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'On the map' for conferences

Renovated Kenora high school is a magnet for meetings

The pull of the tourism magnet to Kenora has gotten a whole lot stronger.

Since the opening of the Manidoo Baawaatig Event Centre in September, the venue has hosted “hundreds” of concerts, training seminars, and conferences and conventions ranging from groups of 20 to delegations of 300, according to facilities coordinator Mark Duggan.

The Event Centre is located at the Seven Generations Education Institute in Kenora, where the former Lakewood High School has been renovated floor by floor to provide updated classroom space for Indigenous adult learners.

The expansive space inside the 80,000-square-foot campus is also leased out to other organizations such as the Keewatin Patricia District School who generate their own conference traffic.

“We have tenants that hold a number of meetings that require our services,” said Duggan.

But he finds there’s plenty of outside conference business to chase as well. Duggan is a well-known figure in the local hospitality industry, including 20 years at the Best Western Lakeside Inn and Conference Centre.

He was teaching a housekeeping and front desk course at Seven Generations when the facilities coordinator position opened up.

“It is natural for me to be involved in the Event Centre because I’ve done that in the hotel business. I’m like a banquet and caterer manager.”

Solid Construction handled the $2-million renovation project which involved converting a high school gymnasium and the adjoining change rooms into a state-of-the-art premier meeting space.

The multi-purpose venue features retractable seating for 220 and room to seat 240 in round tables on the main floor. An upper mezzanine seating and dining level tops out capacity at 400.

“We have a 19-foot projector screen so people can see what’s going on,” said Duggan. “The facility’s flexible, that’s what I like about it."

Duggan gave his input on the venue’s design.

“We worked very closely with the architect (David Nelson) on the whole thing. I wanted to make it acoustically perfect. That was a big thing with different conferences. We want to be able to put a variety of different functions.”

The Wi-Fi enabled and licensed facility includes a sound system that can hook up 12 microphones for events like political debates. A separate room just off the main floor holds a 25-person tech centre with an 84-inch Smart TV that’s used for training and meetings.

“Technically, the conference centre is set up exactly for what people need,” said Duggan.

The former gymnasium windows, installed in the 1950s, were uncovered to provide a sun-splashed environment with the ability to raise or lower the blinds.

On-site catering is available through the training institute which offers a culinary program with two chefs on board that can provide a full range of menu and five-course dinner options that can cater to any client’s tastes.

Duggan said the feedback he’s gotten from people who’ve toured the venue indicate “we did it right.”

“We’ve had our open house, and we’ve shown people what the place looks like and what we can do.

“And that’s just taken right off, all kinds of training is going on right here.”

During a 15-minute phone interview, Duggan received three queries asking for three different dates, “including today at noon. I’ve got events going on every day.”

With the largest hotel meeting space in town limited to a capacity of 250, there’s been talk of establishing a conference centre in the scenic northwestern Ontario community for years as it aims to market itself as a four-season tourism destination.

“People have been looking for a place like this for a long time,” acknowledged Duggan. “Kenora people have always gone out to different meetings in Ontario and Canada. Now we can say, why not come to Kenora; we have the facilities to do that.”

With Winnipeg less than a two-hour drive away, Duggan said there’s no reason why they can’t siphon off conference business from Manitoba and combine it with some tourism packages.

In February, the event centre is hosting Hockey Day in Canada with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean in attendance. Three hundred are booked for a sold out sit-down “shore lunch.”

“Rotary (District 550), for instance, hasn’t held a conference in Kenora since Minaki Lodge. They are coming here in May with 300-plus people.

“Now you can put Kenora on the map for things that you could never do before.”

Heading into 2017, Duggan said the plan is to generate more awareness of the Event Centre, pursue larger events, and provide an incentive to make local events bigger, such as the chamber of commerce awards.