An Incredible Challenge with Impressive Results

October 11, 2019 Design , Work , Places , Travel

Launched in April 2019 by the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (ECNHC), the Canalway Challenge is a new campaign that aims to solidify New York’s canal corridor as a prime destination for world-class recreational experiences. Two centuries ago, construction of the Erie Canal transformed our nation. Today, it remains an enduring symbol of perseverance and extraordinary accomplishment—it’s massive scale is the perfect backdrop for personal achievement. 

From the elite athlete seeking a new “badge of honor,” to the family looking to get more active, participants design their own mileage challenge—cycling, paddling, walking or hiking—along the 524-mile NYS Canal System, 365-mile Erie Canalway Trail and 62-mile Champlain Canalway Trail. 

Erie Canalway Challenge Mileage Band

The program needed a strong identity, launch, and level of participation to establish the Canalway Challenge as a “must do” activity. Teaming up with marketing partner Sarah Bilofsky, we assisted Jean Mackay, Director of Communications at Outreach at the ECNHC, in all phases of the development of this campaign—from working with the committee conceptualizing the challenge (naming it and planning out the details of how it would work) to designing the branding system and developing the marketing plan. This level of engagement helped us to better understand the nuances of marketing a campaign that spans the entire New York State Canal System from Buffalo to Albany, the partnerships among the multiple agencies working to support it, the opportunities available to promote it, and what was realistically achievable.


The design components we developed for this project included the entire branding system with logo, custom number set for the mileage shields (based on historic lock numbers), and imagery, which were integrated into a wide range of communications. Outreach materials included: website, videos, flyer, rack card, banners, ads, social media graphics, and specialty items (stickers, magnets, and gear bag). We also created a Graphic Standards Guide to provide direction for ECNHC to develop materials internally (thereby saving design costs) and assisted in the development of items for a toolkit for partners that included: rack cards, press releases, newsletter articles, PowerPoint presentations, social media posts, logos, tabletop displays, stickers, and FAQs for volunteers. 

Erie Canalway Challenge Branding

Outreach and Marketing:

To begin our engagement, we facilitated a two-hour working meeting with 18 key representatives of state and regional agencies and organizations to introduce the Canalway Challenge, solicit feedback, brainstorm opportunities, and secure promotional commitments. Based on the feedback from this meeting, we developed a comprehensive marketing plan from the initial role out through its planned execution in future years. Focused on creating the necessary materials and outreach needed to launch and grow the Canalway Challenge in its first year, the plan also serves as a blueprint, that can be updated and scaled to expand the campaign in subsequent years.

2kBlog_CanalwayChallenge_Stat_Partners_185x185.jpgWe knew from the beginning that partnerships would provide the best and most cost effective way to reach the broadest audience. As such, the ECNHC developed a more extensive network of 72 local, regional, and statewide partners (including 25 visitor centers), to promote the Challenge. Designed to ‘plug in’ to their existing activities, the Challenge offered partners new ways to pursue their own goals while supporting the initiative. Partners received their promotional toolkit and monthly updates of fresh promotional content and suggestions. The ECNHC also developed a relationship with Eastern Mountain Sports to promote the Challenge through discounts for signing up, finishing, and kayak rentals. 

2kBlog_CanalwayChallengeweb_385x275.jpgKEY COMMUNICATION CHANNELS: 


To inform and inspire participation, we developed, along with Web Instinct in Saratoga Springs, NY. The site’s easy signup allows participants to track miles toward a Challenge goal and manage multiple challenges. The site also includes ideas for logging miles with special event listings and more than 30 “best bet” cycling and paddling trips, and recognizes those who have completed the challenge.

Social media 

Social media efforts included the creation of a Canalway Challenge Facebook group page, to engage participants and create a sense of community, while boosted posts and ads reached an even broader audience. The ECNHC also engaged local media personalities to participate in the Canalway Challenge and promote it through their Facebook pages (with Facebook live too), their websites, and on air. In addition, we created an account on Instagram and utilized existing Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor social media with #CanalwayChallenge. The Challenge was also promoted through the Erie Canalway’s e-Newsletter with multiple blasts to its e-mail list. The partnership ECNHC developed with EMS also allowed them to write a post for EMS’s Go East blog showcasing the five top places to visit for cycling and paddling across the Canalway Corridor. 


Working with Call of Loon Productions of Syracuse, ECNHC produced two one-minute promotional videos targeting our key audiences: fun and fitness and adventure seekers that were included on YouTube,, Facebook, and Instagram. The videos were also shown at major outreach events/conferences and NYS Fair. Three 30-second social media videos were also produced and launched to boost awareness and participation.


The Canalway Challenge was Kicked Off with two special events: in the Capital Region, Paddle the Flight on June 2, 2019 was attended by 100 participants; and in Central New York, the Old Erie Canal Boat Float & Bash on June 15, 2019 was attended by 400 participants. The ECNHC also funded and promoted 14 recreational events that the hosts specifically touted as ways to log Canalway Challenge miles and partnered with 14 more events to promote the Challenge. ECNHC staff also attended meetings, conferences and events throughout the spring/summer to introduce the Canalway Challenge to relevant audiences. In addition, the ECNHC collaborated with John Robinson of Our Ability, Inc. to promote “1st Mile Challenge” to engage those with accessibility needs in the Canalway Challenge. Robinson completed the full 360-miles from Buffalo to Albany using a hand-cycle from July 1–10, 2019. Along the way, he hosted kickoff events with local Arc participation to encourage people to try “just one mile” on the trail and waterway, which generated additional media coverage across the state.

guided by our marketing plan and the tireless efforts of Jean Mackay and her team at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, the canalway challenge racked up some pretty impressive results In 2019, its inaugural year:
But the best results are the inspiring stories and images from participants—they attest to the meaningful success of the Canalway Challenge!