Canadian ‘snowbirds’ invited to rest their wings in Ely
When Ed Spear was running a service station in Ely some 30 years ago, he kept thick notebooks jammed with information that tracked where his customers came from.
An important insight from those notebooks — lots and lots of Canadians come through Ely on their way to Las Vegas and the sunshine of Arizona — today is driving a key piece of the tourism marketing strategy in White Pine County.
And it’s paying off as snowbird travelers who once stopped overnight, grabbing some dinner and a tankful of gas, increasingly stick around for a couple of days to widen their experience in eastern Nevada.
But Spear, executive director of the White Pine County Tourism and Recreation Board, says the increased business doesn’t come easily.
“Nobody has ever heard of Ely unless you get out there and tell them,” he says.
The White Pine County tourism board is a regular exhibitor at events such as the annual Snowbird Extravaganza in Lakeland, Fla., an event that draws about 35,000 people a year and is billed as the largest single gathering of Canadians outside of Canada.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism puts up half the $14,000 annual budget for Ely representatives to travel to three snowbird shows a year, and Spear spreads the word about other Nevada destinations while he’s pitching the particular joys of a stay in Ely.
Canadian travelers — as well as their American cousins from the states that feel the full brunt of winter — are attractive to tourism marketers.
They have discretionary income to put into travel and often are behind the wheel of an expensive recreational vehicle if they don’t own a second home in a warm-weather climate.
They have the time to put into driving — that’s important for Ely, which has no scheduled commercial air service anywhere close — and they’re accustomed to driving the white-open spaces of Canada or the Upper Midwest.
Spear estimates that at least 100,000 snowbirds travel through Nevada each year — some headed for winter holidays in Las Vegas and Laughlin, others headed farther south to Arizona.
Initially, White Pine tourism officials made a modest pitch to those travelers: Spend a night in Ely on your way down and on your way back home.
But more of them are stopping by the tourism board’s office to plan mulitiple-night stays that include visits to major destinations such as Great Basin National Park and the Northern Nevada Railway and events such as as Bathtub Boat Races at Cave Lake State Park.
The agreements are designed to split the costs of improvements such as traffic signals between Carson City and developers whose projects generate the traffic increases that trigger the need for improvements.