Staycation promotion sent money outside Manitoba Untendered contract helped Vancouver, Colorado firms
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A government-funded pandemic-relief program that encouraged Manitobans to spend their travel budget close to home put nearly a quarter million dollars into the coffers of companies outside the province.
Last month, rebate cheques started to land in the mailboxes of Manitobans who took part in the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce Tourism Rebate Incentive Program.
To the surprise of some staycationers, the $100 rebate cheque they received had travelled more than 1,300 kilometres from Colorado.
“When our economy needs help, they should be helping our economy. Why can’t they hire people locally, create employment?”
– Free Press reader
“When our economy needs help, they should be helping our economy. Why can’t they hire people locally, create employment,” said a Free Press reader who had received her cheque and agreed to an interview if she was not publicly identified.
The taxpayer-funded program promised rebates of up to $100 to people who stayed at a Manitoba hotel between May 6 and 16, and discounts on admission to participating attractions. In 2021, the program ran for 16 days, spurring nearly 25,000 rebate claims.
“I was thrilled to get the $100 back. It helped the hotel, it helped me and it’s a great way to boost the economy,” she said, “but why are they sending money from Colorado?”
The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce said Vancouver-based SNIPP Interactive was hired to deliver the program. It received five per cent of the $4.2-million cost, or $210,000, to process rebate claims.
Unbeknownst to the chamber, SNIPP Interactive subcontracted its responsibility to deliver cheques to SmartPayables, president and chief executive officer Chuck Davidson said. During the 2021 program, rebates were issued via a virtual Mastercard.
“I was a little surprised when I started hearing that the cheques were coming from a Colorado company,” Davidson said. “If we would have known that in advance, I would have advised is there a way we can do this differently.”
Davidson said SNIPP Interactive was recommended by Travel Manitoba, a provincial Crown corporation, which signed the agreement with the chamber to deliver the program on behalf of the government.
The contract was awarded to SNIPP Interactive without going through a tendering process. The Free Press reached out to SNIPP Interactive for comment on Thursday, but did not hear back.
Davidson described the company as a one-stop-shop with the experience to process rebates in a simple and efficient way. Neither the chamber nor Travel Manitoba was aware of any local company that offers a comparable service, Davidson said.
“I was a little surprised when I started hearing that the cheques were coming from a Colorado company. If we would have known that in advance, I would have advised is there a way we can do this differently.”
– Chuck Davidson, Manitoba Chambers of Commerce president and chief executive officer
“The whole intent was how do we make sure this program works for Manitobans? How do we make sure as many people as possible can take advantage of it, and how do we make sure we reimburse them for that?” Davidson said. “I was more concerned about the delivery of the program, and probably less concerned about what the address on the envelope that they received the cheque was.”
NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw argued the provincial government ought to have delivered the rebate program directly to residents from the start. But, at a minimum, the chamber should have solicited proposals from Manitoba companies that might have been interested in delivering the program, Wasyliw said.
“This is about Manitoba small business, so why are we contracting with a Vancouver company and with a Colorado company to provide this service?” Wasyliw said. “This is a classic example of an untendered contract that could have gone to a Manitoba company and could have kept the money in Manitoba.”
Over the past two years, the provincial government repeatedly tapped the Manitoba chamber to administer its pandemic relief programs, including the Shop Local program and the Dine-In Restaurant Relief Program.
Under the Shop Local program, the chamber provided a $500,000 grant to locally owned e-commerce platform GoodLocal in December 2020 to assist small businesses that were shuttered under public health orders. GoodLocal co-owner Obby Khan was elected MLA for Fort Whyte in March.
By hiring third parties to deliver pandemic programs, Wasyliw said the provincial government is avoiding accountability and transparency.
“It’s a cynical, political move to shut up opposition,” Wasyliw said. “Where’s the oversight? Where’s the control?”
“This is about Manitoba small business, so why are we contracting with a Vancouver company and with a Colorado company to provide this service?”
– NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw
The Free Press requested comment from Andrew Smith, the minister responsible for Travel Manitoba.
In response, a provincial government spokesperson provided a statement commending the chamber and Travel Manitoba for “coming up with an innovative way to encourage Manitobans to explore our province while also supporting our local economy and recovery.”
“The Travel Rebate Incentive Program was designed to stimulate local business in the tourism sector, and it was very successful in doing so,” the statement said.
Davidson said TRIP generated significant economic activity for the sector, with a total of $5.5 million in direct spending at recreational properties tracked by the chamber in 2021. The spring iteration of the program was expected to generate $2.3 million for Manitoba businesses.
Of the $4.2 million, close to 87 per cent went directly to Manitobans in the form of a rebate and four per cent went to marketing (including $43,000 for advertising in the Free Press), in addition to the fees paid to SNIPP Interactive, Davidson said.
“The story is a success story of something we delivered to Manitobans,” Davidson said. “Someone had to deliver the program. We found someone to deliver it and from my perspective, five per cent is minimal.”
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Updated on Thursday, June 2, 2022 8:06 PM CDT: Adds cheque stub photo.