After 18 years of advocating for local businesses and marketing Niagara-on-the-Lake as a destination for visitors, Janice Thomson is taking on a new challenge.
The president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and Visitor and Convention Bureau said she will be leaving the organization in good hands, with chair Paul MacIntyre, board members and staff who have a strategic plan in place to move forward. She will stay until May 15, and will help prepare the terms of a search for her replacement.
“The price of success for Janice has been hard work, determination and dedication to her job,” said MacIntyre. “Dedication most of all to NOTL and it business community.”
He described Thomson as “a true ambassador to every guest, new business or existing member in need of help.”
“Janice is a true professional and champion of NOTL. We thank her for all her inspiration over her term and of course all her remarkable achievements,” said MacIntyre.
“We as a board and community wish her nothing but success in all her future endeavours.”
Thompson’s next challenge will be as president and CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism, a position she says she is approaching “with great enthusiasm and energy.” She’s looking forward to working with the board, staff and member businesses, and helping to optimize the destination’s success as a leader in tourism in Canada, she said.
She described her years at the chamber as “a most interesting time,” working with “wonderful people who invest so much of themselves in building businesses, and creating experiences that enhance the quality of life in NOTL.”
Thomson said she is grateful to chamber members who have demonstrated “such a collegial spirit of collaboration” to create a tourism destination that attracts millions of visitors.
She has also valued the positive working relationship with the volunteer directors who have served on the board over the years, she said. The opportunity to “gain knowledge from the perspective of various sectors has been invaluable to me.”
She said she has enjoyed working with MacIntyre, the board members, and all the great staff she worked with over the years. “I know the board and staff will continue to take the chamber to new heights” as the current strategic plan evolves.
Thomson came to town in 1995 as owner of the Luis House, a restaurant and small inn, on the site of what is now The Irish Harp. She left an extensive career in senior executive positions in the import automotive industry, including BMW, Jaguar and Saab, to come to NOTL.
She became a member of the chamber and served on its board when the office was on King Street. When the new library was built on Anderson Lane, the chamber took over its renovated Court House space, where it was more convenient to visitors.
The board asked Thomson to lead the transition to the new location, and in 2001 she became executive director, then a four-day-a-week position.
By that time, board members had identified the opportunity for the chamber to serve as the destination marketer of the town, and worked with experts to develop the branding that would become part of their marketing strategy.
“We highlighted Niagara-on-the-Lake as the place for people to come to celebrate, and adopted that as the defining part of our branding. Then we built on it, working with different groups. The culinary experience became Signature Kitchens, and NOTL the culinary capital of Canada, with more wine and culinary services per capita than any other part of Canada,” said Thomson.
“We always focused on that message: ‘Come to NOTL for a memorable experience.’”
The town was also marketed as a conference destination, with the chamber hosting many familiarization tours to show off what could be offered to conference delegates.
“A common message was ‘We can make anything happen in Niagara-on-the-Lake,’” said Thomson. “We said that knowing it to be true — we have such a strong group of members we can count on to make it happen.”
As an example, she recalls the year Chris Blake, then working with Music Niagara, read about a Diner en Blanc event in New York City, and asked if the chamber could organize one in NOTL — in two weeks.
“We got the community together — Celia Liu [of the Oban Inn, since passed away] tackled it with such great enthusiasm — and as we got close to the day, we asked ourselves what we’d do if we had only one table of eight. We decided we’d be satisfied with having gone through the process. We ended up with 400 people.”
However, although it was a great event, it turned out to be not a simple one to recreate — the chamber learned from the Diner en Blanc organization in France that it was a franchise, permission had to be granted to host one, and there were rules to follow that didn’t work well for NOTL.
Guests had to bring their own tables and chairs, as well as their food, dinnerware, cutlery and table decorations. They had to arrive by public transportation, and the location had to be kept secret until shortly before the event.
“The feedback from our guests was they wanted to park their car, go to an assigned place, and bring their food. But they wanted tables and chairs to be provided.”
Now an annual White Effect dinner held at Queenston Heights provides a quality experience — it sells out, mostly to locals — while making the event uniquely Niagara-on-the-Lake, said Thomson.
The chamber’s Shades of Summer, a dinner on Queen Street during the August peach weekend, also appeals to locals, with music and dancing on the street, although it attracts visitors as well who come for the chamber Peach Celebration and St. Vincent de Paul’s Peach Festival.
“We work together to promote the weekend, and we have visitors who come every year, making it part of their holiday planning. It’s a really joyful time on Queen Street.”
The Icewine Festival created by the chamber also offers “extraordinary experiences,” with icewine served in ice glasses, outside at midnight as fireworks light up the sky over the street.
“People really enjoy this truly Canadian experience, and truly NOTL experience.”
While most events occur in the Old Town, Thomson says, “I don’t see NOTL as Queenston, St. Davids, the Old Town, rural areas and Glendale. I see it as one NOTL, and we’ve tried very hard to make it one cohesive community. We have members from all corners of town, and our responsibility is to represent all residents and businesses of NOTL. Heritage is so important to us, and it’s not just in the Old Town, it’s through all of NOTL.”
“We’re stronger if we all use the NOTL banner together. I consider every corner of the community an important part of what NOTL is. And we never forget the town’s roots are in agriculture, hard work and welcoming hospitality.”
The chamber has always had a good working relationship with the town council, the CAO and senior staff, and shares the goal “of working for the good of the town. When I’ve been asked to speak at conferences about our success at sustaining the brand the town presents to the rest of the world, I say it’s because everyone works together, knowing it’s the right thing to do,” said Thomson.
“It’s about the really strong connection between partners, the big corporate heart, and our businesses supporting the many groups, organizations, and churches, the non-profits and volunteers, and the strength of all those relationships. The chamber is an advocate for businesses, but also works with residents and councils to enhance the quality of life we’ve all become accustomed to, and which has been achieved by all of us working together.”
Although Thomson says she is “super-motivated” to take on the challenge of marketing a larger destination, with the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills she’s gained in NOTL, she will continue to live in the community and stay connected to it.
She didn’t imagine ever leaving the chamber, but then she didn’t think she’d leave her role as chair of the Niagara Parks Commission, yet she learned she was able to finish her term and move forward.
“I left a piece of my heart there, but it taught me I could move on. And I’ll leave a piece of my heart here. But I’m very excited about this great opportunity, and really looking forward to it. It’s a big world, but also a connected one — Niagara Falls is connected to Niagara-on-the-Lake in many ways. At the moment I feel like a kid starting a new year at school, starting fresh in a new place, but one that’s familiar, and with people with whom I already have a good relationship,” says Thomson.
“It was an opportunity that came up, totally unexpected, but I learned from the Niagara Parks Commission there could be new opportunities, and I’m thrilled about this one.”
The 12 chamber board members are “dedicated people steering the ship, and I feel very confident they can continue to make the town even better than it is,” she says.
“It’s been a privilege to work here. Success has been built on its positive, entrepreneurial spirit, everyone working together and sharing in their pride of Niagara-on-the-Lake. I will always value that experience.”