Destination Cape Breton Association
You might not think that the general manager of Destination Cape Breton would need to get her hands on a horse during her regular 9 to 5 job. But it's all in a day's work for Sandra MacDonald. Clearly, Destination Cape Breton is an organization that will go the extra mile to ensure that visitors are well looked after, and to confirm the renowned friendliness and resourcefulness of the region.
As part of their mandate to promote and enhance tourism on Cape Breton Island, MacDonald and her staff routinely help film crews find great locations to shoot. And in the case of the horse, they were providing logistical support to Mantracker, a reality TV show. "We spent over a year working with them," she says. "We helped them find horses, a rider, some ATVs, and accommodations." Two shows were shot in the Margaree Highlands and will air this spring on the Outdoor Life Network.
This was just one of numerous projects on the slate of the membership-based tourism body for the Island. Funded by members, as well as all three levels of government and some private enterprises, MacDonald describes Destination Cape Breton as grassroots and "on the ground."
Born and bred in Cape Breton, MacDonald has spent over 20 years in the business – long enough to witness quite a few changes. "I've seen the growth of the cruise ship industry, and I've seen our tourist season lengthen and the demographics of our visitors change. It's certainly an industry that is ever-changing."
Cape Breton is holding its own in the face of global challenges in the sector. In fact, last year, there was a two per cent increase in tourism numbers for the island. Destination Cape Breton's website – www.cbisland.com – receives up to one million hits per month and over 6,000 requests annually for tourism information. Approximately 400,000 people visit each year, and there are an ever-increasing number of special events that attract new visitors.
The number and quality of these events is impressive. In 2008 alone, Destination Cape Breton supported and promoted the Harley Davidson gathering of thousands in Sydney, the Cape Breton Dragon Boat Festival, the first-ever Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, the Louisburg Encampment, and the 2008 Quebec Major Hockey League Entry Draft.
In addition to all of this, the association continues to run a toll-free events line and manage funding for festivals and events across the island.
It’s no surprise then that this regional tourism industry association has grown from a one-person operation to four full-time and 20 part-time staff. Membership revenue is up, and they've also taken on increased financial responsibility. Today, MacDonald and her staff personally sit on 13 different boards and committees across Cape Breton.
MacDonald says the organization is grateful to its volunteer board of directors and hard working partners. "We have forged numerous partnerships that have been invaluable to us in performing our duties and meeting our mandate," says MacDonald, citing the two Cape Breton Regional Development Authorities, Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality as notable allies. They also partner with the province to provide services, such as the operation of Regional Visitor Information Centres and the administration of the festival and events program on a fee-for-service basis.
Part of their offering is the popular Cape Breton "Trekker" program which matches young Cape Breton ambassadors with festivals, events, and reunions. "The participants set up and take down, serve fish cakes, do dishes, paint faces, and they can even throw in some step dancing and singing," says MacDonald. "It's a wonderful service and a fabulous program.” Last year, 42 events took advantage of this cost-free program and about a dozen 18-year-olds gained some valuable life experience.
While membership in Destination Cape Breton is not mandatory for tourism-based businesses, there are some great perks to belonging. More than 300 active members receive monthly newsletters, a link on the official website, access to direct marketing, and preferred space at the eight Visitor Information Centres around the Island.
According to MacDonald, these centres operate at a very high standard and achieve great marks from the province. In fact, one of the centres received a 100 per cent quality rating this year, something that is a rare occurrence. "We're very proud of the quality visitor information centres that we operate and the professional staff working in them."
It's this kind of excellence that MacDonald emphasizes is essential in the tourism game. "We're in competition with the world," she says. "We have to continually diversify our product and activities with things that will make people want to come here." Prior to last year's two per cent increase in tourism numbers, there had been a decline in visitors over the last five years. "It's a fickle industry. You have to be prepared.”
She adds that in order to stay on top of the game, you need to continually upgrade to meet the new standards and expectations of tourists. "Destination Cape Breton is here for the betterment of the industry, and for the growth and development of tourism on Cape Breton Island. We need all sectors and businesses to realize how important it is to be a part of this larger picture."
MacDonald has seen what happens when everyone works together. "It's really important that our organization is an advocate for partnership and collaboration. Our doors are open, and we're more than willing to partner in any initiatives that will enhance life on Cape Breton Island."
Certainly Fodor's and Travel and Leisure Magazine, both of which recently named Cape Breton Island an "Island Paradise" and "#1 Island in North America" cannot be wrong. "Our true assets are our scenery and our people," says MacDonald. "These things haven't changed and they will continue to draw people to our Island."