Nowhere is the entrepreneurial spirit more evident than on Manitoulin Island, where an absence of big industry and a heavy reliance on tourism means innovation is a way of life. But how do they get that message across?
Enter the Manitoulin Trade Fair, a biennial showcase of Manitoulin businesses and services, hosted by the LaCloche-Manitoulin Business Assistance Corporation (LAMBAC), whose mandate is to promote SMEs in the region, and held at the rec centre in Little Current.
Initiated more than two decades ago by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, with assistance from LAMBAC and the Waubetek Business Development Corporation, the three-day event, held June 3-5 this year, is unique in that it caters solely to Manitoulin and North Shore businesses.
You'll find few big-name companies represented here. Instead, the event shines a light on Manitoulin's cadre of SMEs spread out across the 2,766-square-kilometre island. Home builders line up beside clothing manufacturers and chocolate makers, and entertainment from local bands and a variety of food vendors lend it a festive atmosphere.
The fair provides visitors a glimpse into the breadth of Manitoulin's expertise, said Louise McKeen, LAMBAC'S business services officer and one of the organizers.
“Certainly I've always found, and something I try to promote with businesses in the area that are considering (renting a booth at the trade fair), is that if I live in Kagawong, I might not necessarily drive to Manitowaning because I have the time to do that,” she said. “There are lots of times people say, 'Oh, I didn't know you did that. I didn't know you could get this here.'”
It's not uncommon for Islanders to travel to Espanola, Sudbury or Sault Ste. Marie to source goods and services, but there is a push to get the message across that many products can be accessed right on Manitoulin.
Supporting local SMEs means a boost to the local economy, which is largely dependent on a tourism industry that revolves around a short, four-month season.
“There's that idea that you always have to go off the Island,” McKeen said. “But more people are realizing that you can get a lot of services here and products are available to you, whereas you might not know where to go if you just jump in your car and drive.”
In 2007, LAMBAC took on the fair's organizational responsibilities full-time and decided to limit entries to Manitoulin and North Shore vendors. It's been a point of contention with businesses outside LAMBAC's catchment area—which stretches from the outskirts of Sudbury to Spanish on the North Shore—but organizers insist that's one of the fair's strengths.
“Usually we don't let any vendors from Sudbury into the fair, despite the fact that we've had lots of requests from Sudbury businesses to come in as exhibitors,” explained Mary Nelder, LAMBAC's general manager. “I'll bet if there's one there must be 25 or 30 Sudbury businesses that call.”
Many argue that the volume of business they do on Manitoulin warrants their inclusion, but organizers stand firm: they must have a location on Manitoulin or LaCloche to qualify.
“It's just not fair for the local businesses to compete,” Nelder said.
The road to trade fair triumph hasn't always been traversed with ease. In 2006, employees with the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands—the township that encompasses Little Current—went on strike, causing the fair's cancellation, and attendance numbers were down in 2009 after gale-force winds and torrential downpours put a damper on the festivities.
But organizers take the challenges in stride, tweaking the formula year by year to return the event to success.
In 2007, attendance numbers topped 10,000—the Island's off-season population is 15,000—and this year more vendors were located inside, making bad weather a non-issue.
At its heart, the trade fair is a small-town endeavour, infused with the close-knit community values for which Manitoulin is known. This year, organizers tapped into the local volunteer base for help running the show, and they made it a priority to honour a long-time fair vendor.
Jake Mackan, proprietor of Jake's Home and Sleep Centre out of Mindemoya, who recently lost his battle with leukemia, was a staple at the trade fair. He had regularly traversed the long stairway to the rec centre's upper level, which he turned into a furniture showroom, complete with sofas and big-screen TVs.
To pay him tribute, organizers invited Mackan's successor, Adam Smith, to cut the opening-day ribbon, officially kicking off the event.
It's that combination of expertise and small-town values that make the trade fair an event worth returning to, for visitors and vendors alike.
And businesses are seeing positive spinoffs.
“The vendors that come year after year, generally speaking, say they don't really expect to do big sales here, but they get great promotion here and then they see the sales come in six months, nine months, 12 months, or a year and a half later,” Nelder said. “It's worth their while, not necessarily because they sell so much when they're here, but there's all that spinoff and follow-up business that comes.”