Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tourism here on Bowen

On January 20 there will be a meeting at the Council Chambers to look at updating the tourism plan for Bowen.  I won't be able to make that meeting, but I have a few thoughts on the question.

Our business is working with groups of people, teaching, leading learning retreats and hosting strategic conversations.  Usually we do this by travelling off Bowen to meet with people but increasingly I am wanting to bring people over to Bowen to do this work.  Last year we hosted over 200 people on the island, all of whom stayed for more than two nights, and most of whom cam during the off season.  This year we are projecting to have 260 people here.  And that doesn't include numerous day visitors.

We have a plan for doing that and it hinges on some of these key features of Bowen:

Our clients are here to go deep personally. People we work with are coming to Bowen because it is not the city, it represents a different place to do their work, whether that is personal development, leadership learning or gathering to figure out tough problems in the context of a relaxed and beautiful environment.  We don't see our clients as a "market" or as people to extract tourist dollars from.  I think this very human based approach has much to recommend it for other businesses on Bowen, and you see it everywhere.  In fact I think we have been inspired in this approach by our friends and neighbours.  Most of the business owners and operators I know of on Bowen treat people beautifully, are genuinely interested in who they are and where they come from and are chatty and affable.  When we have people here on Bowen doing work we like to direct them to businesses that treat them this way too.  And so you will sometimes see groups of visitors heading into the village to visit The Snug, The Pier, The Bowen Island Pub, the Wine Shop, the BI Coffee Company, the Ruddy Potato, Phoenix, Artisan Eats, Cocoa West, Movement and the Artists Coop.

The village is an asset, but not in ways you think.  Our village does not look like the villages that have had tourist plans applied to them.  It lacks the typical banners, and hanging flower pots and "vintage style" street lights, and other infrastructure kitsch.  This is a GOOD THING.  It is an honest village, a lived in village.  Spend an hour  in the village and you quickly realize that what makes Bowen work is the relationships between people.  For most of us who have lived here for any length of time, it is impossible to walk in the village without running into people we know. And when I am with visitors, I am amazed how many times I run into people that my visitors just need to meet.  It is very important that how ever the village evolves that it does so in a way that continues to have people encounter one another there.  Those encounters are what makes Bowen magic, not dressed up lampposts.

We host people here.  Bowen is not a very easy place to navigate on one's own. You can grab a map of the trails and walk in the park, and if you are more adventurous, you can pick your way around Mount Gardiner.    But where Bowen really opens up is when people are hosted and guided here.  Whether it is on the water, or in the village or in the forest, visitors will taste the village life only when they are with someone who knows it.  When we host groups here it has become common practice to bring local people in to teach with us.  Paul Stewart comes to teach juggling.  Brian Hoover and Shasta Martinuk come and teach rhythm.  One regular group we work with gets taken out to dinner for a feast at Artisan Eats or Leftbank.  They get to see the village, meet our friends, see the talent that is here, discover what Bowen has to offer on a deeper level.  Our principle is that when people are here the village is hosting them, and so we work with the village and our own inherent talent to give people awesome customized experiences.

For us, Bowen is a place of slowing down.  We do not over program our guests when they are here.  Bowen is a sanctuary in a fast paced world.  When our clients come here the first thing they do is sigh when they get off the ferry.  Likewise, we are not interested in having people come and go on the same day.  When people spend a night here in the quiet and the dark it is a powerful incentive to return.  When people have a day when they are not ruled by the frantic need to plan for the next ferry, they can savour something of the island.  Bowen is best experienced slowly.  I've been here 12 years and I'm only now sinking into another level of appreciation of this place.

The winter is even better than the summer.  Out on the west coast, people are invited to come and watch storms during the traditional non-tourist seasons of fall and winter.  Our fall and winter seasons are wet and dark and quiet.  They are beautiful.  There is no one around and everything is resting.  It is a perfect time to come to Bowen.  You aren't going to get the chipper energy of summer, or the "all hands on deck" feel of Steamship Days or Bowfest.  Instead you have the joyful community celebration of Halloween, the contemplative and inspiring Remembrance Day, commemoration and the lighting of the Cove in December, salmon runs, grazing deer, transient orcas and flotillas of surf scoters.  You have occasional high quality, intimate arts events (John Reischmann was here last weekend!) You have forests, beaches, coastlines and coffee shops all to yourself.  With the right clothes and a place to stay that is stocked with a load of dry firewood, fall and winter are the best seasons here.

My own business operates on a view of Bowen that sees the common areas of the island as important: park, ocean, forest, beach and village.  We bring groups of people together who are building relationships and are inspired by village life to think about how they might do the same within their organizations and communities.  They don't just come and talk to themselves - they travel out on the land and visit the village.  What we need to continue expanding our offers here is for the commons to be appreciated and protected, for more affordable and diverse gathering spaces and for a relaxation on the kinds of overnight accommodations permitted here and a continued appreciation of the intangible aspects of community that make Bowen unique.  Beyond the wild spaces (which are not scarce at all around Vancouver) Bowen has that sense of an island community.  That is what makes us different, and that is why people return to stay, and why we live here.

I hope some of these thoughts are useful to the tourism committee and the folks that are thinking this through.