Whether you’re a wilderness adventure lover, travel writer, photographer or historian, chances are you’ve visited Wells Gray Provincial Park. Located in the BC Interior near Clearwater, it is the province’s largest wilderness park, spanning 1.3 million acres. If you are looking for wild, it’s all here: spectacular waterfalls, soaring mountain peaks, old-growth interior rainforests and abundant wildlife.
The Wells Gray Visitor Information Centre, located near the park’s main gate, is the touchpoint for information on everything the park has to offer, from winter waterfall tours and wilderness survival courses to festivals and events. It also links visitors to more than 60 local accommodations, 16 guiding companies and dozens of restaurants, retail, and service businesses that support – and depend – on the tourism economy. At its peak in 2019, more than 100,000 people went through its doors, making it one of the busiest Visitor Centres in the province.
Wells Gray Park and nearby communities including Clearwater were hard hit by the impacts of COVID-19 as well as floods, wildfires, and mill closures. Visitor Centre traffic was down 79% between 2019 and 2021, and collapse of the local economy was a serious concern.
Creating a Strategy for Tourism Resilience and Growth
At the end of 2021, the organization that managed the Visitor Centre for more than a decade stepped away from the role and Tourism Wells Gray took over, guided by a new five-year financial and operations plan. “With this dramatically different tourism environment, creating a responsive operational plan was essential,” says Stephanie Molina, Executive Director of Tourism Wells Gray.
The project aligned with the strategic pillar of the Economic Trust of Southern Interior (ETSI-BC) to build capacity and resilience in key sectors such as tourism. Tourism Wells Gray received $13,000 in grant funding to develop the new strategy with assistance from Lions Gate Consulting, specialists in tourism planning and development.
After months of industry research, stakeholder consultation and review of best practices for Visitor Centres in the province, “We now have a road map to ensure the Visitor Centre is financially sustainable,” says Molina. “It also provides strategies to attract more visitors to the area for longer and repeat stays and it expands our connection to local businesses.”
The facility will now operate seven days a week from May to September in 2022 with the potential to extend the season through the fall and winter of 2022/23. Recruitment is underway for a Visitor Centre Manager, a new position reporting to Executive Director Molina. Three new Visitor Counsellors will augment front-line staff to ensure a high level of service as visitor numbers grow.
Focus on Revenue Generation and Virtual Services
The five-year financial plan provides for revenue generation from Visitor Centre space rentals and commissions from two tenants initially. This income will help cover the cost of operating the Centre and make it financially sustainable. While revenue will be nominal to start, it is expected to grow year over year as the pandemic recovery takes place.The North Thompson Aboriginal Cultural Centre Society, created to broaden awareness of all the Aboriginal people of the North Thompson Valley will continue to provide interpretive information and works by local artisans for sale. A second tenant, Big Food Trading, is an established outdoor equipment supplier and gift shop that will support retail operation for the current season.
A major recommendation in the plan is to ramp up the Centre’s virtual services to keep pace with how domestic visitors and international tourists look for information. This includes an online booking strategy to increase advance trip purchases. A mobile visitor service is also proposed to increase outreach into Clearwater and create a pathway for extending visitor services into the shoulder seasons.
“Without the support of ETSI-BC, this project would not have happened,” says Molina. “Having a bold new strategy in place gave our staff and Board of Directors the confidence to open the Centre this year, knowing visitor services in the community will continue.”