Niagara, Fallen.

There’s a possibility that this particular entry might be more at home in my very occasional branded content blog CONTENTional Thinking, since it’s about bad branding and sad (dishonest) marketing content. But since these evils affected my vacation, I’m taking the affront personally, so here the discussion will lie. As a warning to you all.

After seeing three very old and sick pets off to their otherworldly reward—and not taking an away vacation for six years—a few months ago, my love and I planned a late May four day junket off to Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side.

In the meantime, Zoey our baby Border collie chose to live with us, so there was some concern, but we have friends and they have a dog who has stayed with us…so all was well.

I’m not that naïve. I know that hotels, attractions, etc, are always shot in the best possible light, then photo-shopped to make up for a lack of new paint, bigger facilities, etc. But there has to be a reasonable limit on the experience promised versus the experience provided (that’s where the marketing content comes in)… or else you are simply (and with intent and malice) screwing over your potential customers.

Neither my love nor I had been in the Niagara area for nearly 35 years—so there were no expectations of the town remaining as it had been. Neither of us could remember more than a few hours spent at Marineland.

The falls themselves are still lovely. There’s a reason why they’re considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We took a journey under the falls (there’s an elevator and tunnels) and on our last afternoon there, rode on the famous Maid of the Mist. It was exciting and as promised, very misty. We also both got the chance to pet and feed some belugas at Marineland, even if it did cost an additional $20 beyond the $100 gate charge for two to touch the slippery creatures (they feel like tough, wet and cool inner tubes) and toss them some minnows. We had come to pet the beluga and damn the extra charge, we were petting beluga. Later, downstairs in the viewing tank, a momma beluga made a point of showing my love her very new baby. That was one of the highlights of the day.

Quite frankly, everything else about the trip ranged from disappointing to enraging.

I won’t name our hotel by name, but it was on Fallsview Blvd (an ironic misnomer, since all you can see from the ground level and quite a few stories up is the massive casino and its giant blood red Casino sign)…and owned by a corporation that will someday possibly be overseen by a certain young blonde woman named after a city in Europe. It was overhyped, overrated, overpriced and well over the hill despite appearances (the concierge’s computer system was so antiquated, she couldn’t print a pdf of our online boarding passes for the trip home). Ripped furniture in our “suite,” broken ice machines on several floors—a situation that afforded me a really good look at the property—plus spotty housekeeping services, rude security staff during a 1 a.m. fire alarm (we were on floor # 28) and a totally inedible breakfast buffet that cost three days groceries.

Speaking of food, even trusted family restaurant chains fell down on the job. If it hadn’t been for Applebee’s and the Tim Horton’s in the food court in the hotel across the street (I’ve become a huge fan of cinnamon french toast bagels), I think we would have starved. Amazing how in a town that appears to be 80% restaurants, it was so difficult to get something to eat.

But the worst offense by far was that one could not find a cup of coffee in the hotel or surrounding four or five blocks (I know, I tried) before 7 am. Early risers like my love and I were stuck with the black goop that comes out of those in room coffee makers and “whitener” until what I consider to be mid-morning. And since only one Starbucks of the seemingly hundreds within the city’s limits is a corporate store, the rest are apparently free to set their own prices. A vente bold was 50 cents more than it is here at home. My favorite afternoon drink, a tall iced café mocha, with a touch of whipped cream, is $3.95 in most shops. It was $5.25 at the franchises.

Howard, how can you let these thieves take such license with your brand?

Beyond the falls, the attractions—which all look as wonderful, fascinating and fun as Disney in their brochures—are cheap, tacky, fake, rundown and total rip-offs. One expects inflated prices, embellished descriptions—but not such outright untruths. It was the stuff of moral indignation. A tourist trap is one thing—this was beyond belief.

But I did notice that there’s a sense of desperation there. I think those who sell tickets to the House of Frankenstein or Movieland Wax Museum or whip up Frappuccinos at 20% above the going rate might have an inkling that their days are numbered. Most of the tourists were over 60. There was an obvious lack of gay guests; a signal that the place is totally uncool and the rest of the visitors were there for the casino, poking their heads out into the mist-soaked sunlight occasionally to find an ATM. It’s no secret that a new generation of tourists won’t be as easy to fool with misleading brochures and criminally edited photos. It’s unconscionable that here, with one of the most powerful and dynamic nature wonders on the doorstep, there seems to be no interest in ecotourism, sustainable tourism…even an attraction dealing with power generation or something that might be relevant now and to the future.

Looking at a poster of the greasy greats that would be playing at the casino ballroom, my love mentioned that everyone was “old hat.” She was right. There was a sense that everything was just slightly (or largely) behind the times.

After a nasty rainstorm on Friday, a bus ride to Toronto that was an hour late due to weather, but still the luck to get on the island before the subway system flooded and gridlock ensured, I was sitting in the café in the Porter’s lounge at Billy Bishop Airport (only we Canadians would name a wonderful little rogue airport after a World War I flying ace) sipping free Starbucks and munching on free wonderfully flaky organic shortbread chocolate chip cookies Porter’s is known for (Porter, I love you, don’t ever change), I realized how little it takes to make people happy. Give them what they need at a reasonable price and tell the truth. Throw in the feeling of being modern and progressive. It’s that simple.

Niagara Falls, are you listening? Thinking people don’t want wax museums and hype. They want free organic chocolate chip cookies. And yes, that is a metaphor.

On the plane, waiting to get back to Ottawa, my love and I talked over our experiences. I noted that at least we got to be together for four days.

She patted my arm and said, “Yep. That’s the only worthwhile part of the whole trip.”

That’s love. When you hate exactly the same things. And when thoroughly not enjoying a trip together counts for more than enjoying an experience alone.

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