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Entrepreneurial Challenge Champions Get Boost for New Products

What does a wildlife park, a mountain bike festival and a sustainable living farm have in common? All are victors in the 2016 Entrepreneurial Challenge, a highlight of the 16th annual Growing Rural Tourism conference held Feb. 22-24, 2016.

Armed with business plans, prize money and connected with expert mentors, the three winners will now spend the next year kick-starting new Alberta tourism products.

Cheering them on from the sidelines will be last year’s winners, who have seen their new experiences thrive as a result of this unique investment in rural tourism product development.

Celebrating and Supporting Rural Tourism

The Growing Rural Tourism Conference is an initiative of the Camrose Regional Exhibition in partnership with Alberta Culture and Tourism, Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies, Tourism Camrose and Travel Alberta.

This year, the conference named the Town of Okotoks its Rural Tourism Champion for its support of the Cool Little Towns partnership and its award-winning 2015 visitor guide.

A highlight of the conference was the Entrepreneurship Challenge, now in its second year. This Dragon’s Den style competition is aimed at operators who want to add a new tourism experience to their business but need funds and expertise to get it off the ground.

This year, first place and $10,000 went to Rancho Relaxo Resort, a sustainable living farm owned by Jeff and Juli Gillies in Rocky Mountain House that produces organic food, solar energy and clean water. Their new tourism experience would bring visitors to the farm to experience and learn about the “off the grid” lifestyle.

The $6,000, second-place prize was awarded to Wanda Bogdane, who is launching a new mountain bike festival in the Canadian Rockies.

The third place finisher with $4,000 was Serena Bos of Innisfail’s Discovery Wildlife Park, for a new camping experience that will put visitors up close and personal with the animals in the zoo. All winners receive a year of free mentoring from an industry expert.

Last year’s champions all agreed the contest was instrumental in the development of their new rural tourism experiences:

Aspen Crossing

In 2015, the first-place Entrepreneurial Challenge winner was Aspen Crossing,

A train-themed destination that features a garden centre, gift shop, restaurant, campground and series of train

For the Challenge, owner Jason Thornhill was looking to develop a new tour – the Hobo Experience. Guests would ride in an authentic box car, learn about the days when men road the rails and be entertained by their own private “hobo.”

As he began to develop the new tour, Thornhill ran into some regulatory challenges which he continues to work on with help from contest mentors.

“The prize money was priceless,” he says. “New tourism businesses in Alberta are good for all of us. More attractions mean more tourists and a stronger tourist economy.”

Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm

Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm is a sustainable agri-tourism operation that provides local healthy food and old fashioned fun for 50,000 visitors a year.

Owner Tam Andersen wanted to expand her popular Farm to Fork dinners, so the idea for a new experience ─ Taste Adventures ─ was born. Taste Adventures would combine great eating with hands-on experiences with food preparation and cooking, farm history and operations.

“The Entrepreneurial Challenge was a great opportunity to crystallize an idea that we had been considering for some time,” she says. “It was the right time to work through a business plan to see if ‘taste tourism’ could justifiably be part of our business model.”

Flying Cross Ranch

Roy and Christina Sturgeon have been running Flying Cross Ranch near Lacombe for three years, offering horseback riding lessons, cookouts and a true ranch experience for couples and families.

In 2015, they wanted to introduce a new offering ─ three and seven-day Cowboy Experience packages featuring riding and roping lessons, cattle work, a cowboy inspired menu, cabin accommodations and a Sunday afternoon rodeo.

They launched a comprehensive Facebook advertising campaign for the new packages that targeted men and women aged 27-57 who were interested in horses.

“The prize money was incredibly important,” says Christina Sturgeon. “We were able to use it for advertising, which freed up funds for us to finish our first cabin.”

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