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Beginnings of Tourism in South Georgian Bay

The Little-Known Beginnings of Tourism in South Georgian Bay: How a small but mighty association has brought five municipalities together for over four decades

Lining the longest freshwater beach in the world before giving rise to the highest point of the Niagara Escarpment and continuing its way into the heart of apple country… The southern shore of Georgian Bay is diverse and exceedingly beautiful.

From the heritage town of Collingwood, quaint villages of The Blue Mountains and Meaford, sandy shores of Wasaga Beach, and the rustic charm of Clearview, South Georgian Bay is home to world-class restaurants, rolling hills, wooded trails, and of course, a stunning shoreline. 

It has also become a haven many people now call home. 

However, with the past two years ridden in a pandemic environment and drastic increases in domestic travel, the area has also become a hot spot for tourists, and it begs the question: has it always been this way?

“In a way, yes,” said George Weider, son of the late Josef (Jozo) Weider, who founded Blue Mountain Resort in 1941. 

While Jozo worked tirelessly on the mountain chasing his dream of building a world-class ski resort, the crystal waters of Georgian Bay brought a different type of tourist to the area and summer cottages started popping up along the shoreline throughout the 1930s and 40s. 

“The natural area — the attraction of the bay and the mountain — was bound to attract tourists,” said George. That, he said paired with its proximity to Toronto, Ontario’s largest metropolitan area. 

However, for several years, the two natural attractions remained relatively separate. 

So, how did Ontario’s largest ski hill not only grow to be what it is today, but also become so synonymous with Collingwood’s heritage district and the sandy shores of Wasaga Beach?

“Determination, and a bit of stubbornness,” said Sheila Metras, who founded the original tourism association in South Georgian Bay in 1978. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

According to George, most of the 20th century was defined by two main industries in the area. The Town of the Blue Mountains boasted agriculture, while Collingwood was known for its “side launch” shipbuilding industry. But, sometime between the rise of Blue Mountain Resort and the fall of the Shipyards, people started to see South Georgian Bay for what its worth — attracting more and more tourists to the area each year. 

In the 1980s, the Downtown Collingwood Business Improvement Area (BIA) began actively promoting the six-block, downtown area in Collingwood. Around the same time, a committee of community leaders and business owners saw a need for an information centre in Collingwood to help filter people from Blue Mountain through the region. They would call it the Jozo Weider Tourist Information Centre — and they needed someone to run it. 

Enter: Sheila Metras. 

Sheila, in her mid-twenties at the time, was in the midst of completing her master’s of social work at York University. While she had zero interest in working in tourism and was pretty sure she was severely underqualified, Sheila had seen the job posting and thought the interview would be good practice. So without so much as a resume, she sent a letter to the board stating her interest. 

About 40 other applicants had the same idea, so when Sheila showed up for the interview, she was so nervous she could barely speak. Confident she blew it, she went home defeated, only to get a call later that evening with a job offer. Shocked, she felt she had no choice but to accept it. A government grant would fund her salary for the first 12 months, so Sheila decided to give it a go — it was only a year after all. 

And what a year it was. 

Within the first month, Sheila was asked to speak at a meeting in Wasaga Beach. Still unsure of her role, she began talking about the new information centre. She had recently returned from a ski trip in the United States and she had an idea. Utah had introduced a campaign called Ski Utah that jointly promoted the three main ski areas, despite their differences. 

“So then I thought, well, what if we all worked together?” said Sheila. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Apparently Wasaga Beach didn’t think so. Meeting attendees nearly laughed her out of the room, asking why on earth they would ever work with Collingwood. Sheila left shaking her head, but before she did, she said something she will never forget “Fine, if you wanna be a one-season resort town, terrific. You go for it.”

She felt bad about her comment the whole way home, until a few short hours later she got a call. Wasaga Beach was on board. 

Excited, she contacted the president of the Collingwood Chamber, who was much more enthusiastic about the idea. There wasn’t a localized tourist association at the time and there definitely wasn’t any money to go around. Sheila knew they would have to start doing things that would generate revenue, so she reached out to Thornbury and Meaford to see if they were interested as well. 

“Wouldn’t that be great? Four seasons, four towns,” Sheila said. 

She got members of each municipality together and excitement grew as ideas bounced around. Everyone could see the benefits of marketing together, because alone, not one community could afford the marketing needed to attract an international audience. “Everyone wanted to be their own, but as one of a whole,” she said. 

Soon after, Sheila was approached by Stayner. They wanted to be involved as well. 

“So much for four seasons, four towns,” Sheila laughed. So they went back to the drawing board. Sheila recalls one night studying a map for hours, trying to figure out a way to make it work. She knew none of the other towns would be interested in calling the new entity “Collingwood and area” any longer, so they decided to hold a contest to come up with an official name. She laughs remembering some of the entries. 

In the end, Sheila believes it was George Czerny who tossed out the term ‘Georgian Triangle,’ so in 1982, the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association (GTTA) was officially born. 

The association’s role was to facilitate the five Chambers of Commerce and other businesses to market themselves, and they started doing so by hosting community-wide fundraising events. Regardless of what it was or where it was held, members from all five municipalities worked together to make it happen. 

“The municipal representatives didn’t agree on a lot, but the one thing they always agreed on was tourism,” said Sheila. 

That first summer was a huge success, but it was not met without resistance. 

With Blue Mountain bordering Grey County and Collingwood sitting on the Simcoe side, it made matters a little more complicated. The neighbouring tourism associations never wanted to work together, let alone with this new entity. At one point, the separate associations even went to the Ministry of Ontario to try to shut down the newfound GTTA. 

“It was really quite a battle,” said Sheila. “But we suck with it.”

With the fall nearing and Sheila’s year coming to a close, she knew what she had to do. “I thought, well, I started this. I have to stay on,” she exclaimed. 

And over the years the association grew to do wondrous things. 

“We were very successful,” said Sheila. “People were calling from all over the country asking how I got five municipalities, five communities, to work together.” 

The GTTA faced its fair share of hardships as well, from economic instability and ongoing provincial pressures to random challenges such as having to recreate a map from scratch and physically transporting its building to a different location. But those are all stories for another day.  

As the years went on, the association became member based, and annual fees funded much of the association’s activities. At its peak, there were over 500 members across all municipalities. The GTTA also started publishing seasonal brochures to highlight certain aspects of the area, including an attraction map and seasonal accommodation options. Each community always had its own section in the publications as well. 

“It was revolutionary,” Sheila said. It was also a huge economic driver for all five municipalities, and they became a family. Separate entities as part of a whole. Each town knew they had their own unique pull, but with a much bigger mission in mind, they were stronger together. 

In 2006, after 28 years of service, Sheila officially resigned from her position. 

For about a decade, the GTTA passed through different hands and shuffled through a number of different names, and not a lot is known about what came of the association during those years. 

“It was such a shame,” said Sheila. 

But in 2016, all of that changed. 

A new executive director was hired to help rebrand the association, and South Georgian Bay Tourism was born. 

Formerly known as the GTTA, South Georgian Bay Tourism has once again become an in-destination educational organization for the Blue Mountains, Clearview, Collingwood, Meaford and Wasaga Beach, with a mission of welcoming visitors to South Georgian Bay. Except now, the association is entirely online, working with a network of ambassador locations across the region. Nowadays, it’s also become less about attracting tourists to the area and more about enhancing the visitor experience in the area. The goal of the association is to inspire visitors to seize the day by discovering all the unique places, activities, and experiences the whole area has to offer.

The number one factor that has and will continue to differentiate the association’s efforts from others is its ability to consistently deliver region-wide marketing initiatives and encourage ongoing collaboration between all five municipalities. 

Regardless of all that’s happened, the five towns know they are stronger together. 

Written by: Maddie Johnston

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