Competing Messages: Reflections on the Canadian TODS Program

As indicated in my earlier post on the theme of signs in one’s life, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experience with Tourism-Oriented Directional Signs (TODS), and how this program relates to business and youth entrepreneurship.

Like most people, I was oblivious to the underlying processes involved in getting these lovely blue-and-white signs set up by the sides of Ontario’s roadways until I was exposed to the program during my summer internship. TODS is offered through the Ministries of Tourism and Transportation, and is open to any eligible businesses. Businesses must apply via Canadian TODS and pay a fee for their sign, which will be designed according to certain specifications. Getting these signs put up in the right places, at the right times, is a significant challenge for some tourism businesses and multiple anxieties exist around the subject (Discovering Ontario, 2009 Report).

After examining TODS this past summer, I started to think about the challenges that tourism businesses face in getting their message out to consumers – with the rise of the internet, social media, and other technological methods for shortening or overcoming geographic distance, it seems that there are too many competing messages in the public eye. TODS raises a lot of related, central questions in my mind:

  1. Does wayfinding for tourists still rest on physical signage, or are smart phones and Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) taking over this mode of navigation?
  2. TODS would not be as relevant if people were not traveling by car through Ontario – how can tourism businesses best capitalize on car travel? Is a single sign by the side of the road sufficient? Or do entire itineraries of travel have to be provided to stimulate people to travel to certain tourism businesses in remote/rural areas?
  3. How can tourism businesses reach those populations that do not own cars (e.g. students, new immigrants)? The Parkbus, which transports people from high-density urban areas to remote natural parks, is an example of this targeting strategy.
  4. With the shifting economic climate and unequal distribution of labor resources in Canada, how can remote/rural areas attract and retain talented workers? “Market readiness” of tourism products and services is pivotal to this issue and requires further funding and research efforts.
  5. With the current economic recession, how can remote/rural areas attract new business? Are Canadians traveling less overall? Responses to this question vary by year and do not always find economic motivations to be the most important factor behind leisure travel.

These reflections brought me to a further, and more personal, consideration. Lisa von Sturmer, founder and CEO of Growing City, writes in her article for The Globe and Mail that investing in young entrepreneurs will be a major contributor to curbing the rising tide of youth unemployment in Canada and beyond. Quoting her article:

“The fear with youth unemployment is not just that this generation will potentially suffer from mental health issues related to long stretches of joblessness, or the fact that it creates a bigger strain on taxpayers paying unemployment benefits and parents who have to dig into retirement money earlier to support children for longer stretches of time (if that’s even an option), but that high levels of unemployment can often lead to crime, social unrest and even violence. It’s no co-incidence that the Arab Spring movement and the protests that occurred in Greece from 2010 to 2012 involved countries with markedly high levels of unemployed young people.” (von Sturmer, The Globe and Mail, August 7th, 2013).

However, given the significant challenges of ‘competing messages’ that I’ve already identified with the Canadian TODS program, how can young entrepreneurs succeed? Where is the locus of growth in new businesses – is it technology? Health? Leisure? Do young university graduates have the requisite skills to start these businesses? Must these businesses be located in large urban centers? How long can a business feasibly last in today’s volatile economy?

Thankfully, there are organizations like the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF) that assist young people in finding funding and mentorship to answer these multifaceted questions. I can only hope that the intense competition in (and complexity of) today’s marketplace does not prevent young people from participating in these kinds of programs.