Toronto Niagara Tourism battle: Understandable but getting silly...
Boy, a Travel Editor comes down to familiarize himself a bit more with Niagara and ends up in the middle of a media firestorm.
I had lunch today with Tony Baldinelli, communications manager for The Niagara Parks Commission. He must've had five phone calls during our time on the shaded patio at the Queenston Heights Restaurant, overlooking the Niagara River.
"It's been crazy," Baldinelli conceded. "We've had CTV, CBC, the newspapers; everyone's asking about the Break Free campaign."
For those who hadn't noticed, there's a big controversy in the Big Smoke about some Niagara Parks Commission ads that suggest folks "break free" from Toronto for a nice stay in Niagara. Nothing wrong with that; Toronto tries to woo folks from Niagara to go north to the big city, right? But the Break Free ads, and some of the videos the parks commission posted on its website, www.niagarabreakfree.com, put some Toronto noses out of joint with photos of stolen bicycle parts, graffiti-covered alleyways and other forms of urban blight.
"We didn't mean to denigrate Toronto at all," said Baldinelli, a former Toronto resident who loved his time at Yonge and St. Clair. "We really didn't think of that way, and the ads were tested in front of people from Toronto, and they liked them."
Maybe they did. But it seems George Smitherman wasn't in the focus group. Smitherman, who's furiously trying to generate some publicity in a slow summer mayoralty race, trundled down the QEW earlier today and virtually nailed a letter to the wall of the Niagara Parks Commission, saying the ads weren't at all nice. And we all know Smitherman is always nice.
"It is with utter dismay and simmering anger that I learn that the NPC, an agency of the government of Ontario, has resorted to building itself up at the expense of Toronto," Smitherman's letter reads."That's just not right."
"Niagara Falls is a great city, but hardly without fault," said Smitherman. "Imagine if Toronto turned the tables and played to Niagara Falls’ perceived weaknesses."
Furious George said the NPC should "do the right thing and immediately abandon your ill-advised, immature advertising campaign which serves nobody's interests."
Well, it actually serves Niagara's interest, George. But Baldinelli said the point was taken and that a few of the ads that particularly irked Torontonians had been taken off the breakfree website today. Two of the videos removed from the site showed the graffiti, while the other was a video that showed what seemed to be a Toronto couple looking at a bike with its wheels missing in the big city, followed by an image of them cycling through lovely Niagara countryside.
The NPC’s office apparently was shuttered when Smitherman pulled in at 7:30 a.m. today, complete with a camera crew from CHCH-TV.
NPC spokesman Stefan Baranski said Smitherman "actually left the letter on the door of the NPC."
"He was literally incensed by it," Baranski said.
It seems pretty silly for the NPC to say they didn't mean to denigrate Toronto. Of course they did. They didn't mean to do it in a nasty way, but you can't produce videos showing a couple walking down a dingy alley and hearing a car alarm and putting a silhouette of the city of Toronto skyline on your ads and not suggest you're trying to diss the city at least a little bit.
Baldinelli told me he finds it interesting that some of the people who produced the video work on Queen St. West in Toronto, not far from where the videos were shot.
Anyway, it's probably a bit of a mountain out of a molehill situation that will quietly die away. But the Niagara people will have drawn some attention to themselves, and that's hardly ever a truly bad thing. I suppose some self-righteous Torontonians might opt to boycott the Shaw Festival or the Maid of the Mist, but I kinda doubt it.
We both need each other. Toronto knows a lot of folks come from overseas to see a bit of Toronto and also take in the falls, as witnessed by the still large number of U.S. license plates in parking lots down here today and the number of people on tour buses I've seen speaking other languages than English and French. The Niagara Tourism people work hand-in-hand with Tourism Toronto, even travelling together to promote the region overseas.
So, I think everyone should just relax. Niagara Falls has wax museums. We have the Maple Leafs, the NHL equivalent of a wax figure club. Niagara Falls has wineries. We have Steam Whistle Beer. Niagara Falls has the Niagara River. We have the Don. (That's a feeble joke, by the way, folks). Niagara has Whirlpool Jet Boats. We have the Island Ferry. Niagara-on-the-Lake has the Shaw Festival, we have TIFF. As well as a mayoralty candidate in a tizzy.
Anyway, I'm down here in Niagara and having a great time. Fabulous, and I mean fabulous meal on Tuesday night at the Oban Inn, where they do an incredible pork tenderloin on a bed of Moroccan-spiced couscous with a cranberry reduction. I never liked couscous before but these were spicy and fragrant and utterly delicious, with cardamon and cloves and cinnamon and cilantro and ginger as spices, plus dried cranberries, onions and red and yellow peppers. Simply divine.
And they served a great lunch today at the Queenston Heights Restaurant, as well, including lovely chicken over Israeli couscous with pancetta that was perfectly wonderful. Not to mention a tasting of three Ontario wines.
Also did the aerial tram ride over the Niagara River today, which was fun every for a guy who hates heights, and hiked down the Niagara Glen to see the river up close. A hot day for it, but a nice half-hour hike.
Off to the Maid of the Mist before dinner, I hope. And maybe a visit to the wax museum....