Niagara-on-the-Lake's ambassadors program has been suspended indefinitely due to the large numbers of COVID-19 cases in Peel Region and Toronto – two areas where a lot of visitors to NOTL live.
The Shaw Guild, which oversees the fledgling program for the town, decided Wednesday to “put the ambassador program on pause temporarily,” said Margot Devlin, a Shaw Guild volunteer and co-ordinator of the program.
“The majority of our visitors are from Toronto/ GTA and their medical officer has asked them to stay home to flatten the curve,” she told The Lake Report.
“With COVID numbers increasing, we want to ensure that our ambassadors are safe.”
The ambassadors program, which began as a pilot project in August, aims to welcome visitors – and to promote COVID-19 safety protocols.
The second phase of the project had just resumed a couple of weeks ago and was going well.
“People seem to be really receptive,” Devlin said.
The ambassadors had been downtown on Queen Street Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. and had planned to continue until Dec. 20. Now that idea is up in the air, for the foreseeable future it seems.
While the program was running, Devlin said about 70 per cent of the time ambassadors were greeting visitors and letting them know about the town and answering general questions.
The other 30 per cent was spent on pandemic safety, reminding people they have to wear masks indoors and encouraging them to use masks when social distancing isn't possible outside.
“Some of them look on us a little suspiciously because, you know, people don't do this in Toronto,” Devlin said, adding sometimes people thought they were approaching to try to sell something.
“But once we introduce ourselves and welcome them to the town they're really happy — and I think it leaves a really good impression on them for Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
The most common question has been where to find the washrooms, she said, adding more signage would help to let people know where to go.
“We also got a lot about hotels. Apparently, the Prince of Wales was sold out this weekend, so people were looking for other places to stay. So we directed them to other hotels they could try.”
She said Sunday has been a “big day for questions,” with the Chamber of Commerce office closed.
One challenge has been finding the right places to be to meet visitors, Devlin said. It seems to work out better when ambassadors are stationed in front of the Old Court House rather than walking the streets.
Unfortunately, many downtown retailers still were not aware of the ambassaddors program, she said.
“It would be nice to have a little bit more publicity, though, because even the shopkeepers don't know about us.”
With last weekend's unseasonably warm weather, the streets were packed and the shops seemed to be getting a lot of traffic.
Phase two of the ambassador program was approved by town council after positive reaction to a trial run at the end of the summer.
Members of the Shaw Guild who helped co-ordinate the project told council in September that the program went exceedingly well, with a few minor hiccups, and recommended town staff look at options of putting a long-term program in place.
In all, 35 Shaw Guild members were involved in the program and spent a collective 290 hours out promoting the town during the first phase.
Shaw Guild communcations chair Cheryl Morris told councillors that more than half of the ambassadors talked to more than 20 people in a two-hour shift, while 43 per cent talked to fewer than 20 people.
Most of the people talked to — about 95 per cent — were visitors, though Morris noted it was sometimes hard for volunteers to know who was local.
Residents were also supportive of the program, she added.
“A lot of the local residents actually came up to the ambassadors and thanked them for doing this job.”
About 95 per cent of people were receptive to being approached, while about 5 per cent were uninterested, Morris said, adding there were no “negative responses or reactions.”
She said a lot of questions were general queries about the town, such as where to eat, locations of washrooms, where to park, direction to various places, and where they could get more info about the town. Other questions were about the Shaw Festival because the T-shirts said “Shaw Guild.”
Devlin said the questions are similar now, with the main question being “Where are the washrooms?”
Morris said as the program continued in the summer, volunteers noticed more people wearing masks on the street.
“I don't know if that was influenced by ambassadors. It's unlikely, but maybe it was just more general awareness to wear a mask when they couldn't social distance.”
Guild members also enjoyed the program, Morris said.
“Everyone was pretty confident with what they were doing and how they would approach people and what they would say. So, that was great.”
“And from a guild perspective, it was great. The volunteers had a wonderful time they enjoyed it, and we are delighted and we'll be glad to help in any way we can if you decide to proceed with the program going forward.”
Shaw Guild president Laurie Harley said to expand the program year-round would only take about 50 people, considering some of the things they learned during the pilot.
She said the day of the week and time of day both influenced the crowd sizes, and that often the 4 to 6 p.m. shift was a little slow.
She said for a lot of visitors, it was their first time in NOTL.
“I think they came because it was a beautiful town and I think they will come back now as well because they think it's a town that is very welcoming and that welcoming part I think of our role was also important,” Harley said.
“As Cheryl said we had no pushback which to be honest we expected we would. So they were very receptive, particularly the locals that we saw. They thought it was great and I think the merchants as well appreciated that they weren't the only ones that were sharing protocols with visitors,” she said.
Harley said she thinks the program was positive for the town.
“I think the most important recommendation we can share with you is that we thought it was an extremely valuable program and that it should continue,” she told councillors.
She said the program should continue during the tourist season, and at times during the “shoulder season” and major events like the Icewine Festival and Christmas parade.
She also suggested an ambassador kiosk would be helpful, as people were particularly receptive to information about the town.
“A lot of people really welcomed the information we had about the town, particularly the map of the town that the chamber had — and the chamber has fantastic resources but a lot of people, particularly new, don't know where the chamber is and can't find it,” making a kiosk useful.
If the program is to continue, there should be a comprehensive orientation program for volunteers, to teach them some things about the town, she said, noting there was lots of information volunteers didn’t have, which they had to find out quickly.
She also suggested brainstorming how to make sure visitors who don’t speak English can also access the same information.
Morris said the Shaw Guild volunteers were cut out for the job.
“They love greeting people, they love talking to people, that's what they do with for the Shaw Festival, so this is a perfect position for them to be in.”