvement of the private sector.”
What this means for those applying for 2017 funding, Epp said, is that the competition judges will be including this expectation, which is actually a stated goal of the program, with the four main weighted requirements applicants must meet in order to receive funding. The applicant must show how their application project will increase tourism revenue in British Columbia, how it builds brand equity for the provincial brand, how strong their marketing plan is, and if they have the resources to execute the plan.
The Co-operative Marketing Partnership program, Epp said, replaced multiple co-op programs: the community-based Community Tourism Opportunities Program, the sector-based Experiences BC program, and some of the regional partnership opportunities. According to the website, the new program is meant to provide co-operative marketing and promotion support to regional destination marketing organizations, community consortiums, sector organizations, or approved individual and paired communities in British Columbia.
While the funding targets may not have changed from the original programs, the process and expectations have, which has led to some confusion.
“It’s a whole new thing, a whole new world, especially for groups we’ve previously worked with before,” Epp said.
One of those groups is the British Columbia Guest Ranch Association (BCGRA), which had been receiving regular funding and was expecting they would continue to receive it even with the new process. But, their application was unsuccessful. The BCGRA was one of two experience-sector applicants who did not receive funding in 2016.
Getting back in the saddle
“The BCGRA is made up of the ranches and run by the ranches,” explained Arna Campbell, BCGRA and Sundance Guest Ranch spokesperson. “They created the organization mainly because a lot of the ranches are owner-operated and don’t have large marketing budgets. So, it was a way to pool all the money together to get funding from Destination BC, and increase everyone’s marketing budget, as a group.”
Campbell said that part of the funds received under the old experience-sector program were used to pay for a Managing Director position. With the unsuccessful application for funding under the new program, that position disappeared.
“So, (Destination BC) changed the criteria to receive funding, and, it’s a little bit confusing. It was almost like (BCGRA) weren’t big enough, a big enough sector, to receive funding. So, they asked us to join with other sectors to create a bigger group with more to offer, which is hard for the ranches because they are all-inclusive,” said Campbell.
The all-inclusive nature of the BCGRA nine member ranches has created a dilemma for the association, according to Campbell. “It looks like, at the moment, the only way to secure funding is to grow our member base, which would be diluting our product as a guest ranch association.”
Campbell, who had recently attended an all-sector meeting hosted by Destination BC, said she took away the expectation that, in order to have a successful application for funding this year, the BCGRA were to involve businesses who were not specifically guest ranches, places who may just offer horse riding as a recreational option. During that meeting, she said she was approached by other sector representatives interested in joining with BCGRA, but she remains concerned. “It becomes a bigger haul but it would dilute the (BCGRA) guest ranch message. So, at the moment it’s with the members as to whether it’s is worth doing that or not.”
By including other types of experience-sector ranches, she said, would dilute the BCGRA brand and scatter what has been targeted marketing.
While last year’s unsuccessful application was disappointing, the process has provided an opportunity for the group, and its members, to really look at who and what they are, and if their brand strong enough to go forward.
“The ranches are all very different,” said Campbell. “Like, you have Echo Valley Guest Ranch, which has a big spa element to it, and Campbell Hills has a spa too, and they all have marketing budgets; whereas Sundance and Three Bars it’s all about the horses, it’s all about horse riding. So, right now it’s about whether we all branch off and spend our own marketing dollars. But, then there’re the smaller ranches like Big Bar who don’t have a marketing budget. And without this funding, they’re going to struggle.”
Whether or not the BCGRA decides to apply for 2017 funding or not, Campbell said that they will continue to access the support offered through Destinatioin BC.
“They do offer a lot of support, especially in the way of their social media programs. They’re doing big pushes there, which even without funding you can get involved with.”
Identity, has been a big part of the learning that has happened with this process, according to Epp. “Although we continue to work with many of the groups that were in the Experiences BC program, we have now, essentially any group that believes they represent their (experience) sector can apply to this program.”
This is different from the past funding model, Epp said, in that as long as a group had completed their strategy work, Destination BC accepted self-declared representation. “In the past, we said ‘You’re the sector’, you can access funding. It wasn’t, ‘Well, no, this doesn’t look strong enough.’”
So, in the old program, an association such as BCGRA, she said, was taken at their word as representing their experience sector, and automatically received funding year after year, as that representative. The new program no longer assumes that past representatives of experience sectors are current representatives, and expects associations to show proof that they represent who they claim to represent. The new competitive nature of the program also allows for applications from multiple groups who claim to represent the same experience sector.
“So, if there was another group that was representing an experience, it could even be guest ranches, any group who feels they represent that experience all across the province where it exists, can apply. And, basically, we assess it based on the strength of the application. And they need to provide a business case about how and why they are truly representative of that experience and why it would make sense that we would fund that project. So, that’s a big difference. It’s not automatic any more. It’s competitive.”
Last year Destination BC received 66 applications for up to $50,000 in matching funding. Sixty of those applications were successful, and 10 of those were sectors, said Epp.
This year, the maximum has been increased to $250,000. Applicants still need to be able to match the awarded funds, which would make the maximum project marketing budget of $500,000.
The criteria and the increased funding have meant that the decisions made by Destination BC on who receives funding must be defensible.
“What we found last year, just a key learning from my perspective, not just the guest ranches but many groups we’ve worked with for years, we have to evaluate what’s on paper in front of us,” stressed Epp. “So, the fact that we’ve worked with you in the past, don’t assume we know you. Because we are tasked with reviewing what’s in front of us and we have to be fair and equitable to everyone.”
She said, it would be unfair to bring forward either good or bad experiences from the past when Destination BC is starting from scratch with the new program.
“So it’s really important that if you’re going to be writing this application that you’re really selling us on the selling feature, what’s so special about it, what do consumers like about it? What is it? Don’t expect that we know.”
Applicants, she said, should communicate clearly the value offered by their proposal and how it meets the Destination BC criterial, including brand matching.
“From our perspective, Destination BC’s mandate is to maximize that return on investment. So, that’s why the pressure’s on that we also make really smart decisions about what partners we fund and how much.”
For groups like the BCGRA, who may be struggling to understand the process, they should see the application as an opportunity to argue for their brand, she said. “I mentioned this a couple of times, they don’t represent all of the guest ranches in the province and that may or may not be the right way. … That doesn’t mean they can’t access funding. It means we need the business case to understand how far reaching are their marketing activities.”
The deadline for 2017 funding is November 30th.