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HATS looks to conventions to boost tourism industry.

HATS looks to conventions to boost tourism industry

Sault Ste. Marie's tourism industry is in transition.

According to Suzanne Curran of Hospitality and Travel Sault Ste. Marie (HATS), the area's major attraction is in peril, visitor counts are down nationwide, the city's main employer is in jeopardy and the local tourism industry is losing to its closest competitors.

But things are about to change, says Curran.

Under its mandate to assume a broad role in the planning, development and co-ordination of the travel industry, HATS is currently changing its focus to the convention trade and to selling the city to southern Ontario as a four-seasons destination.

HATS is looking for a 4.5-per-cent increase of its $338,000 budget this year, and the agency plans to increase spending on marketing to 65 per cent of its total budget.

Curran explained that every dollar spent on advertising and promotion generates $22 in tourism spending.

Tourism is the second largest industry in Sault Ste. Marie after Algoma Steel. It employs about 4,600 people in the city and another 2,400 in the surrounding area of Algoma.

Tourism employers make up 25 per cent of all businesses in Sault Ste. Marie. Annual taxes generated by those businesses are about $8.7 million.

At present, the city's immediate competitors, Sudbury and upper Michigan, are outspending Sault Ste. Marie on marketing and tourism development strategies.

Curran said 80 per cent of Sault Ste. Marie's tourism advertising is spent in the area of the U.S. which is within 500 miles of Sault Ste. Marie.

However, she admitted that the city is fighting an uphill battle attracting U.S. tourists because of non-competitive gasoline and retail prices in Canada.

Jim Bourque, an international economic development consultant in Sault Mich., said only a small portion of Michigan residents and tourists ever cross the border into Canada.

Bourque estimated that the Mackinaw Island tourist area directly south of Sault Ste. Marie attracts as many as three million visitors per summer season, but only 100,000 to 125,000 of those tourists travel north to Canada.

He speculated that more American tourists would travel north if they were aware of such attractions as the Agawa Canyon Train Tour, Lake Superior Provincial Park and St. Joseph Island.

However, Bourque agreed with Curran that Americans perceive prices to be much higher in Canada.

"It is a constant battle," said Curran. "It is just real hard to address."

As a result, greater emphasis will be placed on attracting tourists from southern Ontario.

As part of the scheme local tourism officials, including Curran, will step up their attendance at trade shows within the target area and offer more familiarisation tours for convention and meeting planners in order to showcase the attractions and accommodations in the Sault.

The strategy is already having a positive effect, according to Curran.

She said local convention trade during the first quarter of 1991 increased by one-third over the same period last year.

She expects that by the end of the year expenditures directly related to conventions will have reached $3.3 million, based on average daily spending per delegate of $125. It is anticipated that more than 13,300 conventioners will stay in the Sault for an average of two days each.

In addition, three conventions which are expected to attract a total of about 3,000 delegates have already been booked into Sault Ste. Marie for 1992.

The presence of such winter recreation opportunities as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and downhill skiing benefits the city's four-season convention business.

Searchmont Resort, located about 30 minutes north of the city, is an integral part of the marketing plan. The resort, which has undergone a $15-million expansion over the past five years, boasts 25 kilometres of cross-country trails, 17 downhill slopes, double, triple and quad chair lifts, night skiing, computerized snow making, a 20,000-square-foot base lodge and on-site villas.
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Title Annotation:Focus On Sault Ste. Marie; Hospitality and Travel Sault Ste. Marie
Author:McDougall, Douglas
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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