Once the initial shock of the COVID-19 closures wore off, my Instagram feed started filling up with posts from my friends’ pre-COVID travel adventures. Kelowna to Calcutta. Costa Rica to Tokyo. It was a travel #ThrowBackThursday seven days a week.

When we think of the effects of COVID-19 locally, tourism isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind. While we’ve been dreaming about getting our passports out and hitting the airport, Waterloo Region Tourism has been hitting the streets. Their mission: to help Waterloo Region attractions and businesses navigate reopening and reconnect with locals.

“For the tourism industry, this has been devastating,” said Minto Schneider, CEO at Waterloo Regional Tourism. “It was bad enough when attractions had to close down. But when bars and restaurants closed, it was almost the nail in the coffin.”

The timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been worse. Winter is a traditionally slow season for most local attractions. Many of our tourism businesses make the majority of their revenue in the spring and summer months. “People love to do things outside,” added Schneider. “Attractions then drive traffic to local restaurants and bars.” 

The first step for Schneider and her team was figuring out what to do to keep tourism businesses alive in Waterloo Region. The team talked with their industry partners and their board of directors to develop a plan. “Restaurants, bars and entertainment are at the core of why people choose to live where they live,” said Schneider. The discussions led to the creation of Waterloo Region Tourism’s #WRUnited campaign

The campaign aims to promote hyperlocal tourism across the region. You might have heard an ad on the radio or seen a social post from the campaign encouraging you to get out and explore your backyard. “People move here for a job or to attend university and they’re the ones who explore,” Schneider said. “It’s often people who’ve lived here since birth that are always surprised by something here they didn’t know about or haven’t been to before.” 

Phase 2 of the province’s reopening plan allowed for outside seating at bars and restaurants. Waterloo Region Tourism worked with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and provincial and municipal governments to help those businesses expand their patio seating without red tape. “Many businesses were able to expand patios. It was a huge collaboration to be able to do that.”

When Phase 3 of the province’s reopening plan was announced, the Waterloo Region Tourism team went out to restaurants and bars with the campaign. Signing up is easy and there’s no cost. “We don’t require the businesses to offer a discount, just a special or a favourite sandwich that’s attached to #WRUnited,” added Schnieder. 

Another #WRUnited initiative is the Art Fresco Public Art Project. It invited 50 local artists to paint picnic tables that have been placed at businesses and attractions across the region. The next time you’re sitting at a picnic table at your favourite local spot, pick up your plate or glass and look to see if you’re sitting on a piece of art. In the end, 39 artists painted 50 tables. There are plaques on each table with information on the artist and a QR code that you can scan to find out more about why they chose to paint what they painted. “It’s been amazing. The artists have been coming into the businesses and bringing friends, too,” said Schneider. “We have a father-and-daughter team, Indigenous and Black artists. Even an American artist that moved to our region for love.”


One of the Art Fresco Public Art picnic
tables (Photo courtesy Waterloo Region

You can find the tables at places including The Bauer Kitchen, The Village Colonnade and Descendants Beer & Beverage Co. The Art Fresco Public Art Project was created by Diane Murenbeeld, Director of Marketing at Waterloo Region Tourism. Like most things in our community, it was a team effort and the project was made possible with the support of Home Hardware and Beauti-Tone paints.  

The drop in corporate travel due to COVID-19 has also affected local tourism businesses. Normally, our financial and tech companies bring in teams, vendors and customers throughout the year. Travel restrictions have meant few corporate bookings into the fall and winter. Waterloo Region Tourism is encouraging local companies to try and keep their events here in Waterloo Region. “Corporate meetings have to come to a virtual stop,” added Schneider. “For hotels and conference centres such as Bingemans, their business has fallen off.”

Schneider hopes locals can be convinced to stay here and support our local businesses. “This whole economic shutdown is something that is going to do permanent damage,” she said. According to industry reports, hotels don’t expect to see 2019 occupancy rates until 2023 and 2019 prices until 2024. “Resorts such as Langdon Hall are doing well now. But they’re mainly busy on weekends and not busy during the week.”

#WRUnited is more than just bars and restaurants. With Phase 3 allowing for attractions to reopen, the campaign has expanded to promote those. “The main difference for us with this campaign is that we’ve traditionally been responsible for marketing Waterloo Region to people outside of our community – to bring visitors here,” said Schneider. “This has been a complete turnaround for us. We’re marketing almost exclusively to people here to explore their backyard and see what Waterloo Region has to offer.”

Schneider and her team are aware there are myriad challenges ahead. “Many people are still reluctant to go anywhere. They’re being careful because of their health or their family members’ health.” Another challenge is that there’s not one demographic to market to. “We have to go after everyone,” Schneider said. “It’s an interesting marketing challenge – we’re not just after boomers or millennials; it’s everyone.”

In the end, Waterloo Region Tourism’s goal is the same – to showcase the hospitality that Waterloo Region has to offer locals, Torontonians or – once it’s safe – visitors from across the globe. “Hopefully we’re creating a whole new group of ambassadors for Waterloo Region to get their friends and relatives from outside to come visit our community.”