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Michele Saran

Explore Waterloo Region markets our area for the purposes of leisure travel, meetings/conventions, and sporting events. We also engage in product development designed to inspire visitation that will yield longer stays and higher spending in the region. We are a membership organization that represents and promotes approximately 300 tourism businesses.

Tell us about yourself?

I got into tourism when I was young because I thought it would be a fun and dynamic industry and a great way to see the world – it has been! I have a degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management, as well as a certificate in marketing. Most of my career has been in destination marketing. I spent 17 years with the Canadian Tourism Commission (a federal crown corporation), working first out of the Canadian consulate in Chicago for 11 years and then, when I was promoted, out of the head office in Vancouver. I led the international sales team that was charged with bringing meetings, conventions and incentive groups to Canada from the U.S., U.K., Germany, and China. From there, I moved to Nova Scotia to accept the CEO position at Tourism Nova Scotia (a provincial crown corporation) for five years. Tourism Nova Scotia was a bit of a pivot for me as it was all about leisure marketing as opposed to my previous role, which was Business Events. When the pandemic hit, everything changed. We could no longer market the destination for vacations, so we switched gears and worked with Economic Development to assist in their population growth goal. We leveraged our marketing acumen to encourage Canadians to consider a move to the province, knowing locals also use tourism assets like restaurants, attractions, etc., thereby providing crucial life support to those businesses during COVID-19. The campaign was hugely successful, with Nova Scotia reaching its population target a full year early.

Last year, I was approached to consider taking the helm of Explore Waterloo Region. I’ve always been fascinated by this area – Canada’s version of Silicon Valley. I was excited by the possibilities of the brand itself, so here I am!

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

I would tell myself that it’s okay to turn off sometimes. That I don’t have to be connected 24/7 and to find some work/life balance.

What problem does your business solve?

Montrose Bridge
Montrose Bridge

Explore Waterloo Region creates the overarching tourism brand for our area. We inspire people to want to visit the region through compelling experience development and strong marketing campaigns. Most tourism businesses are small with limited budgets. By working collaboratively, we create a destination brand where all benefit. We provide assistance to meeting and sport organizers by coordinating bids to host events in the region. In the case of successful bids, we continue to work with those organizers to assist with all logistics ensuring programs are great.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

Our purpose is twofold. First, we represent 300 member businesses and promote them to potential visitors, and second, we provide a resource to those visitors with valuable tourism information in one place. Simply put, we connect buyers and sellers through our sales and marketing efforts. We aim to make planning a visit to our area easy and efficient.

Tourism is economic development, and the tourism brand is also a catalyst for trade. When people visit Waterloo Region for a meeting or vacation, they may love what they see and choose to move here, invest here, or send their kids to school in one of our fabulous post-secondary institutions.

What is your magic sauce?

I believe we have an incredibly interesting brand here in Waterloo Region. We are a destination that celebrates both the past and future. We are known for innovation with our thriving tech community and world-class educational institutions, making it a smart choice for a meeting or convention. We are also known as a community of barn builders with interesting cultures to explore, i.e. the Mennonite culture of St. Jacobs and Elmira and the iconic German festival that is Oktoberfest. We are a year-round destination known for festivals, culinary, and sport. We have an incredible network of beautifully maintained trails that are perfect for hikes or cycling. Whether one is seeking an urban or rural experience – we can deliver both! We are in a great location for those seeking a short road trip from the GTA. We are also connected by rail and boast an international airport.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

We want to give potential visitors even more reasons to want to come to Waterloo Region. We are engaging in considerable leisure product development that will inspire visitation. We are leveraging our existing icons like St. Jacobs, the Grand River, Oktoberfest, our trails, etc. and creating packages that make it easy for people to make the most of their stay and make purchasing easy. The goal is to get people to stay longer and explore all the region has to offer.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

The biggest challenge our industry has ever faced has been COVID-19. We were the first industry hit, we were the hardest hit, and we will be the last to recover. Re-opening has not meant immediate recovery for our tourism businesses. Most tourism operators have had to take on serious debt just to stay afloat over the past few years. Now many businesses in the sector are facing labour shortages to the point where some can’t even open full-time. It’s difficult for a tourism business to take full advantage of people’s pent-up demand for travel when they don’t have the staff to fulfill customer expectations. We stay in close contact with our member businesses to understand their issues and continue to advocate for government supports.

How can people get involved?

Whether you are looking for a location for a meeting, sporting event, or just a great place for a fun getaway – all of the resources are here on