Visitor Friendly Assessment: 5 Years Later

Taking a look back at the David Thompson Country Visitor Friendly Assessment from 2017 to see how far we’ve come along implementing its recommendations.

by | Published on October 6, 2022 | Last updated on October 26, 2022

Photos in this story are portraits of some of the locals who create great visitor experiences. Photo credits: JP Fortin and Roam Creative

The David Thompson Country Visitor Friendly Assessment was conducted 5 years ago by Expedition Management Consulting on behalf of Clearwater County, the Town of Rocky Mountain House and the Village of Caroline. The study included 48 recommendations to improve the visitor experience that applied to Nordegg (including those that applied to the entire study area). It’s time to take stock of how things have changed since then.

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the Nordegg & Abraham Lake region has grown tremendously as a tourism destination since 2020. While the pace of the growth could not have been anticipated in 2017, the study got a lot of their assessment right when they considered the target markets, reasons why visitors come to the region and opportunities for growth. We’ll take a look at some of the things that have stayed the same and some of the things that have changed before going through the recommendations.

The competitive advantage they identified still resonates today: David Thompson Country’s competitive advantage is a combination of its accessibility to regional markets, and its seclusion. The wilderness experience is less prescribed and less structured which sets the region apart from nearby destinations that draw from the same geographic markets. It is these wilderness activities along with cultural experiences that will continue to distinguish David Thompson Country as a destination.

Bighorn Sheep along Abraham Lake
Bighorn Sheep along Abraham Lake

So, how did we do? All of the recommendations are listed below with an update on our progress but it’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way over the past 5 years.

The Nordegg & Abraham Lake region is now well known, both domestically and internationally, and the work done around improving messaging, marketing and wayfinding has helped create a positive visitor experience for our target markets. Collaboration within the industry has improved tremendously and we’re seeing increased investment in the region from Travel Alberta as well.

Many of the remaining recommendations are incorporated into our plans for Explore Nordegg & Abraham Lake and Clearwater County’s plans for Nordegg for us to tackle next.

Mornings at Expanse Cottages

The study does a great job of identifying Cultural Explorers (Travel Alberta now refers to this segment as Curious Adventurers) as the ideal type of visitors for the region and this remains true today. The more specific target market they identified, Youthful adventurers from the Edmonton region and Central Alberta seeking off-the-beaten-path experiences in town or in the backcountry beyond, is where we’ve seen more changes. The current market trend is somewhat older and while Edmonton and Central Alberta are still part of the mix, they are no longer our main markets. Starting around 2016 we saw an increase in international visitors, particularly from Asian and European markets, that continued to grow until the pandemic. Since 2020 other regional markets including Calgary and British Columbia have seen tremendous growth and now represent a significant proportion of visitors while international guests have begun to come back. You can find out more about our current markets here.

This study highlighted the challenges that come with using municipal boundaries to define tourism destinations. The area included in the study covered a wide range of communities and two distinct tourism destinations with different products attracting different markets. This makes the background information less relevant and makes it difficult to do follow-up surveys to compare business and visitor perceptions. It also makes some of the data interpretation challenging since most of the businesses interviewed were from the Rocky Mountain House region while a large number of visitors are in the Nordegg & Abraham Lake region.

It’s important to keep in mind as well that the assessment was completed over a 2 days visit, providing a glimpse of the visitor experience. A more in-depth analysis from the perspective of our current target markets would provide more actionable information on how we can improve the visitor experience in the Nordegg & Abraham Lake region. That being said, the study provides useful information that is applicable to visitors from Central Alberta and Edmonton. These are the markets where the David Thompson Country brand resonates best and they are the markets that are the most likely to visit both destinations included in this study.

The study lists Rocky Mountain House as the gateway and service centre for the region which can be surprising at first glance. Keeping in mind that the assessment was done from the perspective of a visitor from Central Alberta or Edmonton, as well as from the municipalities’ point of view, this makes more sense. An assessment from the perspective of the Calgary, out-of-province and international markets would place a greater emphasis on neighbouring regions like Banff & Lake Louise and the connection to the Calgary International Airport.

Bighorn Sheep along Abraham Lake

What’s a Visitor Friendly Assessment?

Visitor Friendly Assessments (VFA) are a tool used to identify opportunities to improve the visitor experience, providing us with an opportunity to consider our destination from our ideal guest’s perspective. It is similar to how operators consider their guest’s experience when refining products or itineraries but in a VFA the assessment is done at the municipal level.

We saw a number of assessments done throughout the province between 2015 and 2020 thanks to the financial support provided by Alberta Culture & Tourism (the former government department that has since been incorporated into Travel Alberta).

The Recommendations

The assessment report included recommendations that applied to all parts of David Thompson Country along with some specific to each region. We won’t discuss recommendations that were specific to Rocky Mountain House, Leslieville or Caroline here.

Keep in mind as well that implementation of these recommendations fell on multiple organizations who may have chosen not to proceed with them for a number of reasons. Organizations that were involved in this study include Clearwater County, the Town of Rocky Mountain House, the Village of Caroline and the Rocky Mountain House & District Chamber of Commerce.

Throughout the list below, short-term refers to projects that should be completed between 2017 and 2020 while medium-term refers to projects that should be completed between 2020 and 2022. The number next to the priority level represents the top 10 priorities, in order, as identified by the study. Quick wins are the recommendations that could be used to generate momentum in the implementation phase.

1. Overall Ambiance/Visual Appeal

1.1 Establish a public art policy and program that would incorporate more art to enhance the visitor experience. [Short Term / Medium Priority]

It doesn’t appear that any work has been done on this recommendation. This remains a priority and should be expanded to include support for incorporating public arts on trails (e.g. Banff’s The Art in Nature Walk), promoting the use of underutilized spaces as art galleries and artist studios (e.g. in buildings owned by Clearwater County), and ensuring that zoning allows studio tours in private residences (with proper consideration to minimize the impact on neighbours).

We’ve included arts as a priority in many of our seasonal themes and see this as a major attraction for our target markets. We will be developing some destination activation programs in the coming months, starting with the Frozen Wonderland festival in January 2023.

1.2 Review and enforce community standards and bylaws to address unsightly premises. (e.g. property maintenance, tree planting, fences, other landscaping). [Short Term / High Priority #5 / Quick Win]

This has mostly been addressed with businesses along Stuart Street continuously improving their storefronts and landscaping, decorating for the holidays and creating a welcoming atmosphere. Some of the improvements left to be done will happen once priority 1.10 is addressed while other projects will require collaboration between the County and businesses to develop long-term plans for properties that are currently on short-term leases.

There are still a few older buildings that are planned to be phased out. We need to ensure that the transition doesn’t lead to more brownfields or exacerbate the already dire housing situation given that the presence of these buildings is seldom mentioned as a concern by visitors.

1.10 Develop a plan to enhance the main street area to allow for road paving, sidewalks, street furniture, landscaping and public art. (Start with Stuart Street as the main thorough way into the community.) [Medium Term / High Priority]

This is still a high priority in Nordegg. Road paving is/was expected to happen this summer but may be delayed to 2023. The Nordegg Development Plan mentions the need for sidewalks and street furniture but no details on the implementation plan have been shared at this time.

Projects like the public garbage bins undertaken by the Nordegg Community Association and local businesses have been very successful in improving the visitor experience and reducing the negative impacts of tourism. There are a lot of opportunities for Clearwater County to work with the local community to undertake similar projects to improve the visitor experience within the hamlet.

The street lights along Stuart Street are creating a welcoming atmosphere as the days get shorter and make it easier to attract visitors off the highway. The intersection of Stuart Street and Highway 11 is one that needs to be redesigned to both make the access to town more visible and appealing. This will require collaboration with Alberta Transportation and options like a traffic circle should be considered as a way to slow down traffic.

The recommendation to start with Stuart Street is one that should be considered. The current development focus is on the future historic downtown but promoting improvements along Stuart Street will create a more appealing experience for visitors, drawing them further up through the townsite.

1.11 Review the need to add additional enforcement resources to improve health and safety in the community. [High Priority]

This continues to be a high priority. Having a local RCMP presence this past summer had a strong positive impact but unfortunately, it has come to an end. Advocacy work continues to be needed from Clearwater County, the Nordegg Community Association and us.

2. Signage/Wayfinding

2.1 Develop a consistent and comprehensive signage program (vehicular and pedestrian) that includes directions to key amenities, facilities and services. [Medium Term / High Priority #1]

The lack of signage continues to be a challenge throughout the region. We’ve had discussions with both Travel Alberta and Alberta Environment & Parks in regard to the signage for public lands locations but we have not seen any updates on the plans for the townsite.

Most businesses are supportive of transitioning away from the private signs located along the roads to an integrated system of wayfinding signage. There are concerns around the implementation and challenges related to the current system for Tourist Oriented Directional Signs (aka the blue signs) that can hopefully be addressed.

2.6 Apply the visual elements of the Highway entrance signs on Stuart Street & Highway 11 to community wayfinding, public facility signage and public information applications. (This could be a phased approach, starting with existing public facilities such as the Museum sign.) [Medium Term / Medium Priority]

No progress has been shared on this recommendation. The original plans were designed around the historical coal mine. Given that most of the historic buildings have since been removed from the townsite and how the community now identifies itself as a mountain town it may be worth revisiting the design standards.

3. Quality of Service/Professionalism

3.1 Develop and distribute local visitor information to local businesses (e.g. brochures). Also develop a one-page FAQ that provides answers to the top 10 visitor questions. [Short Term / High Priority / Quick Win]

We’ve seen a lot of improvement in this area and the needs have changed somewhat since 2017. Clearwater County, through the David Thompson Country brand, has created and distributed a lot of information to answer questions about recreation in the area. They have also used the tourism forums and social media to share this information.

What we are seeing now is a need for more updates on current conditions and projects. We’ve been developing and sharing information on Abraham Lake ice conditions and are working on some handouts that are more location specific. We’re slowly making progress with both Alberta Environment & Parks and Clearwater County to make it easier for information to be shared with local businesses so that it can be passed on to visitors. This is still very much a work in progress.

Thanks to the financial support of Travel Alberta we’ve been able to hire a social media community manager for Explore Nordegg & Abraham Lake. Having someone based within the region who can answer visitor questions has been very helpful in ensuring that we address some of these information gaps and builds on the work done by Clearwater County.

3.2 Offer cross-training to all VIC staff to learn about and understand offerings in each community and the DTC region. [Short Term / Medium Priority #8 / Quick Win]

We’ve seen a lot of progress on this one thanks to Clearwater County and the Rocky Chamber. The tourism forums have helped increase awareness for the products available in each of the destinations and the VIC operated by the Rocky Chamber has done a lot of work in ensuring that the staff are knowledgeable about the Nordegg & Abraham Lake region.

This will continue to be an ongoing project and we have identified the need to increase the sharing of information with neighbouring destinations including Banff & Lake Louise, Jasper, Sundre and Rocky Mountain House.

3.3 Work with business owners to incorporate customer service standards into human resource processes and training. [Short Term / High Priority]

The Central Alberta Tourism Alliance (CATA) attempted to do some work on this and 3.4 below a few years ago with limited results. We find that most businesses have a level of customer service that reflects their target market and that the more important impact we can have is by ensuring that the information mentioned in 3.1 and 3.2 above is shared with them. This allows them to then share the information in a more authentic way.

3.4 Provide customer service training workshops in May of each year for seasonal employees. [Short Term / High Priority / Quick Win]

Similarly to 3.3 above, the CATA workshops on customer services were of limited usefulness. Familiarization tours, product knowledge sessions and info sheets about the region have a greater impact on how frontline staff can help visitors.

We are currently working on building summer and winter training opportunities for frontline staff that will include a mix of in-person and online resources. The plan is for this to launch in May 2023 with some elements tested during this upcoming winter.

3.5 Provide marketing training for business owners. Travel Alberta offers a suite of workshops that include: Getting to Know Your Best Customer, Building a Basic Marketing Plan, Media Relations 101, and Understanding Branding [Short Term / High Priority]

There are no shortages of training opportunities in this area. The David Thompson Country Tourism forums have included this and Travel Alberta has hosted a number of their workshops for our local businesses.

Moving forward we see the need for more one-on-one support to identify the best options for each operator. Travel Alberta will also be launching an updated training program in the coming year.

3.6 Identify key community tourism leaders in the private and public sectors to attend the annual Growing Rural Tourism Conference. [High Priority]

The Growing Rural Tourism Conference no longer exists but the intent of this recommendation is still very important. Attending industry events hosted by Travel Alberta, the Travel Industry Association of Alberta and others is important both in raising the profile of our region and as a professional development opportunity.

We are encouraging partners and community leaders to attend some of these events and a program to cover some of the financial costs of attending would be beneficial since most operators are small businesses. We also need to prioritize attendance at meetings where other mountain destination operators are in attendance (e.g. attending the Travel Alberta town halls in Banff instead of Red Deer).

3.7 Gather and share base level visitor data with all tourism partners (Municipality, Businesses, Operators) to support customer service. (This would include numbers of visitors, why they are visiting, and where they are coming from (e.g. collect postal codes).) [Short Term / High Priority #7 / Quick Win]

There is some information being shared but it tends to be based on the municipal boundaries or the larger Alberta Central region. This makes it hard to use the information at the local level.

We’ve been sharing some of this informally as a group for the past year and will be launching new quarterly industry surveys this month.

4. Public Services/Visitor Amenities

4.1 Develop a Tourism Program, Festival and Event Plan that will facilitate more daytime and evening entertainment options for visitors. The plan should also address the need for increased festivals and events, public interpretation and public programming related to local culture and history. [Short Term / High Priority #4]

Implementing one plan for the study area, or for Clearwater County as a whole, would not be beneficial. Clearwater County, under the David Thompson Country brand, has provided support toward increasing the number of activities available to visitors.

We are working on a number of destination activation programs that include festivals, events, public interpretation and public programming. These are closely linked to our seasonal themes and designed to appeal to our target markets. You can find out more about these projects here.

4.2 Work with the Government of Alberta to provide roadside pullouts, waste receptacles, washrooms, picnic areas and trail head signage along the David Thompson corridor. [Medium Term / High Priority #6]

We were happy to see this one included in the study since this is an issue that operators were advocating for at the time. The increased visitations due to the pandemic sped up the development process but thanks to the advocacy of local businesses, the Nordegg Community Association, the Rocky Chamber and Clearwater County we now have the majority of these infrastructure projects underway.

4.3 Increase diversity in programs, activities, entertainment, restaurants and accommodations by promoting business development opportunities in tourism. [Short Term]

Clearwater County’s Economic Development Officer has done a great job promoting opportunities in the region. This is made more challenging by the lack of available land and infrastructure but we are hopeful this will change in the coming years.

4.4 Offer incentives for tourism-related businesses in the David Thompson Corridor Development Nodes through discounted business permit fees, priority development approval process, etc. [Short Term / High Priority]

Development has not been possible in the nodes since prior to this study. Area structure plans are being developed, hopefully in a process that will include collaboration with the tourism industry, as part of the process of restarting the leasing process. Improvements to the development approval process would be welcome both in Nordegg and in the development nodes. One change to consider is the use of the development permit process for business approvals to something that is more intuitive and relevant for tourism businesses.

4.5 Develop a plan to enhance basic tourism infrastructure within each community (e.g. public washrooms, showers, rest stops, park space, etc.). [Medium Term / High Priority #6]

Some of these are included in the Nordegg Development Plan but no updates have been shared on the implementation plans. As mentioned earlier, there are successful examples of projects that could be accelerated through collaboration with local community groups.

4.6 Develop a tourism product development plan that would identify key opportunities for new tourism product in the region. Elements of the plan include inventory, gap analysis, market analysis and opportunity analysis. [Medium Term / High Priority]

This is often recommended in studies like this but the results have been limited, especially in lesser-developed destinations like Nordegg & Abraham Lake. We’ve seen higher success in creating an environment that supports people interested in developing new products around their passions than based on a gap or market analysis. At this point there is strong peer support available as well as great work being done by Clearwater County’s Economic Development Officer and Travel Alberta’s Destination Development Team.

The latest study using this approach is available from the Central Alberta Economic Partnership.

4.7 Perform an accessibility audit to key visitor attractions and sites to ensure availability to visitors with reduced mobility. [High Priority]

Accessibility for visitors with reduced mobility is currently an issue across the region. We are seeing improvements as new facilities are developed but retrofitting existing facilities is in many cases cost prohibitive. A plan to support businesses and public facilities toward improving accessibility should be developed.

4.8 Work with downtown business owners in Rocky Mountain House to expand the hours of operation to align with the evening and weekend special events (e.g. Farmers Market) [High Priority #9]

It’s not clear why this one was listed as being applicable to all communities. Hours of operation can be a challenge in all communities, primarily due to the shortage of housing leading to a severe labour shortage. We’ve also seen a significant change in shopping patterns during COVID and expanded hours of operations are less of a priority now than five years ago. In some cases, we are seeing benefits to reduced operating hours in creating additional demand during the hours businesses are open, with visitors planning their itineraries around the businesses they want to visit.

4.11 Establish a pedestrian trail that enhances connection to commercial areas and the Historic Nordegg Golf Course along Stuart Street. [Short Term / High Priority]

This is part of the Nordegg Development Plan but no updates have been shared on the implementation plans.

5. Visitor Information

Recommendations in the other categories are high-level in nature while this section includes very specific recommendations that in many cases are now outdated rather than completed.

5.1 Re-develop the regional visitor guide to reduce clutter, enhance readability and further the regional brand. [Short Term / High Performance #3 / Quick Win]

A lot of the visitor guide information has been moved online but print versions still play a role. A visitor guide built around municipal boundaries rather than the visitor experience is challenging and so far we’re seeing greater success developing shorter handouts around specific activities.

5.2 Develop a Public Information Strategy as part of a comprehensive program that works in tandem with existing and new wayfinding and mapping. [Medium Term / High Priority]

David Thompson Country and Explore Nordegg & Abraham Lake have been sharing visitor information to attempt to fill the gap left by the lack of signage.

5.3 Develop a new comprehensive map for each community and the overall region that includes the development of consistent symbols and/or language-based system to help locate key visitor attractions, sites and amenities. [Short Term / High Priority #2]

David Thompson Country has developed a regional map while we are developing localized maps around specific activities. There are opportunities for increased collaboration and greater integration moving forward.

5.4 Develop a comprehensive regional tourism APP to share visitor attractions, sites and amenities. [High Priority]

The Rocky Chamber has developed an app called Discover David Thompson Trails. There are challenges associated with incorporating a large area into one app but there are opportunities to increase engagement through “trails” or “passports” as a way to activate itineraries.

5.5 Develop information panels/kiosks at all public facilities and parking areas. [Medium Term / High Priority]

There has been some progress on this front but the visitor experience could be significantly improved through greater collaboration between the tourism industry, the Nordegg Community Association, Clearwater County and the Government of Alberta.

5.6 Enhance the online search optimization of the davidthompsoncountry.ca website by re-writing content to enhance the use of tourism specific language and major regional assets (backcountry, camping, ATVing). [Short Term / High Priority  / Quick Win]

Search engine optimization should be an ongoing project. No information shared on current search marketing results.

5.7 Develop a Google AdWords campaign to help further enhance the searchability of the davidthompsoncountry.ca website. [Short Term / High Priority]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country.

5.8 Enhance and re-design the clearwatercounty.ca website to include: links to visitor information, more experiential images, more content using experiential language, mobile friendly webpages. [Medium Term / Medium Priority]

This is a very specific recommendation and given that residents are likely the primary target market for Clearwater County this may or may not be relevant.

5.9 Limit the use of auto posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to increase engagement more with followers and influencers. [Short Term / Medium Priority]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country.

5.10 Craft engaging experiential content on all social media to drive conversations about the destination and convert more travellers. [Short Term / Medium Priority / Quick Win]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country. That being said, this is good advice for all operators and the guiding principle behind our editorial plan for Explore Nordegg & Abraham Lake.

5.11 Leverage Facebook advertising to engage and build connections within the region. [Short Term / Medium Priority]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country.

5.12 Expand advertising opportunities on tourism focused websites (e.g. Alberta Tourism Information Service (Travel Alberta). [Short Term / High Priority / Quick Win]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country. That being said, all operators in the Nordegg & Abraham Lake region are listed on Travel Alberta.

5.13 Build relationships and solicit media influencers and bloggers for enhanced third party promotion. [Short Term / Medium Priority]

This is a very specific recommendation that should be assessed as part of the broader marketing plan for David Thompson Country.

5.14 Ensure infant change tables are available in both male and female washrooms in all VIC’s. [High Priority / Quick Win]

This is a very specific recommendation but it should be included in all public facilities, not just VICs.

5.18 Redesign and enhance the regional map outside the general store with consistent community design (theme) and information found in other communities. [Medium Term / High Priority]

The approach of distributing David Thompson Country wall maps throughout the community has been successful and is easier to accomplish than replacing a map on private property. Including information about other communities based on municipal boundaries is a poor user experience however since most visitors are looking for information based on their interests. Additional information about the Icefields Parkway is a higher priority than additional information about Caroline or Leslieville for visitors in Nordegg.

5.19 Enhance visitor regional and provincial information offerings at the VIC. [Short Term / High Priority / Quick Win]

The VIC in Nordegg has been closed since 2019. We are working on developing additional resources about Nordegg & Abraham Lake to share with the VIC in Rocky Mountain House.

5.20 Work with the owners of the travelnordegg.com site to either remove the site or make improvements to design, content and visitor information. [Short Term / High Priority]

The site no longer exists. Municipal sites like nordeggliving.ca and visitcentralalberta.com should be updated or removed. They served a purpose at the time they were created but more current information is now available on sites providing a better visitor experience.

5.21 Enhance training for Visitor Information Centre staff. [Short Term / High Priority]

The VIC in Nordegg has been closed since 2019. The training information mentioned in 3.4 above will be available to VIC staff.

6. Action Plan Implementation

6.1 Obtain commitment from Councils in the Town of Rocky Mountain House, Village of Caroline and Clearwater County to work regionally to improve visitor friendliness. [Short Term / High Performance]

There are references to this study in various Clearwater County Council agendas and minutes but no indications that it was presented for approval.

6.2 Establish Regional and Local project committees to work on specific action items. [Short Term / High Performance / Quick Win]

Work was left primarily with the organization listed as the lead for each initiative. We have incorporated many of the recommendations into our plans for Explore Nordegg & Abraham Lake.

6.3 Evaluate action plan initiatives and re-align priorities annually. [High Priority]

No information is available on this but it is likely that the tremendous growth in visitations during the pandemic caused this recommendation to be tabled for the time being.

6.4 Formally celebrate success of completed initiatives annually. [High Priority]

No information is available on this but it is likely that the tremendous growth in visitations during the pandemic caused this recommendation to be tabled for the time being.

6.5 Complete follow-up assessments for each community and the region in 5 years to measure improvements/success. [Medium Term / Medium Priority]

No information is available on this but it is likely that the tremendous growth in visitations during the pandemic caused this recommendation to be tabled for the time being.

6.6 Using this report as a starting point, build an ongoing annual work plan that identifies initiatives and reports on results. [Short Term / High Priority]

No information is available on this but it is likely that the tremendous growth in visitations during the pandemic caused this recommendation to be tabled for the time being.

6.7 Complete a visitor survey to monitor progress from initiatives. [Short Term / High Priority]

This would be a good initiative to provide us with baseline information. The challenge is that the large survey area included in the original study makes it difficult to compare information in a useful way.

6.8 Complete a business survey to monitor progress from initiatives. [Short Term / High Priority]

This would be a good initiative to provide us with baseline information. The challenge is that the large survey area included in the original study makes it difficult to compare information in a useful way.

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