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Big data delivers better insights for tourism association

Tech Trends · Apr 19, 2018

I consider myself fortunate to call British Columbia home, surrounded by scenic views as far as the eye can see. For the outdoor adventurer there is skiing and snowboarding, hiking up mountain paths, island camping, and river kayaking. For the urbanite, Vancouver offers top rated restaurants, Stanley Park, the aquarium - all perfect for exploring.  

With my enthusiasm for all that BC has to offer, I was thrilled to be a part of a big data analytics project with the Thompson Okanagan Tourist Association (TOTA), whose mission is to promote the southern BC region as a world-leading sustainable tourism destination.

Visitor volume measures challenge the tourism industry

Interestingly, for many tourism areas there are no easy ways to know much about visitor volumes or characteristics of people coming to a region. Businesses and organizations have relied on disparate sources to determine the number of visitors and potential visitors – hotel sales tax returns, border entry data, highway traffic counts, tourist surveys, and manual attendee counts at entrances.

The problem with using this kind of information is that it quickly becomes out-dated and is often inaccurate from the get go. As Glenn Mandziuk, the President and CEO of TOTA, explained to me, “Hotel tax revenue data can take 6 to 8 months to become available. And when you do get it, it doesn't account for increases in rates, so you can’t determine visitor volume. You have to layer on data from other sources, but traffic and visitor counts can’t differentiate between locals and tourists, surveys may not get much response, and data from border entry points doesn’t tell us where people are going.”

Following different data trails leads to new insights

TOTA has always been a forward-thinking organization that searches out the latest market research methodologies. As a result, when Glenn was introduced to TELUS Insights, he immediately saw the potential, saying “I realized that this is a game changer for the tourism industry.”

What caught Glenn’s attention is how TELUS Insights uses advanced big data analytics that can help tourism organizations better understand and reach their target markets. TELUS Insights essentially works like this:  As mobile devices ping and connect to different wireless towers throughout the day, they generate network data that can provide valuable insights. Using the industry-leading privacy standard ‘Privacy By Design’ as the core of this solution, TELUS developed a system to de-identify, aggregate and extrapolate this data to reveal mass movement patterns and trends in an ethical and responsible fashion. This approach prioritizes our customers’ privacy every step of the way.

Excited by the potential of TELUS Insights, TOTA decided to implement a pilot project to measure visitor traffic to a popular section of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail in the Okanagan. Starting with six months of data, visitor volumes were calculated using algorithms that determine the distance and time between different user events, such as passing through a specified zone on the trail.

From this, TELUS Insights was able to provide TOTA with information on the total number of trips on the trail; peak travel times, directions travelled and trip times – which allowed for estimations on how many of these were on foot versus bicycles. Overlaying demographics derived from census data, TELUS Insights also showed whether visitors were local, regional or national, and that the trail appealed strongly to the Gen X and Baby Boomer generations.

Some of the results came as a surprise to TOTA. “The TELUS Insights study showed that three times more people travelled the trail than we’d estimated using prior methods,” Glenn remarked. TOTA also discovered that visitor numbers peak in the fall when temperatures are pleasant and the trees are in colour, rather than their previous assumptions of a summer peak. This knowledge allowed TOTA to create a focused campaign that saved roughly 20% on their marketing budget and saw a matching 20% increase in engagement.

Exploring the business benefits of big data

After presenting the TELUS Insights visitor data to the provincial government, TOTA received a significant increase in funding for development and marketing of the trail, which is sure to help bring even more visitors to the region.  As Glenn summed-up, “Tourism is highly competitive because people can go anywhere in the world. I believe TELUS Insights will help our industry gain an edge in the international marketplace.”

From backpacking the West Coast Trail, exploring Granville Island in Vancouver and seeing the beautiful landscapes of the coastlines from the water, BC has a lot to offer with its wild open spaces and exciting cosmopolitan cities. After working on this project with TOTA, my next adventure will definitely be biking over a trestle bridge of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail and the challenge of the tree top course.  I can’t wait!

For more information about TELUS Insights, visit

Authored by:
Kevin Harper
Kevin Harper