Every now and then along comes a game changer in the tourism industry – an initiative that re-shapes the way we think and injects a new dynamic that influences product development or investment for a decade or more.
Game changing projects generally have their genesis in a fusion of creative ideas facilitated by individuals with a willingness to experiment and a desire to be different.
In 1984 Le Cirque du Soleil was one of those brave, important, game changers. Le Cirque was founded in the small community of Baie-Saint-Paul, 80km east of Quebec City on the St Lawrence River, by a group of avant-garde, self-confessed dreamers.
Today, Cirque owns 20 different shows performed in 270 cities on every continent in the world, generating revenues exceeding US$810m PA, and employing more than 4,000 people.
Individuals who strive to make a difference and thrive on innovation tend not to be content with making one seismic shift; they are impatient to achieve more, Such is the case with the co-founder of Le Cirque and its president for 11 years, Daniel Gauthier, OC.
Gauthier, the self proclaimed “too young to quit ski bum now leading a new business concept”, has reawakened the leisure industry as the visionary behind Le Massif de Charlevoix. For the execution of this vision, Daniel Gauthier has returned to his spiritual home and the mountain overlooking Baie-Saint-Paul where the Le Cirque story began. “It's a place which for too long has been Canada’s hidden secret,” says Gauthier.
This is another transformational Gauthier concept that will elevate market expectations. It will cause a shift in the way tourism projects are developed and it will certainly challenge the traditional definition of ‘integrated destination development’.
Le Massif de Charlevoix is a destination that, according to Gauthier, “will offer a panoply of experiences that will unfurl over three environments in the Charlevoix: the Mountain, La Ferme and Le Train Touristique.”
Gauthier, holder of Officer of the Order of Canada (one of the highest honours in the country), presides over his hand-picked team with individual pedigrees as impressive as his own. This is a collective of exceptionally experienced property, financial and specialist operational talent (see box out p55) that have taken Gauthier’s vision and delivered a remarkable new approach to the delivery of a 21st century touristic experience.
Le Massif embodies the principles of sustainable development. Rooted in its community – indeed fuelled by and co-created with, the local community and regional tourism industry – this project was “borne of a desire to share with a curious, inquisitive and adventurous clientele, who are sensitive to the importance of the wellbeing of the planet, an authentic project defined as being a place for pleasure, learning and discovery,” says Gauthier.
There is no doubt about the quality of the ‘terroir’, or place. This destination has a clear physicality; it is the meeting place of cultures and artists, it has a special micro-climate and a good range of locally-produced products. It is also close to the major centres of population in eastern Canada and accessible to the US and international markets.
“It’s a great place to be creative, to make money, to grow the local economy, to help internationalise Quebec and to be different,” says Gauthier.
In 2000, the local community set about developing a destination concept establishing a not-for-profit organisation to take it forward. The lack of a strong vision, the need for public subsidy and the shortage of investment brought the realisation that an investor was needed. In stepped Gauthier, who initially became the sole investor, leasing the land on a 99 year agreement with the local municipalities and a new partnership emerged. He is now chairman of the board of directors
Gauthier explains that this is an inclusive concept; one that's relevant across generations, for guests with different backgrounds and from different communities. He focuses on the realisation of original, genuine and human-scale experiences, constantly offering new encounters based on the stimulation of all the senses. It is pure theatre with the guests being active participants in creating their own experiences using the environment and the facilities as their stage.
Such visionary projects don’t come cheap. This project represents an overall investment of over $300m. It will directly support 600 jobs and help sustain a further 1,200 jobs in the region.
Gauthier’s vision is based on fusion...creating a place where people can explore their environment using all their senses, where there will be freedom of movement, discovery of local food and craft in a creative, innovative setting. Le Massif will be an ecological showcase where the spirit of the place, its cultures and its produce are given centre stage.
This is a destination encompassing art, the outdoors, heritage, local gastronomy, architecture, design, wellness and of course people.
The Mountain is the keystone of the project. A vast skiable terrain of over 400 acres rising 770m from the shores of the St Lawrence river, this is part of a UNESCO-designated biosphere and a meeting point of cultures – a place where artists and artisans have gathered and been inspired by each other for 150 years.
This is the highest vertical point east of the Canadian Rockies. It has 53 ski trails, calibre and beginners' areas as well as a snowpark and a 7.5km long rodeling trail.
The Mountain is now a year-round, four seasons destination for skiing, walking and mountain biking, as well as a creative landscape whose use and development – be it for whale watching on the river or the development of lodges and trails on the mountain – all adhere to strict sustainable principles agreed with the community, who remain the landowners for the majority of the area.
Connectivity and accessibility from Quebec City and the core markets of Montreal and the USA is essential. Securing the ownership of the 140km stretch of the railway line linking Quebec city with La Mailbaie (including 85km of unrivalled riverside scenery) was identified as being a critical success factor for the project.
The train route has its origins in 1889 when the Quebec Railway Company established what was known as ‘The Good Saint Anne Line’ as it primarily served the needs of the annual pilgrimage to the Church of St Anne. At its peak, serving the pilgrimage and the growing winter sports markets, the line carried 2.5 million passengers, however, the advent of the car and changing consumer behaviour saw the demise and eventual closure of the passenger service in 1996.
It was the genius of Gauthier to realise that this train could be more than simply a 'people-mover'. In 2009 he purchased the railway line from the Quebec Railway Group and invested $20m in the creation of a new concept – ‘rail cruise’ – using modern and innovative rolling stock as the setting for a total on-board experience.
This experience combines a social atmosphere; a showcase of Charlevoix gastronomy with exclusively-designed menus offering distinctive culinary experiences; and personalised GPS-activated multimedia shows delivered to guests' seats, giving them exposure to the region’s heritage and landscape.
In this way, Gauthier has ensured that every journey is unique. "The passing landscape paints a canvas for a rail cruise of beauty, creativity and conviviality,” he says.
The Train is, therefore, part of the overall visitor experience. It's more than a scene setter or taster for the main act. It's clearly designed to help the guest transition from the mundane to the exceptional. It is an unambiguous statement of what Gauthier’s Le Massif is all about.
Operated by Train Touristique de Charlevoix Inc, the train comprises two locomotives with two caterpillar power cars that also double up as baggage cars. There are eight Pullman carriages that have been refurbished with designs by Morelli Designers and renovation by the Centre de Realisations d’Outils Innovateurs.
The Train of Le Massif has a total capacity of 492 passengers and operates year round with 254 departures planned for 2012-2013.
The Hotel La Ferm
Hotel La Ferme is the hub of the project, encompassing a public square, a multi-use centre for meeting and cultural programmes, restaurants, a spa, the railway station and, of course, the 145 bedroom hotel. This architect-designed complex consists of five pavilions that resembles an old farm complex. It is stylish, eco-friendly and will provide guests with the core services, facilities and amenities.
If the Mountain is the soul of the project then La Ferme is the heart.