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Conventions, business travel generate substantial revenue.

Conventions, business travel generate substantial revenue

Conventions and business travel play a significant role in the economies of Northern Ontario's five major centres, according to representatives of the convention bureaus of Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, North Bay and Timmins.

Both Suzanne Curran, managing director of Hospitality and Travel Sault Ste. Marie (HATS) and Pat Forrest, manager of the Thunder Bay Visitors and Convention Centre, estimate that convention revenues were in the neighborhood of $5 million last year. Meanwhile, Dave Thomas, the tourism manager of the Sudbury Regional Development Corporation, estimates as much as 20 per cent of Sudbury's $119 million tourism revenue is a result of convention and business travel combined.

To measure the impact of those dollars on local employment, Thomas uses a figure of $30,000 total revenue to generate a single job.

However, he cautions that the figure is conservative because tourism by its very nature is diverse, affecting a wide range of businesses such as restaurants and gas stations, which also exist to serve the community at large.

The Ministry of Tourism and Recreation estimates that the average convention delegate spends $135 per day. Most communities use that figure (or a higher figure of $150 per day provided by the International Association of Convention Bureaus) to determine the full economic impact of conventions.

Although the ability to accommodate large groups varies from more than 1,000 in Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie to about 300 people in Timmins, all five cities see conventions playing a growing role in their hospitality sectors and place a priority on promoting themselves as destinations.

Thunder Bay focuses its marketing strategy on a group of five or six hotels which combined can offer 1,800 rooms and facilities which accommodate up to 1,000 people for presentations and 600 people for dinner. Groups of 1,200 people can arrange for a banquet at Old Fort William which provides an out-of-town excursion for dinner.

"The feedback we get from mid-size to slightly larger conventions is very positive," said Forrest. "For larger groups, having to use several hotels is something of an inconvenience, but we arrange for and subsidize shuttle busses, which works well."

In 1990 thunder Bay played host to approximately 50,000 delegates who attended 100 conventions.

Sault Ste. Marie does best with groups of up to 700 people but can accommodate much larger groups by spreading them out among the five major hotels and taking advantage of the Sault Armouries, which can serve as many as 2,000 people for dinner, said Curran.

She sees no disadvantage in spreading delegates out over several hotels.

"Not everyone wants to stay in the convention hotel. When people come to a convention they like to have a choice of hotels with a variety of prices and styles."

Groups shopping for a convention location look for more than hotel rooms and dining halls, said Curran, who is first vice-president of the Ontario Convention and Visitors Association. She finds that many groups choose the Sault because of tourist attractions such as the Algoma Central Railway tour train and the locks tour.

Last year the Sault hosted nearly 20,000 convention delegates from 57 groups.

Sudbury faces a greater challenge in hosting mid-sized and larger conferences, with a relative shortage of hotel and meeting space. Although its largest facility can accommodate a meeting of about 1,000 people, there is insufficient space to comfortably move a group that size from one activity to another.

To respond to the need for improved convention facilities, the city is exploring several options, including the upgrading of current facilities and the construction of a convention centre as part of a downtown revitalization, said Thomas.

Convention organizers in Sudbury often make use of Science North for receptions and special events, as well as nearby lodges for VIP events, executive meetings or special meals.

North Bay's facilities are less extensive than the three larger cities, but Ross Kenzie, the city's tourism and convention officer, said smaller conventions and sports tournaments account for a significant portion of the community's tourism revenue.

North Bay competes primarily for conventions of 300 people or less, although Kenzie points out that 1,100 delegates from the Women's Institute of Ontario had a successful convention in the city several years ago.

"Northern Ontario is almost an elevent province in the convention business," said Kenzie. "For almost every Ontario association, there is a Northern Ontario equivalent, and all those northern groups have their annual conventions in the north."

What that means for northern cities is a fairly regular circuit of conferences and conventions to draw from which allows smaller convention facilities to exist fairly well on Northern Ontario business, he said.

The smallest of the five cities, Timmins, has been promoting itself as a location for seminars and small conventions of fewer than 300 people.

Scott Jacobs, the tourism officer with the Timmins Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the city had approximately 15 conventions in 1990, and he expects that the figure will increase slightly in 1991.

With only a single hotel able to accommodate conventions, Timmins relies on community facilities to provide full services to larger groups. Preliminary investigations into the feasibility of constructing a convention centre have begun, but in the meantime Jacobs feels the city's best strategy is to actively pursue smaller groups.

All five cities engage in some external promotion to encourage convention bookings, including travelling to trade shows and placing advertisements in key publications. But each emphasizes that the major thrust is with local groups which can influence their parent associations to choose the local city as a convention location.
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Author:Dunning, Paula
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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