On a quiet Friday morning, you might find a group of day-trippers picking berries at a blueberry farm on a rural road off Highway 59, and then enjoying a picnic and some board games afterwards.
While it might be an ordinary scene for the Colcuc family, owners of Berrylicious Fruit Farm, this “extraordinary” experience is part of what is driving a new type of tourism in Oxford County. Simply, that which is ordinary for us can be extraordinary for the more than a million people who visit the region every year.
“For me on a berry farm, picking berries and being in the country where it is peaceful and quiet to me, that may seen ordinary … but maybe it is extraordinary to other people,” said Wendy Colcuc, owner of Berrylicious Fruit Farm. “We have people from Toronto and Hamilton and Guelph. They drive down the dusty country road and say, ‘It is so peaceful. We don’t get this where we are.’”
Tourism is on the rise, yes, but according to tourism experts, its a specific kind of tourism that is bringing people, and their money, to the region lately.
Driven by millennials and a desire for fewer “things” and more “experiences,” Oxford County has been slowly but surely carving a niche for itself as a place in a new tourism market, one where people want to connect more deeply with what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with.
“People don’t want things anymore. What they want, even as a gift, it is an experience. It is hands on,” said Jenn Moore, marketing manager at the Southwest Ontario Tourism Corporation (SWOTC), the area’s tourism agency.
“What is driving people to book a trip is what they can learn.”
Last year, several Oxford County businesses launched “experiences.” The idea was simple: Take tourists behind the scenes of local businesses, offering them the chance to learn and enjoy in small groups and connect more deeply with the people making what they’re consuming.
That is certainly true at Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. Shep Ysselstein, the owner, said Gunn’s Hill has always offered tours, but when SWOTC offered training in experiential tourism in Oxford County, they took it a step further.
Gunn’s Hill developed “Affinage 101,” allowing visitors to try their hand at cheesemaking while touring and sampling Gunn’s Hill offerings. Of course, the experience is complete with a fondue party.
“The groups are smaller (than a traditional tour), but they do a whole lot more,” he said. “It creates a better connection between you and the people doing it, and it comes at a price point for additional revenue.
“In the end, tourism is not our primary business – we make and sell cheese – but tourism fits in because people are interested in food. Food is very popular, and lots of people go places based on food. It makes sense we would connect with those people.”
Last year nearly 1.1-million people visited Oxford County, many of them friends and family of people who live here, said Meredith Maywood, tourism specialist at Tourism Oxford. That means that making sure Oxford County residents know what’s available in their own backyards is key.
Oxford has two defined tourism focuses: culinary tourism and cycling tourism.
According to Maywood, this makes sense. With an abundance of low-traffic and scenic country roads, the area is attractive to cyclists, while the area’s farm belt and dairy hub reputations lend themselves well to food tourism, especially dairy, such as Tourism’s Oxford’s signature Cheese Trail.
“We have amazing scenery, wonderful people telling unique stories across the county,” she said.
For people like Dave Schonberger, tourism would not have been an obvious addition to his small business, Otter Creek Woodworks, which builds charcuterie and serving boards. But it’s been working, and he said business is better as a result.
“It’s good for me to have that interaction (with customers) and build that customer base we always had, but had never met,” said Schonberger, noting his boards are sold through retailers, and he doesn’t operate his own storefront. “People are talking about us. They were before, but not like this. Offering people to come into the business and do something with the people that run the business, you don’t get that.”
Now, Schonberger has hosted 15 sold-out experience workshops, each lasting a full day, where attendees venture out into the woods, enjoy foraged tea, learn and create a board of their own, and enjoy dinner together.
Local businesses began developing their tourism experiences after attending a workshop hosted by the tourism corporation, said Joanne Wolnik, tourism development manager at SWOTC.
Over three days, they learned to pinpoint what made their story, and their business, unique, and how to build that into something tourists might want to do.
“They are getting access to new travellers who are interested in learning rather than just consuming,” Wolnik said. “It is a new revenue stream for them. It is something they do every day, and they didn’t realize people would want to do this. Not really changing a lot of what they are doing, they are just doing it for other people as well.”
Today, Oxford County has a full suite of tourism experiences, including ones at Berrylicious Fruit Farm, Gunn’s Hill, Otter Creek Woodworks and others. Importantly, the businesses have started to work with each other: Berrylicious uses Gunn’s Hill cheese and Schonberger’s boards in their picnic basket; Schonberger’s Tree to Table guests feast on all-local treats, and Gunn’s Hill uses Schonberger’s boards, and local beer from the Upper Thames Brewing Company, in washing its cheese.
“It has helped us to seek collaboration with other businesses and not to look at them as competition, but as a way we can all support one another in the local economy,” Colcuc said. “That allows us to collaborate with more businesses and that is very powerful.”