For conference and convention organizers seeking something different for their attendees, they might consider a visit to the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.
Only in Sault Ste. Marie are you greeted, at one end of the museum, with a view of the St. Marys River, and a bright, canary-coloured de Havilland DHC-3 Otter bushplane at the other.
It’s a bit of Northern intrigue the museum is banking on to attract clients in its emerging role as an event venue.
In 2004-2005, when tourism was taking a nosedive and fewer visitors were passing through the hangar doors, the Bushplane transformed itself from a heritage centre and museum into an events site that can host up to 300 people.
The lingering scare of terrorism, rising fuel costs and a passport requirement have shooed away many of the American visitors the non-profit facility relied on as its primary source of patronage, said Edie Suriano, the centre’s marketing and promotions co-ordinator.
“Tourism is starting to pick up a little bit more, but whether it'll go back to the heyday that it was years ago, that's tough, so to rely on admissions coming to any museum is very difficult right now,” she said. “A lot of museums are going the same route we are here and are doing other events to have a little bit more income coming in.”
The Bushplane has already been established as the destination of choice for visitors to the city, and attendance numbers for the first quarter of 2012 are 70 per cent higher than the same period in 2011. It’s an encouraging figure, but with almost exclusive reliance on private funding—the museum does receive some money from the municipality—it has had to be more creative in its fundraising efforts.
Boasting 6,500-square feet of indoor event space, which can fit up to 300 people comfortably, conference organizers can also rent the Ranger Theatre, one of three at the museum, which seats 68. The hangar doors can be opened for outdoor events, growing the space to 8,500 square feet; a shared outdoor-indoor space means never having to worry about inclement weather, Suriano said.
Prices are reasonable, she added, and clients can bring in the caterer of their choice.
The variety of events hosted by the centre is impressive: a dental conference, a Great Lakes Power meeting, the Festival of Beer, a wedding trade show, Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) conferences and the airport commission conference, along with a number of weddings.
This year, the centre is ramping up its marketing efforts, offering incentives to visitors who book an event there.
“When they do rent here, whether it's for a wedding or a party or a conference, they're renting the whole Bushplane, not just a big empty space,” Suriano said. “So we encourage them to go through the museum while they're here; that's why they come here.”
Featuring a fleet of more than two dozen fully accessible bushplanes, the centre additionally hosts a number of exhibits on aviation, including an aviation hall of fame, a flight simulator and displays on Canadian aviators such as Dr. Roberta Bondar.
Ultimately, the hope is that people will have such a good time at their event they’ll spread the word, returning with their families and friends for future visits.
And though the museum’s attractions will appeal to those interested in the heritage of the Northern Ontario bushplane industry, firefighting and related themes, Suriano emphasized clients don’t need to have an association with that part of Canadian heritage to find value in the centre’s amenities.
“You don't necessarily need a tie-in to do with planes, although the MNR do come in here,” she said. “We want everybody to experience a great place, so we're trying to get the word out to come here for your conference.”