The Next Chapter at Headwaters Tourism
Industry veteran Eduardo Lafforgue steps into the executive director role at Headwaters Tourism armed with a bold vision for the future.
The slogan of Headwaters Tourism is “Where Ontario Gets Real.” The organization’s new executive director, Eduardo Lafforgue, says maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the region’s culture and environment is key to a successful tourism strategy.
Not long off a plane from Spain, Eduardo Lafforgue, the new executive director of Headwaters Tourism, appeared very much the distinguished, charming Spaniard – someone you’d imagine at ease in a light linen suit, sipping vino tinto at a sun-drenched sidewalk café in Madrid. But as we actually sipped Americanos on a frigid January morning at Mochaberry in Orangeville, Lafforgue’s complicated accent quickly belied those quick assumptions.
Lafforgue, it turns out, is genuinely a man of the world. He was born in Argentina, moved to Mexico where he attended a French lycée, finished his secondary education in England and returned to Mexico for university, before marrying and settling for a time in the ski village of Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, where his children were raised. His two daughters and a son, now grown, find it difficult to mimic their father’s entangled accent.
The international influences on Lafforgue continued over his 34-year career in tourism. Before his last assignment in Madrid, he directed over 80 tourism development projects in 25 countries in Europe, North and South America, Northern Africa, the Middle East and India, many of them in rural districts. His career has included the roles of vice president of acquisitions for Intrawest Europe and associate director for Indra Business Consulting, serving such high-profile clients as Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia, and Bermuda. He has also served on multilateral organizations such as IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) and IFC (International Financial Corporation). And he continues to be on a panel of experts for the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s World Tourism Barometer, which monitors tourism trends around the world.
So what draws such a global citizen to Headwaters? It turns out that Lafforgue’s equally international children, scattered across Europe to the United Arab Emirates and Montreal, all have had reason of late to find their way to Toronto. And the game changer – a new grandson. Even this land of polar vortexes could not keep Lafforgue away, and his wife Anick Fernandez, an artist, will join him here at the end of March (along with their Doberman, Idéfix, and the vintage 300-kilogram press Anick uses for printmaking). Sunny Spain’s loss, it seems, is our gain.
Lafforgue takes the reins now at the quarter-century mark for Headwaters Tourism. Much has changed in those 25 years – both in our challenges and opportunities. Locals today know too well the puzzle of sharing who we are without losing who we are. While still early days for his new role, Lafforgue shared with me his big plans for this small organization. Can tourism be the new economic driver in our precious hills? Lafforgue’s short answer: “Yes!”
His long answer follows.
Liz Beatty With your family coming to Toronto, why Headwaters and not downtown?
Eduardo Lafforgue We wanted to be close to our children, but not in each other’s pockets. [He chuckles.] But more than that, my wife and I love the pace of rural life. Headwaters is not that different from our first home in Saint-Sauveur in the Laurentians, combining tourism, rural culture and gastronomy. And to have all this so close to Toronto! We were thrilled that work, family and lifestyle combined to bring us here.
LB Elaborate on what you see as our tourism assets here.
EF Of course trails, rivers and nature are key. This region is a natural playground for the GTA. We have an established equine community and a growing culinary scene. Cycling is a huge draw, and with our working farms and historic villages, we are also a window to old rural Ontario. All this less than an hour from a huge city like Toronto is unusual.
All these assets need to be managed as part of a short-, mid- and long-term strategy. This means everything from helping to promote and improve the experience of visitors, but also recommending policies to manage traffic, parking, garbage and other aspects of preservation. Transportation from Toronto and lack of short-term rentals are two more key issues. We help manage all the things that make up a sustainable tourism destination and one that first serves the local communities.
LB You have lived in some of the most iconic regions around the world. How does Headwaters compare?
EF First of all, you never compare. Each region is a different thing with its unique gifts. It has its own distinct intersection point of time and place. Still, as a tourism professional, I see many parallels here to other regions and destination management organizations I’ve worked with.
For example, Headwaters is close to a major city, but is still not clearly defined as a destination. It is also within a larger region with a nature deficit. In Europe doctors are prescribing trails in nature as stress relievers. Like other regions I’ve worked with, there is huge potential for Headwaters to be the natural playground for the Toronto area – to keep that rural aura, while developing our tourism experience. It’s an exciting time, a new chapter for Headwaters Tourism.
LB How have you gone about getting to know our region?
EF I’ve had the privilege of exploring every corner and community of Headwaters since arriving in November. I’ve met in person a huge wealth of talent and creativity. From the smallest hamlet to larger towns, I’ve been struck by the common disposition to build something of economic, environmental and community value.
For example, I’ve met with a chocolatier and a baker in Erin, and a gallery owner and artists in Alton. I’ve met with mayors, food growers and craft brew masters. I’ve discussed traffic and parking issues with residents around the Belfountain general store and chatted about business prospects over excellent cappuccinos with the owner of the Rosemont General Store. And I’ve shared some of who we are at Headwaters Tourism and what we offer now. Everyone has been so generous with their time. And these conversations will keep going.
LB It’s early days, but where is Headwaters Tourism now under your leadership?
EF We’re closing out of the first phase of our plan – an initial analysis and meeting all of these local tourism players. Next we explore in detail the differences between each of our communities as well as the commonalities that pull us together – the things that help us collaborate and work together. Caledon is different from Mono, is different from Orangeville, and so on. My goal is to pinpoint the common promise, the common strengths and also the common challenges. From there, we will start forming the substance of our strategy.
LB You’ve been described as an advocate of tourism as a community builder. Explain.
EF Tourism cannot be relocated. Tourism is local and our community needs to work together, with a common focus to bring an authentic local experience to visitors. That kind of working together is community building.
LB What about fostering grassroots tourism that connects to our rural experience?
EF Every community has projects related to culture and heritage that have been floating around for years without landing. Improving and connecting our wonderful trails is a good example. Our tourism strategy will help support making these trails more attractive and usable as a tourism product. For example, trail systems in other parts of the world have tiny houses en route that serve as resting spots and meeting places. We could also develop concierge services, such as local farmers creating picnic baskets that hikers can pre-arrange to be at a certain location en route. And we can connect a hiking experience to other related tourism experiences – like a craft brewery, cultural festivals, shopping and restaurants.
Our job is to help develop these anchor tourism products then support and connect them to other related ventures.
LB Tell us more about the role of local entrepreneurs.
EF Supporting local entrepreneurs who are sharing the way of life here is key. After all, the first people who should benefit from a strong tourism strategy are locals – both in economic development, but also in wonderful new ways in which we can all enjoy our own region.
Authenticity is another key factor. It’s a term often overused and often abused in the tourism industry, but in a region like ours, it is the essence of what we are and what we want to share. We do not want to create rural Disney here. Instead, we have so many authentic stories and traditions to share. Our tourism strategy should help celebrate and strengthen this connection to our roots.
Of course, your magazine is a tremendous resource for these local stories. Indeed, it was the first thing I read to begin preparing for my new role here.
The Museum of Dufferin, too, is full of lore about the rural DNA of Headwaters. These are the stories that bring to life our slogan, “Where Ontario Gets Real.” I believe that locals know better than anyone the authentic experiences that reflect these roots. Our job is to support their efforts, transforming great ideas into unique tourism products and thriving business ventures. We hope people will knock on our door and let us help.
LB What type of help will you provide?
EF To start, there’s a deep overhaul underway in our programs. Our new visitors’ guide will be inclusive, listing all tourism businesses, not only the ones that pay. Of course, there is room for advertising and sponsoring, which will allow different levels of activation. This new approach will ensure visitors get a full sense of all the experiences we offer here, not just of those who can pay. Those with bigger marketing budgets will be able to pay for an expanded profile.
We’re also now a destination management organization, not just a marketing organization. This means we help tourism players and communities succeed in a variety of ways, not just through promotion. For example, to help resolve the lack of accommodation in our region, we’ll help new Airbnb hosts with advice on how to convert space into a successful vacation rental, and even the details that make a difference – like a microwave or the type of bed linens to use.
It might be advice on creating a farm-to-table experience, drawing on ventures I’ve seen succeed in rural destinations around the world. I hope that small and medium-sized tourism enterprises will feel free to knock on our door and ask for guidance and support.
LB You’re co-ordinating with myriad local governments and organizations across Caledon, Dufferin and Erin, some with their own tourism initiatives. Then there’s the provincial regional tourism organization known as Central Counties. Describe how all these pieces connect.
EF In short, there is money out there at the regional, provincial, national and even international levels. Headwaters Tourism will draw on all available funding sources, and we will be much stronger for it. Our goal is to become the one-stop window for tourism development and marketing in Headwaters, representing Headwaters’ tourism interests at regional, provincial and national level.
With one destination management strategy serving the entire Headwaters region, the first thing we need to do is pool resources. Individual government budgets spread thinly become effectively irrelevant in tackling the huge challenges and opportunities ahead. Trails and rivers cross boundaries and so do travellers and tourists. Our strategy needs to cover the entire region, too.
LB How do you ensure buy-in from local governments?
EF We need to communicate our leadership strategy well – showing how we create value for their contributions, how they are going to save money and time while better reaching their goals. And each local government will have the peace of mind of full accountability. All our work with be monitored and measured.
LB Why should tourism as an economic driver be more attractive to local governments over other industries?
EF Again, your tourism industry will not pack up someday and move to China, Mexico or India. Second, with proper management, tourism is an extremely clean industry, even helping to preserve our environment by highlighting the need to protect green space and drawing funds to properly manage these areas. We have to think of tourism operating on three different levels here simultaneously: supporting good things for the environment, good things for our community values, and good things for local economies.
Many people don’t realize they’re part of this tourism value chain. The owner of the local gas station may not connect that he is as much a part of the tourism picture here as a restaurant or hotel. In regions like this, we’re all tourism. Part of our job at Headwaters Tourism is to help communicate to the community how these connections work. A lot of this communication happens in working together, supporting people running businesses and leading initiatives in the community, like a charity cycling event or a village music festival.
LB In what other ways are you improving communication with locals and visitors?
EF Our community and visitor communications are in good hands under the leadership of our new director of marketing Maria Burton. Born and raised in Mono, Maria is my local insider. She’s a 20-year CEO/veteran in marketing, tourism, media and sponsorship for regions as diverse as California, Colorado, Utah, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and British Columbia. We’re also hiring a dedicated social media manager with a big focus on expanding digital content and enriching how everyone experiences and learns about Headwaters in the digital world – highly visual, interactive and informative.
LB You point out that we’re far from realizing the full potential of tourism in Headwaters. Still, communities like Belfountain, Mono Centre and others already know firsthand the downside of overtourism – bumper-to-bumper traffic, parked cars blocking driveways, fast-food garbage dumped everywhere, and the sheer numbers of people invading our villages. What would you say to them?
EF This is actually one of my favourite topics. The issues of overtourism do not stem from tourism management that is too successful, they stem from lack of or bad management, a lack of territorial planning. Vibrant communities with authentic charm are the assets. We need to preserve these, not exploit and destroy them. We have the responsibility of managing and keeping those assets for future generations, while inviting visitors to enjoy them responsibly.
LB Do you see residents’ love of place as an asset, something to protect?
EF Of course. Certainly. Hard assets like theatres and hotels and other physical structures are necessary. However, it’s our people who bring these assets to life. Our organization is here to help local entrepreneurs, artists and others create and promote sustainable ventures.
I don’t believe that a region like ours can be developed in a sustainable manner without these private and public partnerships. We are the intersection point for all Headwaters tourism players.
LB What do you envision for Headwaters 10 years, 20 years down the road?
EF I envision important natural assets preserved with some development of infrastructure on trails, on culture, on transportation and other aspects that we talked about. All this would be embedded in our strategy. Preservation is a big part of this. But I also see this region enjoying a much more prosperous way of life because of tourism. This is a balancing act. And the differences within our region can also help us to create that balance – from the near-urban countryside of Caledon to the deep rural experience of Mulmur. That wide range of experiences will make us much more interesting and much more attractive to potential visitors.
LB What other rural parts of the world are getting tourism right?
EF There are two regions in France that I’ve worked with – both with similar challenges and excellent results.
Évreux is a town about an hour and a half from Paris in Normandy – a focal point for German, Canadian and American fighting in WWII. It suffered a lot. At the end the war, the Americans helped rebuild the town quickly, creating California-style ranch houses – at the entrance of Normandy! This was obviously very shocking at the time. But I helped them turn this oddity into a tourism asset, creating an “American village” in their Norman town and drawing on its distinctive history.
The surrounding area, le Grand Évreux, has many rural and natural assets. We pooled tourism resources and built on those assets to create a unique mix of culture, history, gastronomy, right in the middle of rural nature. It was a very successful experience.
The other example is a region called Libourne near Bordeaux in southwestern France. This includes the famed wine village of Saint-Émilion. Saint-Émilion was getting all the attention and resources. Libourne as a region includes urban, semi-urban and rural communities, and of course wine, wine and more wine. Every meeting there ended with a dégustation (wine sampling at small local wineries). It was a delicious but very difficult assignment!
But all these communities were not working together. We changed that and again pooled resources so they could be managed more effectively by one destination management organization. Again, the strategy was very successful for the entire region. It’s similar to what we need to do here.
Whether in southwest France or Headwaters, Ontario – one person, in one town hall alone will struggle to do something spectacular for tourism. But if we pull together under one umbrella of strategy and ambition, we can do great things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
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