It’s a concept called “cluster muster” and it’s taking rural Alberta by storm.
While the idea of grouping or clustering like-minded stakeholders has been around for nearly two decades, this economic development idea is now having a greater impact than ever on rural Alberta.
Clustering, which was introduced in the early 1990s by Harvard professor, Michael Porter, is a geographic concentration of interconnected businesses or organizations which work together to jointly increase their profiles.
“Cluster development is a form of collaboration and could be called ‘co-opetition’ which is co-operating in order to be more competitive and successful,” said Carmen Andrew of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD).
In 2003, AARD piloted several ag-tourism cluster projects, bringing together agricultural operators to work together on common themes, public awareness campaigns and joint marketing ventures. Sometimes the cluster centred around a geographic area, while at other times clusters formed around ag-tourism themes or specific events.
A successful example is “Edmonton’s Countryside” cluster which brought together municipal stakeholders and operators from the rural area surrounding Alberta’s capital city. Using a website as the main portal, this area offers attractions like spring drives, country cuisine and a country soul stroll.
“They took this concept and ran with it and have been very successful at accessing various pots of funding to administer the project,” said Andrew. “At the moment they have a strong emphasis on operator skills development, hosting more local food events and developing specific draws around museums, recreation, etc.”
Canadian Badlands Ltd., a consortium of 63 Alberta municipalities, has placed its focus on cluster development as well, hiring two consultants to work with communities to promote the creation of specific clusters whether it be around artisans, rodeos or bed and breakfasts.
“The idea is to build the cluster and at the same time to strengthen each individual business,” said Cindy Amos, executive director of Canadian Badlands Ltd. “When we bring people together around a theme, there can be cost savings in terms of bulk purchasing, joint marketing and they can do things like site visits to give each other advice about what their business or attraction looks like to outside visitors.”
Barb and Lorne Bateman, owners of the Douglas Country Inn just outside of Brooks, Alberta, said that being part of the Canadian Badlands Ltd. cluster project has had a positive impact on their business.
“The main key for us was to be part of a group with other B &B owners so that we could get to know them, support each other and jointly market each other’s businesses,” said Barb. “Our business has definitely grown because of it.”
As part of the B &B cluster, participants were offered information on how to grow their businesses, how to access new markets and how to use local foods as a drawing card.
“We get people coming in and saying it’s such a good idea that we use local foods, so that helps to get our name out there and bring in more business.”
Andrew said clusters can be used in any area of Canada, and they are particularly useful in rural locations where ag-related businesses can band together to promote their products.
“I think you can apply the clustering concept in almost any area where there is a group of key community movers and shakers,” said Andrew. “The place to start is to determine what the assets are in a particular area, whether it be museums, ag-tourism, manufacturing or anything else of importance to an area.”