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Fort McMurray Tourism Rises to Challenge

Down, But Not Out: Fort McMurray Tourism Rebuilds

While many Albertans — and much of the world — think Fort McMurray is all about the oilsands, Fort McMurray Tourism (FMT) is diligently promoting awe-inspiring tourist adventures in the rugged northern playground of the Wood Buffalo region.

This year, the close-knit team was tested as never before when a wildfire roared through the community, which had already been rocked by more than two years of falling energy prices and layoffs.

FMT responded nimbly with steely determination, clear focus and seamless teamwork. Their work continues today as part of the backbone of the community’s recovery.

“In tourism, we are naturally connectors, facilitators and collaborators,” says Frank Creasey, CEO of FMT. “That has served us well.”

Developing a Tourism Vision

Fort McMurray Tourism opened in 1979 largely as a volunteer-based organization. Today, it has a staff of 10, about 200 members and a host of community partners. Visits to the visitor information centre since it opened have grown from 8,000 to 17,000.

Amid the chiseled landscape of the Canadian Shield, northern boreal forest and pristine wilderness parks, tourism here revolves around outdoor adventure, northern lights viewing, events and conferences, aboriginal culture and history, and the Alberta Tourism Award (ALTO)-recognized Experience the Energy Tour package.

“We’re a tourism destination that’s under development, as opposed to one that’s established and focused on keeping things fresh,” says Creasey. “We’re creating things from scratch.”

Re-Framing the Message

On May 3, 2016, a devastating wildfire swept through Fort McMurray, triggering the largest evacuation in Alberta history.

Most of the FMT team landed in Edmonton where they immediately began working remotely in hotel rooms and borrowed offices. One team member gave birth to her second child while away from home.

Alberta Culture and Tourism, Travel Alberta, Edmonton Tourism and the Edmonton Airport Authority all pitched in, among many others.

“It was wonderful to see how Team Alberta’s tourism partners pulled together to support Fort McMurray in their time of need,” says Shelley Grollmuss, Travel Alberta’s Vice President of Industry Development.

When news broke that firefighters had saved about 85 to 90 per cent of the city, FMT quickly began to reframe the message with a flood of positive stories on first responders, local heroes and community spirit.

“It was important to show the world what a great community Fort McMurray is,” Creasey says. “And that we are resilient.”

Open for Business

As residents began to return on June 1, FMT started the mammoth task of reconnecting one-on-one with more than 100 regional tourism partners.

“Many of our partners needed to take the summer to regroup,” says Kristin Catto, FMT’s Experience Manager, Marketing and Communications. “A few owners never came back and it took time for our hotels to reopen.”

Progress has been impressive, with many tourism experiences open and others actively rebuilding. Northern lights tours are scheduled to resume in February 2017.

The FMT’s annual community barbeque was held September 1, one of many gatherings that helped buoy spirits and inspire hope.

Events and high-profile concerts in the region have resumed at MacDonald Island Park, and Keyano College hosted the Canadian college national soccer championships in the fall.

“We have people coming from all over to see what we have to offer and wanting to support us,” says Creasey.

Clarity and Teamwork

Creasey believes his team has responded well to this year’s challenges because it is “solutions oriented, partner focused and community driven.”

The key is role clarity, he says, working with government and partners to determine who should take the lead and who should provide support.

“You need to know your role and your capacity or you can drown quickly,” he says. “Don’t stick your hand up unless you know you can get to the finish line.”

Creasey also credits his team’s strong sense of connection — “we row in the same direction” — for its ability to multi-task, stay focused and respond effectively.

Focused on Growth

The coming year will be challenging for tourism in Fort McMurray, but FMT is getting out in front by developing new strategies for marketing, product development and visitor service.

They are building new opportunities in high-potential growth sectors of outdoor adventure, northern lights and sport tourism.

And they’ll reach out to partners for new ideas and support at events like Canada’s West Marketplace and the Travel Alberta Industry Conference.

FMT has participated in many Travel Alberta programs, including the Cooperative Marketing Investment Program, the Experience Development Program, workshops on DMO leadership and more.

“When we lean on Travel Alberta, we can fast-forward our product development process — sometimes by years,” says Creasey. “It ensures we are aligned with provincial goals and messaging, and that’s good for everybody.”

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