Many frequent business travellers to Thunder Bay know it's best to book a hotel room well in advance.
The city's usual day-to-day activity of serving as a regional hub for medical care, education, transportation and government means local hoteliers always see brisk business.
Now, throw in the growth of the mining industry, an expanding health sciences field and a frenetic meetings and conventions scene, and these properties can be bursting at the seams year-round.
According to PKF Consulting, the hotel number-crunching experts, Thunder Bay boasted an occupancy rate of just below 73 per cent in 2011, among the highest in Canada.
Three new hotels are coming onstream within two years, United Airlines starts direct flights into Chicago's O'Hare Airport in mid-February, and a municipal study is underway for a $106-million downtown arena and convention centre on a revitalized waterfront.
“It's created a buzz that helps us when we're trying to sell the city to sports and convention business planners,” said Tourism Thunder Bay manager Paul Pepe.
“We're not slowing down at all. Driving home I'm always thinking, what's the next big creative thing we're gonna do?”
Thanks to industry trade shows, the meetings and conventions represent a $35- to $40-million stake of the city's $127-million tourism sector.
And the major hotel chains are taking notice.
In the heart of the shopping district, the walls are going up on a 140-suite Marriott Hotel on the Harbour Expressway, scheduled for a late fall or early 2014 ribbon-cutting.
At Thunder Bay International Airport, a Hampton Inn is scheduled for groundbreaking sometime this spring on a $9-million, 75-room property that will open in early winter 2014.
At the Prince Arthur's Landing waterfront redevelopment, the foundations for a Delta hotel have been poured. Slated for a summer 2014 opening, the four-star, 150-room venue will feature 9,000 square feet of much-needed meeting space.
Existing hotel players continue to make ongoing investments.
Pepe points to the $5.9 million spent at the Valhalla Inn, the city's largest full-service hotel, on its guest room and facility renovations.
The rebranded Airlane Hotel (formerly the Travelodge) put $1.1 million into room and lobby upgrades, while the Victoria Inn has an expanded new ballroom that seats more than 700.
Strong air connections through Porter Airlines and Toronto, and now United Airlines with Chicago, are building tourism and economic opportunities for the city.
“The airport is such a huge asset to our competitive bidding abilities,” said Pepe, who was preparing in January to attend three outdoor shows in Chicago.
With its population base of 10.5 million, he was hoping to rekindle interest in the region from the hunting, fishing and adventure-seeking crowd that had dissipated after 9/11.
“The last couple of years with our convention strategy, we've kept it domestic but this opens things up.”
The department is partnering with groups like Sunset Country Travel Association to promote outdoor experiences like fly-in fishing and Lake Superior sailing charters to extend visitor stays.
“It's about making the pie bigger for everyone,” said Pepe. “You can't sell a square, windowless convention room anymore. You've got to sell the overall vibe of the area.”