A biennial tradition on Manitoulin Island is changing its focus.
The 2017 Manitoulin Trade Fair attracted the usual large crowds to the NEMI Recreation Centre in Little Current to check out 125 vendor booths and tables of local and regional businesses and service groups.
As the eighth fair in 15 years, its theme is changing from catering to local residents to appealing to more of the cottage crowd at the outset of the summer tourism season.
“We wanted to change the fair to attract the people who are probably starting the summer by opening their cottages on the Island,” said manager Michael Addison on May 27.
“We get people from Sudbury and I had one man from Kitchener who came up because he heard of it.
“This fair really is about making people aware of the businesses and services that are available on the Island. They don't necessarily have to leave to go shopping, or stock up before coming here. We have a great variety of industry and business here.”
Event organizers also reach out to Indigenous-owned and operated businesses on the Island.
Addison said they have Your Dollar Store with More from Wikwemikong, Wikwemikong Tourism, Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute/Contact North, and Great Spirit Circle Trail, which offers nature-based and cultural tourism packages.
Addison said the businesses that come to the fair measure their success by their own standards.
It's not just about sales or the names they collect, it's an opportunity to see others and understand the region is a cluster of small communities that can benefit from working with each other.
“Service groups are here to spread awareness, and the businesses could have no sales, or it could be up to 30 per cent of their annual sales. “They could sell out or nothing at all,” Addison said.
“We have car dealerships here and if they sell a car, it's a huge success for them.”
One business that’s been a cornerstone vendor at the fair since the beginning is Manitoulin Chrysler in Mindemoya.
Owner Wayne Legge said his father started having a booth at the fair and he came along and started working for his father.
For Legge, the show isn't about selling cars, but letting people know they are here.
“People come in months later and they say they talked to us at the show,” he said. “It always has really helped us with reaching out to new and regular customers.”
For a few, it was also their debut.
One business, Island Box, was created by Julie Rochefort as a way for small businesses on the Island to advertise as part of a box-of-the-month club marketing campaign.
“I know so many great small businesses. So much talent and many people don't know they are here,” she said.
“I just came up with this idea, went on Facebook to see which businesses and artists were interested and got a lot of responses.”
The boxes have a monthly theme to incorporate crafts and even jewelry to showcase local artisans and small businesses. Her June box included camping-centred items like s'mores kits, water bottles for hiking, a beer glass, brochures and even jewelry.
Eventually, she will be offering personalized boxes for events and corporate retreats.
Another business making its debut was Island Outfitters, a merger of Island Adventure Outfitter and Island Home Outfitters.
Spencer Kenney – part of a team that includes Ryan Keller, Ashleigh Moffat-Keller, and Jennifer Moffat-Kenney – said they got together to make it easier for people seeking their products and boat and kayak rentals.
“The store location in Mindemoya has been open for three weeks, but the rental business has been going on for about three years,” he explained.
“This way people looking for our rentals, or to buy home décor and clothing can come to one place.”
Being at the trade fair was great exposure as large crowds came and went from their booth with items including lamps, recycled plastic chairs and branded clothes.
“It's making it easier for people to find us, which as a new business is a big help,” Kenney said. “We already had a lot of people say the will be stopping in at the store.”
The rental business has been home-based. While business was steady, he and his brother-in-law and wife believed they could do better if they had one large business centered around Island leisure.
“My wife had a knack for home décor and the rental business was doing great, but we thought a permanent location would be better, so we made it a go of it. Since this time last year, our rentals have increased and business is doing great already at the shop.”