It's a well known fact that Canada has traditionally been the United States' top international market, but Canadians' appetite to travel south of the border has been unexpectedly slow to rebound post-pandemic, insights from Brand USA suggest.
"When the pandemic first hit, I think we all thought that Canada would be one of the very first markets to rebound for the United States. And it just wasn't to be," Jackie Ennis, Vice President, Global Markets for Brand USA told Open Jaw at the organization's Into Nature's Wild film premiere in Toronto on 14SEP.
"Brand USA did consumer travel sentiment studies every month in 14 markets. Six months after COVID hit, post that original lockdown, Canada had the lowest score [in consumer sentiment], other than Japan, which was insane."
Weighed down by some of the strictest travel restrictions and testing requirements in the world, "the stress of that really dampened the appetite and we saw that in Canada more than anywhere else in the world," she adds.
In 2019, 20.8 million Canadians visited the U.S. and were second in terms of spend; it's "by far" the biggest international market for the U.S., notes Ennis. While it's clear that travel to our southern neighbour is steadily increasing, the comeback is slow.
"The low consumer sentiment in Canada around travel has still not really gone away. It's a little stifled, but it's coming back. It's night and day compared to six months ago," Ennis says.
Today, it's not so much health concerns dampening travel sentiment than it is a different set of headwinds, she explains, including rising fuel costs and an unfavourable rate of exchange from Canadian to U.S. dollars.
Brand USA's consumer sentiment studies show that Canadians have a desire to travel, but they're opting for tried-and-true places they're familiar with, as opposed to new destinations or experiences.
"What we're seeing now is this enormous opportunity because the pent-up demand is there for travel, but there's still this sensitivity to the environment in terms of the volatility," she told Open Jaw. "The United States, for Canadians, is different enough, yet familiar. They know Florida or Arizona or Hawaii so they're like, okay, now we can go back."
Adding to the travel trends, Thomas Garzilli, Brand USA's Chief Marketing Officer, adds, "The audience is so broad that every type of travel experience is slowly coming back, but we know that road trips, the great outdoors, and longer journeys are definitely picking up and are leading the interests."
Cue the IMAX Film to Whet Canadians' Travel Appetite
What better way to whet the appetite for U.S. travel than with a story-rich, scenery-laden, big-screen IMAX movie showcasing stunning outdoor landscapes and thrilling experiences across the country?
Open Jaw attended the Toronto premiere of giant-screen film Into Nature's Wild at the Ontario Science Centre, hosted by VoX International and Brand USA.
The film, produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films in partnership with Brand USA, highlights wild and wonderful experiences across destinations in the U.S., with A-list actor Morgan Freeman narrating the stories of places and the people they inspire: walking a golden-hued Pando aspen grove in Utah, hot air ballooning over the New Mexico landscape, re-learning how to hear the world around you on a San Antonio, Texas hike lead by Emma Faye Rudkin, who is deaf, and many others.
"No matter what you've seen (in the Unites States), you haven't seen it at all."
These diverse stories, destinations, and adventures prove, Garzilli says, that "no matter what or how much you've seen [in the United States], you haven't seen it at all."
Guiding the cross-country adventure into America's wild are three trailblazers who all share a passion for connecting people to the outdoors: astronaut John Herrington (the first Native American to fly in space), Alaskan pilot and youth advocate Ariel Tweto, and long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis.
Brand USA's travel partners, including tour operators, travel advisors, airline partners, destination marketing representatives, and other guests had a chance to meet and mingle with film director Shaun MacGillivray and astronaut John Herrington, who participated in a Q&A after the screening.
"We're having events to celebrate the opening of the borders, the re-emergence of travel, and to reacquaint and get back together with our trade partners, which are so important to us and we haven't seen in a while. This event is really to celebrate the film and to celebrate each other, and just to get back together," Garzilli told Open Jaw just before the screening.
Into Nature's Wild is Brand USA's third giant screen movie production, following National Parks Adventure (2016) and America's Musical Journey (2018).
"Our job at Brand USA is to tell the stories of America to the world. We have found that the best way to do that is really through storytelling and authentic inspiration," Garzilli said.
"The travel agent is that much more important today"
For one travel agency, the premiere was more than just a great movie night out.
"We are excited to be here, for multiple reasons," Dian Phillip, founder of DSLAP Travel & Services (The Travel Agent Next Door), told Open Jaw "Number one, we're here as a team and that's a big deal for us because we're now rebuilding since COVID so it's nice to be out, seeing people, in person, and to be seeing a movie at a place like this, with an astronaut—love it."
She was at the screening with her team, Sheldon Phillip and Myah Williams-Harms.
Phillip added she "absolutely" sees interest for the U.S. among her clients. "They're happy and anxious to get back there," she said.
Many of the outdoor experiences showcased in Into Nature's Wild are little-known landscapes of the United States. This, Garzilli says, is where travel advisors can shine.
"The newer the experience is to a customer, the more likely they're going to need and want a travel agent," he says. "We want people to come for longer and experience new things. That's why the travel agent continues to provide value in the post-COVID world, where people want information and security. The travel agent is that much more important today."
Where to watch Into Nature's Wild
Into Nature's Wild is showing in eight cities across Canada. Visit the film's official website to find a theatre near you.