Business can rise this fall in the Columbia Valley

Post-secondary students and snowbirds may bolster fall, our traditional shoulder season.

By Ryan Watmough, Columbia Valley Community Economic Development Officer

After health, the pandemic put the economy on the top of most people’s mind.

Businesses have had to change many aspects of their day-to-day operations. With travel restrictions and advisements in effect, some questioned if they would ever recover. And yet, at the end of July, at least a few businesses are ahead of last summer.

Businesses need as much mental breathing room and time as possible, and to understand that they may not need to catch up to their annual numbers by the end of August to meet the success of previous years. Without sustained vigilance, we may not get this opportunity, as it just takes one case to lead to an outbreak, to roll back consumer confidence and our re-start plan.

Floods, wildfires, border closures and now a global pandemic reveal the importance of scenario planning. While many tourism and hospitality businesses expect to see the traditional fall off after August, they may want to consider another scenario, with two new target markets – Post-Secondary Students and Snowbirds – bolstering fall, our traditional shoulder season.

Back in the nest

The first target market are post-secondary students. For the first time in more than 100 years, rural communities are not sending their best and brightest young adults off to school or war.

With most colleges and universities cancelling fall semester classes on campus (except for those that need to attend “labs” in person), the Columbia Valley may see a significant portion of ~4 cohorts of recent-high-school-grads-turned-post-secondary-students (64-90/year graduate David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS)) here for the summer and fall, staying at home to study, saving money, available to work and spending money!

Depending on what the fall school year looks like for DTSS and Open Doors (alternative school), they may offer post-secondary students help (study space, teacher support, etc.). The public libraries will also likely see more patrons, too. The College of the Rockies (COTR) does not plan to open in the fall for their full-time programs.

These post-secondary students will be learning remotely; will be studying with remote work groups and may have their exams proctored remotely. They may not need to spend 3-4 years and tens of thousands of dollars on a degree or diploma in a city.

For the post-secondary students, this is an opportunity to build and maintain connections with them and remain in the Valley once they graduate (and especially for those 15% of post-secondary students who are expected not enrol in the fall and work full-time).

And in the fall, they represent ~250 additional workers and ~250 additional consumers in the Valley, who would have otherwise been working and spending their money on expenses in school cities. Think about having workers available in the evening. Think downtown “night life” (currently no dancing allowed). Think demand for evening coffee shops. Think about more people here for sports and recreation (volleyball, basketball leagues, hiking and biking groups). Think about a more balanced, and younger, demographic for the Columbia Valley.

Additionally, the Columbia Valley’s second-homeowner families’ post-secondary students may choose to spend their time here throughout the summer and fall, too. And finally, typically during periods of high unemployment, young adults use the time for adventure travel (gap year) and work seasonal jobs. It’s not unheard of to have a Ph.D. candidate or Masters student bump chairs at ski resorts or instruct mountain biking lessons to enable them to “live the dream” in the mountains.

Could this opportunity plug the brain-drain that small communities have historically found inevitable? Could we become a “college town”?

Can we integrate real work and career experience (paid or volunteer) in the mix of studies, play and part-time work? How do we (re-)introduce local apprenticeships and mentorships that will strengthen post-secondary students’ sense of community, opportunity and vision for a sustainable Columbia Valley? How do we help (re-)build a connection?

How do we engage these students in remote work, work from home, tech and “start-up” culture now? How do we help them have a good time – such a good time, where they can envision themselves getting an advanced education while staying in the Columbia Valley? Is COVID-19 the catalyst for a new generation of “homesteading”?

If we do it well, they might want to finish their studies remotely and stay here, which will increase our population. And they may be inclined to start up new, technology-focused businesses right here.

Preparing for Snowbirds to touch down

The second target market are Snowbirds – you know, the ones you find all over the Columbia wetlands in the spring. No, not the ones with feathers! The Snowbirds that drive there, like to watch birds, are retired, enjoy the art of slow travel, golf a lot, and immerse themselves in their circle of friends and community.

If the current COVID case situation holds, many of Canada’s 300,000 Snowbirds won’t likely return to traditional warm weather states like Florida, Arizona, Texas or California this winter.

In Canada, Osoyoos has become the unofficial winter capital for Snowbirds. Osoyoos, in the southern-most tip of Okanagan Valley, has milder-than-most winters and a lot of short-term-accommodation that empty as kids go back to school.

Osoyoos’ destination marketing organization (DMO) helps market these underutilized hotel/motel accommodations in the summer through a Winter Accommodation list, which includes info on monthly rates, kitchens, pet-friendliness, housekeeping, pool, fitness centre, in-room phones, wifi, and laundry facilities.

The concept of creating and marketing a list like this of local accommodations is under discussion in the Columbia Valley. If local hotels/motels can significantly increase their occupancy through the traditionally slower fall and winter, we can preserve jobs and smooth out the Valley’s tourism season.

First, one would expect that our local Snowbirds will be more likely to stay in the Columbia Valley this winter. That will fill up their seasonal homes and our businesses.

Second, one could expect local families with retired parents and grandparents elsewhere to invite them here for extended visits. Should they need extra room, our many local hotels/motels can serve them well. Or, more likely they will find a short term rental property that is converted to a long term rental.

Third, one may see healthy and active Snowbirds from across Canada flocking to relatively warmer climes, with fewer faces and bigger spaces, like the Columbia Valley – the warm side of the Rockies. These folks could find a perfect fit at our local hotels/motels, if they are effectively marketed to. With RVing growing in popularity, many of them will bring their own self-contained accommodation. And they could get here in time to watch their feathered friends head south.

Similar needs at each end of the age spectrum curve

No one wants to experience the effects of a pandemic. But the Columbia Valley is a pretty good place to ride it out.

Combining the post-secondary students (and some other young people taking a year off to travel, as their demographic has been experiencing record high-unemployment due to the pandemic), and the Snowbirds, we could see 1,000 – 2,000 more people living in the Columbia Valley this fall and winter (up from our 2016 Census population of 9,482).

How will we welcome them? What will they want to do – for work, for volunteering (voluntourism), for fun? How will we help them feel included and create a sense of belonging, while maintaining COVID protocols, and keep everyone safe?

What do they need to be successful? Broadband; public wifi; good accommodation; recreation and social opportunities; health and social services; good value with all products and services.

How will businesses help these groups spend money? With all economies contracting, both of these markets won’t be working full-time and are price sensitive. Perhaps, optimized goods and services (e.g. special seasonal passes); adjusted operating hours, online store; improved accessibility or delivery services can help increase your share of their wallet? Can your organization target both group, or do a great job of focusing on one? Have you looked into the revised wage subsidy programs that will be available through the fall, just as CERB winds down?

We don’t have all the answers yet. But we all use our time wisely in August, ask the right questions, and put the right plans in place for this possible scenario, we can ensure that our recent recovery success doesn’t end with the summer.

And what attracts these two demographic groups, will also benefit the growing population that work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WFA). With continuing technological innovation, workforce development and collaborative social services, living in the Columbia Valley will be more sustainable after this pandemic has past.

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