Surrey’s Budding Tourism Profile

Cloverdale Rodeo | BCBusiness
You don’t have to go to Alberta to get an authentic cowboy experience.

With growing hotel room inventory and a penchant for attracting vital sporting events, Surrey is tapping into the tourism cash that has flowed into Vancouver for decades

Hear about the Surrey Sightseeing Tour? It’s sponsored by Crime Stoppers.

Cathy James is courteous enough to smile at that joke—but then, she’s in the hospitality industry. And as executive director of Tourism Surrey she has probably had to feign amusement more than a few times. “We’ve had reputation problems,” James admits. “But Mayor Dianne Watts and Surrey council are doing a fabulous job of changing that image.”

James and her Tourism Surrey co-workers have a job that could be considered either extremely challenging or extremely relaxing, depending on your level of cynicism. But James insists tourism in Surrey is going strong. “Surrey is changing,” she says. “The old perceptions are going away with all the good things happening.”

The old perceptions are still around if you know where to look. “Surrey tourism?” asks Evan Fehr, a Kitsilano barista. “That’s when people go looking for drugs, right?”

James begs to differ. “We’re attracting tourists to Surrey with a mix of events, tournaments, festivals, convenience and affordability,” she says. “If you have travel plans in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, Surrey is centrally located for a lot of destinations.

“We have a new city centre being built,” James points out, “with a new city hall, a major new hotel and a condo development.”

The Scotiabank Canadian Open Softball
Championships at Softball City.

The series of projects James references represent over $2.2 billion in construction, green-lit by Mayor Watts and council and now in various stages of development, with the new civic library leading the way. Designed by Bing Thom Architects, the facility was built with public input gleaned through a social media campaign.

Other elements of the redevelopment include the $150-million 3 Civic Plaza—featuring 54-storey residential units, a hotel and an office tower scheduled to welcome occupants in 2016—a new performing-arts centre, SFUcampus expansion, youth park, seniors centre and hospital expansion.

Another part of the redevelopment project happens to bea new RCMP division headquarters. It may not be a tourist attraction but it is arguably part of the overall plan to attract visitors. Surrey officials point to a 14 per cent drop in violent crime this year, crediting a crime-reduction strategy implemented in 2007.

The massive initiatives will change the look of Surrey and can be expected to fuel further growth in B.C.’s second- largest city. That still doesn’t make it Honolulu, but according to James, Surrey has a strategy and sports are a big part of it. “This summer we’ve had the Scotiabank Canadian Open Softball Championships at Softball City. We are the Canadian contender bidding for the 2016 World Cup of Women’s Fast Pitch—the winner will be announced in October.

“We’ve got a new cricket field at No. 10 Highway and 132 Street,” James continues. “Newton [one of Surrey’s six town centres] has nine soccer fields. There are two new pools in the works—the Grandview Aquatic Centre due in 2016 and the new Guildford Centre pool next year. We’ll be a natural destination for swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized events. When you host a tournament, you have teams booking 20 hotel rooms at a time.”

The Stewart Farmhouse

James also cites the growing popularity of the World Music Marathon, a music-themed run that includes full and half-marathons as well as a five- kilometre run, all organized around a musical theme with bands playing along the routes.

Events and festivals are another tent pole of the Surrey strategy. “There’s the Cloverdale Rodeo in May,” James says, “the Surrey Children’s Festival in May and June; the multicultural Fusion Fest in July; and the Blueberry Festival in August.”

Finally there’s the location factor. As James sees it, the Surrey tourism industry does not exist in isolation from its neighbours. “I don’t think tourists recognize those boundaries, where 120th separates Surrey from Delta and so on,” she says. “We benefit from everything in the region. There’s the SkyTrain to metro Vancouver, and Surrey is a good jumping-off point for winery tours of the Fraser Valley. Surrey offers some great hotels and favourable rates. We’ve got 11 branded hotels including the Sheraton, Ramada and two Holiday Inns. With access to two airports, it’s easy to go anywhere.”

Surrey’s pitch as a convenient regional hub may have taken a hit last June when the Surrey Now newspaper reported that Mayor Watts and four councillors had run up a $4,500 bill staying at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver while attending a weekend conference, rather than SkyTraining back home. Still, Surrey has its regional boosters willing to extol its virtues as a destination.

Patricia Dunn, a partner in Vancouver-based public relations firm Dunn PR, grew up in Surrey. “I have sweet memories of a rural Surrey where my family raised horses and we picked blackberries along gravel roads,” she says. So as a marketer, how would Dunn pitch Surrey today?

The Bing Thom-designed
Surrey library.

“Things have changed some,” Dunn acknowledges. “But to build Surrey’s tourist profile beyond the massive changes at Central City, I’d identify a list of local celebs—Rebecca Bollwitt, better known as Miss604, country singer Lisa Brokop and Olympic wrestler Daniel Igali come to mind—to highlight their hometown favourites.”

And Dunn’s own favourites? “The Cloverdale Flea Market would be high on my list of Surrey secrets,” she says. “Bargain-hunting gardeners can bypass the middleman and buy direct from growers.

“Another campaign focus could be a ‘Day Trip to the Country,’ highlighting the fresh produce that the locals love. Contenders could include Mary’s Garden, a family-run farm stand since 1966 that offers fresh produce picked daily, and the Hazelmere Organic Farm, a tasty stop along a scenic drive through the rolling Hazelmere Valley,” she continues, now on a roll. “One of the Surrey celebs would no doubt tout magnificent Crescent Beach, with its encompassing beach promenade and fun oceanside restaurants. En route, visitors could also stop along Crescent Road at the restored 1894 Stewart Farmhouse and garden, and enjoy a walk along the Nikomekl River as it heads to the sea.”

It may never be the Paris of the Pacific Northwest. But Surrey would like to remind you that the SkyTrain track runs both ways.