01/15/2012 04:30 EST | Updated 03/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Firm brought in to boost Parks Canada's brand as visits to sites drop

OTTAWA - With fewer people visiting the country's national parks and historic sites, Parks Canada has hired a consultant to help boost its flagging brand.

The move comes as the federal agency looks for ways to make money without raising user fees as it grapples with a steady drop-off in attendance.

A statement of work shows Toronto marketing firm Veritas is getting paid $395,000 over two years to advise Parks Canada on how it can better promote itself and its attractions.

"The specific objective is to increase awareness of Parks Canada and to create general interest in visiting Parks Canada and specifically national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas," the document says.

The agency wants a 10-per-cent increase in the number of visits to its parks and historic sites by 2015. To do that, Parks Canada plans to target urban and new Canadians in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

"The degree of knowledge is very low in these three cities, particularly among young Canadians and immigrants," says the statement of work.

Many people who participated in focus groups were not aware an agency like Parks Canada even exists, it adds. "Canadians also remain confused about what Parks Canada does and the reasons national parks are established," the document says.

The Canadian Press obtained the statement of work under the Access to Information Act.

Parks Canada is in a tough spot. In 2009, the federal government announced a two-year fee freeze at all Parks Canada sites, which has since been extended to 2013 for the general public and 2014 for commercial groups.

The agency manages 42 national parks and 167 national historic sites, but only charges fees at 125 locations. Those fees cover everything from entry to national parks and historic sites to permits for fishing and camp fires.

Meanwhile, fewer people are venturing into national parks and historic sites.

The number of visits to Parks Canada attractions fell from 21.8 million in 2006-07 to 20.2 million in 2010-11 — a seven-per-cent drop.

The agency is now trying to find ways to raise its revenue.

Parks Canada has already commissioned a separate, $50,000 study to identify potential sources of new income. That's on top of the Veritas contract, which was awarded last fall.

No one from the company or Parks Canada returned a call for comment.

Other money-making ideas are also on the table.

Parks Canada recently launched its own clothing line featuring its iconic beaver logo. The agency plans to sell it at national parks before moving to the Internet and brick-and-mortar stores in Canada's biggest cities.

The company that gets the contract will design the merchandise and then sell it, with Parks Canada getting a royalty each year or a cut of wholesale revenue, whichever is greater.