After 24 years with the Edmonton International Airport, much of it spent travelling the world to pitch new services to Edmonton, Traci Bednard felt something else calling to her near the end of 2021.
“A big piece of what is needed for [attracting] air service has nothing to do with runways and everything to do with the economic, cultural, experiential differentiators in your city,” she says. “I had started to view Edmonton more from an international perspective, and it really shone the light for me on how modest we are. All these things that we take for granted are things that people in international destinations were looking for. At some point I realized that I was spending so much time promoting and talking about Edmonton that I wasn’t as connected to the place as I once was and wanted to be again.”
Last November, Bednard stepped into a new role as CEO of Explore Edmonton. Formerly known as Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, the municipally owned body’s mandate is to help support and grow the visitor economy. Bill Hardy, chair of the board for Flair Airlines, believes Bednard is a perfect fit. “I was so happy to hear she had taken that job because that’s where she needs to be. She really loves Edmonton,” he says. “She needs to be the one out in front of the parade waving the baton.”
Hardy has personal experience with Bednard’s passion for this place. In 2018, as a vice-president with the EIA, she was instrumental in convincing him that Edmonton was the right choice for his discount carrier’s head-quarters relocation from Kelowna. Hardy actually grew up here but he had not spent much time in the city for many years, most of his stops beginning and ending at the airport. Bednard toured him through the Ice District and other major developments around town. “Edmonton had really grown up into a major metropolis. Traci got me to see it in a different light and I started to feel that this is where we should be,” he says.
Right now, the focus for Explore Edmonton, like other stakeholders in the visitor economy, is getting things fired up again after more than two years of the pandemic. COVID has been brutal for small business owners and employees, and Bednard applauds all of them for hanging in there. “They really are heroes. The festivals, the restaurants, anybody providing an experience here in Edmonton. Those small operators who collectively build the visitor economy, they bring in the travellers and tourists that we all benefit from,” she says. “We want to do anything we can to support them.”
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Explore Edmonton has a number of strategies for delivering support. One of the big ones is attracting major events to the city. Back in November, just days into her new job, while the Canadian national men’s soccer team took down Costa Rica and Mexico in World Cup ’22 qualifiers at Commonwealth Stadium, Bednard was front and centre in the City’s effort to convince FIFA that Edmonton should have a starring role in the 2026 World Cup. Explore Edmonton helped land the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series here last September. That three-day tournament at Commonwealth saw 12 international teams and their fans book more than 6,000 local hotel rooms and pump $7 million into local businesses.
Marketing is another important thrust for Bednard’s team. Explore Edmonton recently worked with Travel Alberta and Destination Canada to host a familiarization tour for representatives from Entrée Canada, a major luxury tour operator offering custom travel packages to Canada and Alaska. Impressed by what it saw, the company now showcases a nine- day Alberta itinerary that includes 25 Alberta industry partners (four are Indigenous partners), with local offerings like premium accommodation and entertainment events in Ice District and Rogers Place, a VIP aerial tour with Edmonton Regional Helicopter, a stop at the new Métis Crossing cultural centre in the Smoky Lake area and a farm-to-table eating experience at Prairie Gardens in Bon Accord.
Bednard is reluctant to talk about the summer, maybe because Premier Jason Kenney got burned doing just that last year. “No one is allowed to make predictions now,” she says with a laugh. But she is cautiously bullish, and points to strong bookings at the Edmonton Convention Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre, two large conference and trade show venues her organization manages and markets on behalf of the City, as a good sign.
With COVID variants still hanging around, the continuing challenge for cities like ours moving forward is assuring visitors it’s no threat to their health to be here. To that end, Explore Edmonton has worked with the hospitality sector to earn an official thumbs up from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC). Edmonton is the only Canadian city and one of just four in North America to receive a coveted GBAC Star accreditation, certifying that hotels and other commercial and public spaces around the city meet the highest possible international standard for cleanliness and hygiene.
OK, maybe that’s not very sexy as enticements go, but it matters to people. So, increasingly, does sustainable, responsible tourism. Bednard sits on the board of TIAC, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, and, from this national vantage point, it has become clear to her that going green is good for business as well as the planet. “More and more, it will drive consumers’ decisions on where they choose to travel. They want to feel comfortable that how they’re travelling is leaving as little environmental impact as possible,” she says, describing work on this issue with visitor businesses in the city as a priority for Explore Edmonton.
Those who live here know that this city’s charms can be subtle. Edmonton doesn’t have nearby mountains or an ocean to pull people in. Sure, we have great arts and culture festivals, first-rate eateries and that gorgeous river valley, but as for a single it factor… perhaps not so much. Reframing this a little, Bednard concedes: “Because we have something every single day and not just that one thing, it can be tougher from a branding, storytelling perspective.” To address that, Explore Edmonton’s CEO wants to enlist the rest of us as ambassadors.
“We have a sophisticated marketing and communications division. That is significantly what we do, but people all around the world want to hear about the experiences, and authentically what people care about. What was that cool thing? What was interesting, what was unique? As much as we can ask Edmontonians to promote what they are enjoying in Edmonton, the better our local, national and international brand awareness is going to be for the visitor economy,” she says.
Bednard, who resides in the city’s west end with her husband, Deron, and their two daughters, Ella and Olive, says her own plans for the summer of 2022 are to mostly stay put, hit the festivals and spend as much time as she can enjoying restaurants and live music downtown. “We really don’t travel anywhere outside of Edmonton in the summer.”
Photography by Curtis Trent
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This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Edify