The 80-year relationship between Tourism Toronto and the city it was entrusted to showcase could be on the verge of a nasty breakup. All because of a $4 million U.S. advertising campaign that's been condemned as "embarrassing garbage."
"Perhaps the city needs to take over tourism promotion in its entirety," says Mayor David Miller. "We need to seriously rethink if Tourism Toronto is going to remain as an arm's-length organization."
In the past, city council provided upwards of $4 million annually to the promotional agency's budget. But this year the stipend was reduced to just $500,000 after a voluntary 3 per cent tax on local hotel rooms almost tripled Tourism Toronto's spending power to more than $24 million.
"It's suddenly intoxicated with money," says Councillor Brian Ashton, one of six city politicians who sits on Tourism Toronto's 40-member board. Ashton was stunned by the "lame and ineffective" ad effort that started showing up in the New York Times and papers in Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago about three weeks ago.
"By cutting our contribution, we have absolutely no pay-for-say and no authority," Ashton laments. "Tourism Toronto is the caretaker of the city's reputation, but that reputation belongs to the people and they're represented by council. There needs to be a new relationship."
Some councillors are already looking ahead to when Queen's Park passes the New City of Toronto Act later this year that gives council the authority to collect the hotel room tax that's now paid directly to Tourism Toronto.
Says Ashton, "This whole issue will evaporate because the city will have the cash as well as the responsibility [for promoting Toronto in the tourist marketplace]."
Although Tourism Toronto has also taken heat of late for its "Toronto Unlimited" branding initiative (the one featuring the pregnant T logo and all those other New Age tourism icons), Miller insists that's not part of the dispute.
"I think the problem is pretty fundamental," he says. "Tourism Toronto is set up predominantly as a hotel and convention association to produce room nights for hotels. Its priorities aren't city-building ones."
The mayor says he came to the realization that the agency was on a different track than the city when Tourism Toronto wouldn't support bringing the recent Live 8 concert here "because all the hotel rooms were booked that weekend." The event ended up in Barrie.
There were two reasons to back having Live 8 here, Miller says. "One was to support a really important charitable cause, and the second was to put Toronto's name on the map around the world, showing we have unlimited potential. [Tourism Toronto ] wasn't prepared to do that because its own internal priorities are different."
Councillor Kyle Rae faults the agency for failing to make our large gay and lesbian community and its leadership in promoting the legalization of same-sex marriage a cornerstone of both its branding exercise and the recent ad campaign.
"Given the singular place Toronto has in North America on this issue, it would have been a great opportunity to do some niche marketing," says Rae. "They are resolutely dumb about it.
"It's almost embarrassing to be a Canadian when you see this kind of garbage," the councillor says of the American newspaper ads distinguished by "dumb" statements filled with glaring grammatical errors and pitiful sentence structure. Like, is it actually true that "what makes this place so original, so individual and somehow majestic is that it is a product of natural occurrences"?
"Tourism Toronto now has this huge funding source that it didn't have in the past, and it seems to me it doesn't have a clue about how to spend it wisely," says Rae.
For his part, Tourism Toronto president Bruce MacMillan has his eye on building the organization's relationship with the city. He says he's already had discussions with Miller about it.
"We still consider [council] our primary partner," MacMillan insists.
He denies that the city's influence on the private not-for-profit association has been diminished as a result of its reduced financial contribution.
"They still have exactly the same number of seats on our board," MacMillan says, while noting that the mayor is its honorary chair and should not have been caught off guard by the recent advertising blitz.
MacMillan says the ad campaign has been "very well received," citing a 50 per cent increase in traffic on Tourism Toronto's website following the campaign's first weekend. "Can the campaign continue to evolve? Absolutely. But we launched the brand just over three weeks ago, and that's a very short period of time to say it is or is not working."
MacMillan concedes that the gay-lesbian/same-sex issue came in "under the radar" during consultations conducted to determine what Toronto attractions should be highlighted. But he says a campaign being prepared in conjunction with the province and the Canadian Tourism Commission will soon be aimed directly at "gay market publications in the U.S."
Still, Miller is adamant that the organization "needs much more oversight by the city."
"We need to think through our relationship with Tourism Toronto and what we can promote to make tourism and marketing work much better," the mayor says. "I don't have the instant answer on that, but I know the right questions to start with."