Travel Alberta

2015 Alto Ambassador Announced

When asked what feeds her passion for what she does, the newly awarded 2015 Alto Ambassador is very clear that it’s all about having happy staff and volunteers, and customers – in that order.

“When you focus on the wellbeing of the people you work with and their sense of accomplishment, respect and acknowledgement, everything else falls into place. And that’s my passion: the people,” says Alida Visbach, President and Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Park in Calgary.

The Alberta Tourism Awards Committee honours an exceptional Albertan each year who has made an outstanding contribution to the province’s tourism industry. Alida felt truly honoured winning this award, and more than a little surprised. She had always assumed only people born in Alberta won by tradition – not, as she describes herself, a “small town girl from New Brunswick hitting the big city.”

Take a look at what she has accomplished since moving to Calgary to join Heritage Park Society in 2005, though, and it’s clear not only that this award is well deserved, but also that she has become a true Albertan.

When the President and CEO position became open in 2005, the Heritage Park board decided to conduct a national search to fill the position. Major changes would be required to ensure sustainability for future generations to enjoy the park, and it was felt a candidate with no preconceived ideas about Heritage Park was needed. Alida’s career had a focus on running living history museums with multiple business streams, and she moved from New Brunswick to take the position.

“One of the first things I did was undertake a business study and feasibility study to look at the trends of where revenue was coming from and the expenses,” explains Alida. “People would tell me all the time that they used to come to the park when their children were young, and it was clear we needed to connect with those younger generations and give them a reason to come back.”

The decision was made to give Heritage Park a major facelift, and the first step was getting everyone onside. After that, and with the help of renowned philanthropist Dick Haskayne, Alida set the task of fundraising in motion.

“I hit the ground running and my feet didn’t touch the ground for the first three years,” recalls Alida. “Meeting the community was so exciting! I was invited to many key parties and fundraisers as a guest, and coming from New Brunswick, it was a very different pace!”

Mr. Haskayne agrees that he helped opened some doors for Alida, but gives her full credit for her accomplishments at Heritage Park. “Raising 65 million dollars for the expansion was an outstanding achievement,” he says. “Alida is above all a wonderful leader and manager. In my 50 years of business experience, I’d place her in the top ten per cent of leaders I’ve known. And in her particular tourism field, she has to be one of the very best.”

Fast forward to 2015 and the improvements at Heritage Park speak volumes about Alida’s successes. Since opening Gasoline Alley in 2009, attendance has more than doubled. Calgarians and residents from surrounding areas represent an important market and account for 60 per cent of visitors annually, so product on the park now changes on a regular basis to keep this crucial audience engaged. This year, for example, the park is partnering with Theatre Calgary to host Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Heritage Park’s newest exhibit, the Famous Five Centre of Canadian Women, gives Alida a strong sense of pride. Remarkably, the fundraising and completion of the exhibit was achieved within two years. It has been very well received, and Alida is especially pleased that this exhibit tells a story not previously told about ordinary Canadian women who made a difference.

“It’s about the roots of our nation and that anyone can make a difference,” says Alida. “You don’t have to be someone of high profile and wealth, but you do have to have high conviction, passion and vision. I guess I’m one of those people, and hope in some small way I’m making a difference.”

Alida sees tourism as a green, growing and inclusive industry. She can’t imagine being in any other business but tourism because it’s so diverse.

“When tourism development is done properly, it can protect the environment and opens minds, making for collaboration between various nations and cultures,” explains Alida. “My field of tourism is related to culture and heritage, but all tourism is to some degree. Whether it’s natural history or built history, or the people bringing their cultures, tourism is a way of breaking down walls.”

Looking into the future, Alida has a few projects in the works that she’d like to see to fruition. One of them is Canada’s 150th anniversary, a milestone anniversary of particular importance to an institution such as Heritage Park.

“We are mandated to tell the story of the settlement of Western Canada, and through our collection of railcars, artifacts and homes, we portray this story in vivid colour,” explains Alida. “This is the story of Canada – from how the First Nations helped the first settlers acclimatize, to generations of families who chose this country as their home. We continue to show that pioneering spirit today, particularly in Alberta.”

Julie Frayn, CFO at Heritage Park, can attest to Alida’s vision not only for Heritage Park, but for Alberta’s tourism industry. “Alida has a strong vision for the tourism industry in Alberta that includes tourism partners working together with government and destination management organizations to present a unified, innovative and vibrant offering to the world,” says Julie. “She envisions building upon shared experiences, encouraging creative direction and a strong Alberta entrepreneurial spirit. She puts that vision into action at Heritage Park every day.”

Travel Alberta