Reporter’s Notebook: Geofencing Report Uses Cellphone Pinging to Find Out Who Our Visitors Are

By John Francis, Bruce Peninsula Press

The Agenda for the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula’s June 26 Council Meeting was 743 pages. It included a 292-page report from our Regional Tourism Organization, RTO7. The report dealt with Geofencing — the science of using cell-phone pinging to better understand (demographically — all the data are anonymized) who is visiting an area and why.

The report was presented to Council by Kim Clarke of RTO7. She began by explaining that RTO7 partnered with Destinations Canada on this study, which gave them access to Environics Research data.

Pinging only works for phones that have their “location services” turned on, and it doesn’t actually give the user’s name — but it tells you what postal code that device spends most of its time at. So you can’t find out who the people are but you know where they hang out, which is assumed to represent “home”. 

One of the interesting elements of the data is that it can distinguish the difference between “unique” visitors and repeat visitors.

The report is based on data from two summers: 2021 and 2022, and from 7 different locations: Tobermory, the Parks Canada Visitor Centre, Singing Sands, Cyprus Lake/The Grotto, Halfway Log Dump, Ferndale and Lion’s Head.

Environics uses a demographic profile system called PRIZM and the data are compiled using that system. (Google PRIZM to find out how it works.) Visitor statistics are described using the PRIZM demographic classes.

As expected, a lot of our visitors come from the Greater Toronto area. Less obvious was that there was quite a demographic difference between 2021 visitors and 2022 visitors. This difference was quite pronounced at Tobermory and the National Park locations, much less so at Lion’s Head and Ferndale.

In 2021, Tobermory and the National Parks saw large numbers of “unique” visitors from suburban and urban fringe areas, whereas in 2022 there were more urban and rural folk and fewer suburban/fringe folk. Clarke explored the characteristic values that define these visitors. The suburban/fringe groups tend towards “consumption evangelism” — they take their lead from what everybody else is doing. Clarke noted that it would be hard to attract these people back — once they’ve checked our attractions off their bucket lists, they’ll move on to the next one. The urban/rural split tends to include people who are attracted to nature — they love space where others love crowds. Online is the way to reach this demographic segment — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and so forth. Clarke suggested that tourism could be expanded in particular directions by carefully branded communications — targeting the shoulder seasons, or sunrises or other under-utilized attractions. This approach has worked very well for Parks Canada.

Deputy Mayor Rod Anderson commented that he was impressed by the technology and noted that when you drill down, the “Big Brother” aspects of this “are pretty innocuous”.

Councillor Smokey Golden pointed out that while tourism is MNBP’s #1 economic driver, the municipality is not the manager of tourism. She wondered if this report would also be presented to the Chamber of Commerce. Clarke answered that she had not been asked but would be prepared to.

Councillor Aman Sohrab asked if he was reading it correctly — that unique visits were down but that overall visits were up? Clarke answered that a change in data providers might have skewed those data somewhat but that the general pattern was of increased overall numbers with fewer unique visitors. That means you have visitors either coming more often or staying longer, both of which are good, How do you get fewer day visitors and more overnight stays?

Councillor Todd Dowd wondered if the data might be skewed by bad cell coverage. Clarke agreed that bad coverage might affect the data, might reduce the total number of records.

Mayor Milt McIver asked Clarke what was her #1 takeaway from this report.

There are a lot of people coming here, she began. Ideally, we’d like to see a shift away from the bucket list and towards traditional attraction to nature. MNBP needs a sustainable tourism message, because tourism is the front door to economic development — it gets people to come here and fall in love with the place. The 2022 visitor demographics fit this better than 2020 and 2021 did. “Get better cell and broadband coverage and people can work from anywhere.”