An intentional tourist weighs in on how well Port Alberni treats its guests.

Tourism: first impressions of Port Alberni

In the first of a three-part series, writer June Kasperski-Wild takes a comprehensive look at tourism in the Alberni Valley.

This is the first of a three-part series. Next week: First impressions of a summer visit to the Alberni Valley.

When considering where to spend their money, how important is a tourist’s first impression of your town?

According to hundreds of First Impressions Community Exchanges done in the United States, and dozens in Canada, the old adage is true: One doesn’t get a second chance at a first impression. Tourists coming to your town will have an immediate impression of whether or not they would like to stay and spend their money, and they will base this first impression on factors that are largely within the control of your municipal council and your community.

Basically, if the first impression of your community is negative, or even neutral, then tourists will move on to a place that grabs their attention or appeals to them in some way that your community has missed.

The First Impressions Community Exchange or FICE,  was originally developed by the University of Wisconsin to assist rural communities in their development activities. The program helps communities learn about their strengths and weaknesses as seen through the eyes of first-time visitors, hence the name ‘First Impressions’.

Teams are selected from volunteers in partnered communities and sent out to do unannounced, short visits that are structured around a report and questionnaire.

These teams then provide structured, constructive feedback to their exchange community.

The assessment includes specific regard to community entrances, municipal services, tourist attractions, retail experiences, public infrastructure, and can be broad in scope or focus in on one particular element of the questionnaire. A popular focus is tourism.

The final steps of the program involve a presentation to council and action planning related to the findings. In Canada, these exchanges have occurred in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and are starting to be discussed in British Columbia.

The positive results of these exchanges suggest that the honest, outsider’s opinion seems to be the missing link for communities that are  naturally focused internally and know their communities so well that they can no longer be objective.

I’ve spent about 10 years of my 18-year public sector career working directly with municipalities in Ontario, in the field of economic and community development.

My encounters with the FICE program have always left me marvelling at the tremendous value that can come from the simplest of ideas.

Economic development need not be complicated. It can be as simple as asking those that contribute to your economy what they need to see in order to make some sort of financial commitment, regardless of duration.

This holds true whether a visitor is a business owner, a tourist or a local resident thinking of starting a family. By asking a visitor to contribute to your process, towns can gain a fresh perspective.

A fresh perspective can be a positive and simple way to kick-start community vitality which is a key element of any type of strategic or economic plan, regardless of it’s scope.

FICE can also be a lifeline for many communities, given the fiscal reality that is being faced by economic development managers and officers. FICE harnesses the power of community volunteers and is therefore extremely cost effective.

Like other provinces, it is a challenging time for municipalities in B.C. that are seeking to improve their economic outcomes.

According to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, 55 per cent of local governments in B.C. have less than one full-time employee tasked with economic development.

Twenty-one per cent rely on other employees to carry out these important activities in addition to their regular duties within the municipality.

At a time when economic vitality is often a No. 1 priority to municipal councils, the lack of funding to support economic development can pose a serious risk to the success of economic development endeavours.

One of the biggest benefits of a FICE relate to strategic planning exercises. In most cases, FICE provides communities that have begun a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOTS) analysis, with confirmation of many of their internal observations, but more importantly, the identification of factors that were not previously considered.

Since SWOT is an essential, foundational strategic step in any planning exercise, it is important to have frank and honest input factored in. FICE provides that insight.

So I decided that I wanted to capture my first impression, on my own, as a visitor to Port Alberni and the Alberni Valley. Every FICE includes a “five-minute first impression piece” that is short and sweet and often results in valuable and frank results that structured questionnaires can miss.

My observations are based on the five-minute model and focus on a specific part of the evaluation: tourism. Given that the 2012 budget for Port Alberni lists one of the mayor’s economic development priorities as being tourism, my focus is topical.

I paid two visits to the area, one in winter (February 2012) and one in summer (2010). I arrived via the Comox airport, exhilarated by the natural beauty that I had already gotten a taste of from the plane, and with money in my pocket.

I was a walking opportunity for a community that wanted to take me in and show me ways to spend it.

June Kasperski Wild is a freelance writer who has spent the last 18 years working for the public sector at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The past 10 years she worked directly with municipalities and communities in the areas of municipal advice and community development, which has led to her interest in understanding how different communities approach their challenges.

Kasperski Wild holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and currently resides in London, Ont.

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