Business incubators have provided valuable support to tech start-ups for years. They offer shared access to resources from office space to mentorship, training, and connection with other entrepreneurial minds. Inspired by the tech incubator model and a $25,000 grant from the Economic Trust of the Southern Interior (ETSI-BC), Thompson Rivers University (TRU) has created a Tourism Innovation Lab. Here, students in tourism can develop their entrepreneurial skills and creativity in addition to the business acumen, and skills they learn in the classroom.
“We find that early-stage companies in any sector have similar challenges and opportunities,” said David Carter, Assistant Teaching Professor at TRU’s Tourism Management Department. “This includes identifying target customers, validating a product idea, and guidance from experienced mentors. Traditionally, there hasn’t been the same focus on entrepreneurial training for tourism that there is for technology.” The Tourism Innovation Lab seeks to change that.
Multiple Partners Aligned in their Vision
The Tourism Innovation Lab is a partnership between the Department of Tourism Management at TRU, Tourism Kamloops, and the Kamloops Innovation Centre. The program leverages an existing tourism management course by incorporating real-world market research, destination development and mentorship. Students apply their skills and critical thinking to the creation of tourism product ideas. The ideas are turned into proposals and presented to a panel of representatives including project funders and tourism industry experts. The proposals also serve as applications to enter the Tourism Venture Acceleration Program at TRU where students learn to take their ideas to the next level by creating a business plan.
Carter is leading the initiative for TRU, coordinating with the Kamloops Innovation Centre and Tourism Kamloops to deliver the program. Tourism Kamloops, a co-funder of the Tourism Innovation Lab, is providing guidance on the types of projects based on regional tourism needs. The Kamloops Innovation Centre, in collaboration with the TRU Generator it operates at TRU, will continue to provide programs that guide, coach and mentor technology entrepreneurs as well as lending its resources to the tourism students.
The Tourism Innovation Lab also hopes to partner with Destination BC on its new Sparks grants program, one of the few tourism-focussed incubators in Canada launched by the University of Windsor. “We hope this grant money will allow us to increase our sphere of influence and build our tourism entrepreneurial capacity provincially, possibly becoming a node for the Sparks program in the Thompson Okanagan.”
Sweet Success Indicators
TRU ran a scaled down version of the program in 2021 with two students looking to create a tourism experience focused on bees and honey. Tourism Innovation Lab coaches provided several contacts to learn more about bees, including Dr. Courtney Mason, a Canada Research Chair at TRU who runs a bee apiary on campus in conjunction with the Kamloops Beekeepers Club. “Through these connections, the students were able to tour the beehive facilities and learn all they needed to propose a brilliant entrepreneurial idea – Honeybee’s Sweet Adventure Tour,” remarked Carter.
Since 2008, ETSI-BC has contributed more than $14 million to the university in the form of student awards and bursaries. “Post-secondary institutions in the Southern Interior are delivery partners for the Trust’s investment in education,” said Laurel Douglas, CEO of ETSI-BC. “Initiatives like the Tourism Innovation Lab help build economic capacity, support regional partnership, create jobs and address unmet needs in the community.”