The blueprint of a successful conference strategy begins with collaboration. Last week, on the traditional, unceded territory of the syilx Nation in Kelowna, some 700 international delegates convened with the goal of accelerating Indigenous tourism growth in Canada and abroad.

From the historic coming together of the syilx, Nlakapamux, and Secwepemc nations who proposed Kelowna as a host location, to the collective efforts of Tourism Kelowna, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA), Indigenous Tourism BC, and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) to coordinate the event; from the moving keynote speech by local hockey hero Jordan Tootoo, to insightful marketing workshops, from the pageantry of the ceremonial welcome, to the final night award celebration, the 2019 International Indigenous Tourism Conference (IITC) brought a diverse group together under one central theme: to inspire, transform, and unite.


Almost 50 per cent of the 700+ conference attendees represented Indigenous-owned tourism businesses or were an official representative of an Indigenous community. Knowledge-hungry delegates from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Taiwan, Mexico, and Chile travelled to Kelowna to learn about the growing global demand for authentic Indigenous tourism experiences and the ways in which they can shape the industry through their own unique cultural and culinary offerings.

Leveraging Local and Regional Resources to Enrich Programming

International Indigenous Tourism Conference - Opening Remarks

Photo by: Simon Sees & Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Business events by their very nature provide unique opportunities for enrichment and collaboration. Through IITC’s immersive learning environment, representatives from Parks Canada, Export Development Canada, TOTA, and ITAC hosted panel discussions and presentations on subjects as diverse as leveraging partnerships and accessing capital for Indigenous tourism operators to become export-ready. Indigenous Tourism Alberta hosted a session on tourism as an economic driver, while representatives from the Culinary Tourism Alliance and others explored the development of Indigenous culinary tourism in Canada. Sessions on public relations, content creation, and the power of story sharing highlighted a series of marketing workshops, each aimed to not only inspire but to arm delegates with the tools they need to transform or grow their businesses.

International Indigenous Tourism Conference - Roasted Duck on a Platter

Photo by: Simon Sees & Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

“The breakout sessions were carefully selected to meet industry needs that had been identified in last year’s post-conference surveys, as well as knowledge from the ITAC team about where some practical knowledge would benefit our industry,” said Teresa Ryder, Director of Business Development, Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

Creating Economic Nourishment while Spotlighting Canada’s Unique Indigenous Culture

In his opening remarks, ITAC President and Chief Executive Officer, Keith Henry, noted that for an indigenous event experience to truly be inclusive and collaborative, it must move beyond the traditional pageantry of the ceremonial welcome. And while the 8th annual IITC opened with traditional drumming, singing, and dancing, the conference’s welcome reception made good on that assertion by featuring Canada’s top Indigenous chefs and their modern take on traditional First Nation cuisine followed by a fashion-show of four Indigenous Canadian designers.

International Indigenous Tourism Conference - Fashion Show

Photo by: Simon Sees & Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Throughout the three day conference, 37 artisans from across the Thompson Okanagan region displayed and sold their unique creations - everything from one-of-a-kind artwork to hand-sewn moccasins, from handmade jewelry and leather goods, to cosmetics, and more.

International Indigenous Tourism Conference - Artwork for Sale

Photo by: Simon Sees & Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

The artisan exhibit, “is an important tradition of the conference as it provides support to the local arts community,” said Ryder who also notes that the 2019 conference provided the perfect opportunity to unveil the Indigenous Artisans' Trail Gallery (IArt), a mobile art gallery featuring Indigenous artists from the Nkalapa’mux, Secwemec, and syilx nations in the Thompson Okanagan region. The gallery is a partnership between TOTA and Indigenous Tourism BC with the goal of helping local First Nations gain exposure and sell their art.

It Takes a Village 

International Indigenous Tourism Conference - Opening Ceremony

Photo by: Simon Sees & Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Hosting 700 delegates to an event with multiple moving parts is no small undertaking. As a member of IITC’s 2019 steering committee, Tourism Kelowna provided guidance and support before and during the event to ensure delegates made the most of their Kelowna experience. “Having a partner like Tourism Kelowna as part of the steering committee was an integral part of making partner connections throughout the region and making sure that the visitors/delegates to the conference had the best experience possible,” says Ryder, but perhaps conference attendee, Deryl Seymour of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation said it best, “The conference has been very informative, I’ve learned so much in the break-out sessions and the networking has been amazing because of the amount of knowledge that people are bringing to the table. Everyone here is so proud to be Indigenous; you can just feel it, and it’s great.”

Planning Tip:

Connect with Tourism Kelowna for inspiration and insight into incorporating the Indigenous community into your conference events. Here are just a few ideas of how:

  • Kelowna is located on the traditional, unceded territory of the Syilx Nation. It is customary to acknowledge the host nation at the outset of your meeting.
  • Incorporate The suknaʔqín̓x (Okanagan) is Beautiful video into your kick-off, or conference invitation announcement.
  • Invite elders from the syilx Nation to offer a welcome blessing at the start of your event.
  • Incorporate traditional Indigenous cuisine into your organized banquet functions.
  • Offer cultural tours that incorporate Indigenous-owned businesses, heritage sites, museums, and cultural centres.
  • Collaborate with a local artisan on the creation of a conference memento.
  • Incorporate traditional drummers, singers, and dancers or contemporary Indigenous performers into your entertainment schedule.
  • Offer your delegates an opportunity to meet artisans or purchase local Indigenous art by booking the IArT Gallery during your event.

Curious about what else Kelowna offers your association event? Connect with Tourism Kelowna for insights, inspiration, introductions, and assistance in facilitating your event RFP.