Tourism has been part of the local economy for nearly 100 years, inspiring area municipalities and business owners to work together to encourage repeat visitors.
As early as the 1940s, tourists were showing interest in Collingwood and surrounding municipalities, and by the 1970s the region's first tourism association formed and became a pioneering example of cross-border collaboration.
Pulled together by visitors, area towns including Collingwood, The Blue Mountains, Meaford, Wasaga Beach, and Clearview formed what is now South Georgian Bay Tourism.
“We live in Ontario's four-season outdoor recreation capital,” said Melissa Twist, director of regional tourism at South Georgian Bay Tourism (SGBT).
Previously known as the Georgian Triangle Tourist Association (GTTA) and Visit South Georgian Bay, the organization rebranded in 2017 as an in-destination educational organization with a mission of welcoming tourists to the area while contributing to the economic prosperity of the five municipalities it serves.
“It’s always been about collaboration and bringing those communities together,” said Twist. "That will always be number one."
While Josef Jozo Weider worked tirelessly on the mountain chasing his dream of building a world-class ski resort (now Blue Mountain Resort), 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.
For many years, the sidelaunch of a new ship in the Collingwood Shipyards also drew a crowd, sometimes busloads would come from out of town to watch the ceremony and spectacular launches.
Sometime between the rise of Blue Mountain Resort and the closure of the Collingwood Shipyards, people started to see South Georgian Bay as a destination — and more and more tourists were attracted to the area each year.
“The natural area — the attraction of the bay and the mountain — was bound to attract tourists,” said George Weider, son of the late Josef (Jozo) Weider, who founded Blue Mountain Resort.
In the 1970s, a committee of community leaders and business owners saw a need for an information centre in Collingwood to help filter people from the mountain through the region and hired a local woman, Sheila Metras, to run it.
Metras, who was in her early twenties at the time, was in the midst of completing her master’s of social work at York University. She had no interest in working in tourism at the time and only interviewed as practice — until she was offered the job later that evening.
She was shocked, but accepted, and less than two months into her new role she noticed a gap in the local tourism industry and the way the different municipalities managed their marketing. Metras thought it would be beneficial to band together to market the region as a whole.
She pitched the idea to neighbouring towns, and after some convincing, the Blue Mountains, Clearview, Collingwood, Meaford and Wasaga Beach were all on board — and the GTTA was born.
“Everyone could see the benefits of marketing together, because alone, not one community could afford the marketing needed to attract an international audience,” she said. “Everyone wanted to be their own, but as one of a whole.
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.
“We were very successful,” said Metras. “People were calling from all over the country asking how I got five municipalities, five communities, to work together.”
As the years went on, the association became member-based, and annual fees funded much of its activities. At its peak, there were over 500 members across all municipalities.
“It was revolutionary,” Metras said. It was also a huge economic driver for all five municipalities. Each town had its own unique pull, but with a much bigger mission in mind, they were stronger together.
In 2006, after 28 years of service, Metras officially resigned from her position.
For about a decade, the GTTA passed through different hands and shuffled through a number of different names.
Now, the role of the association has become less about attracting tourists to the area and more about enhancing the visitor experience once they are here. The goal of SGBT is to inspire visitors to discover all the unique places, activities, and experiences the whole area has to offer.
“The number one factor that has and will continue to differentiate us is our dedication to bring our municipal partners together and encourage ongoing collaboration between all five municipalities,” said Twist.
“Visitors move across borders without even knowing it, so it makes sense for us to market ourselves as a region," she said. "We’re stronger together.”