Nearly a decade after it opened, the Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre is making a lasting mark on the area's bustling tourism industry while boosting prosperity for the region's Indigenous communities.
Located in Little Current on Manitoulin Island, the hotel features 58 guest rooms – including 47 standard rooms, four suites, and seven wheelchair-accessible/business suites – a 5,600-square-foot ballroom and conference centre, an outdoor pool, and a 40-seat patio where visitors can take in the waterfront view of Georgian Bay's North Channel.
North46 Restaurant, which offers casual fine dining for breakfast and dinner, incorporates local ingredients into its dishes, with a focus on Anishinaabe food: pan-seared Manitoulin whitefish and Anishinaabe tacos are among crowd favourites. The restaurant can also cater events.
Built with wood and stone from nearby communities, the décor incorporates elements of First Nation culture and design. The hotel's signature feature is its conical lobby area, designed to resemble a traditional Indigenous teepee and incorporating six large pillars to reflect the seven Grandfather Teachings.
A particular point of pride for the venture is that, in 2019, the hotel employed 78 people, 80 per cent of which identified as status First Nation.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to the hospitality industry, the hotel has recently reached an unexpected milestone: the years 2020 and 2021 were the best revenue-generating months in the hotel’s history, noted Corey Stacinski, the facility’s general manager.
"COVID has put a damper on a lot of things, but we continue to go onward and upward, and overall we're blown away with how successful we've been despite all the challenges in the last two years," he said.
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When it opened in 2013, the facility was the first new hotel to be built on Manitoulin in a century. But planning for the project actually began six years prior to that with an idea put forward by the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT), a former Indigenous-owned tour operation company that specializes in designing authentic Indigenous experiences.
Tourism-heavy Manitoulin Island, located in the upper end of Lake Huron, has a permanent population of about 13,000 people, but that balloons considerably during the summer months when visitors flock to the island to camp, boat, and frolic on its many popular beaches.
Over the years, the GSCT had developed a reputation as the go-to operator for travellers from around the world seeking signature cultural exchanges within the Island's Indigenous communities.
Believing it could build on its success, GSCT intuited that, by offering visitors premier accommodations, they might remain on the island longer, increasing their local spending and helping to spread awareness of what the area has to offer.
"We realize that what's good for Manitoulin Island in terms of attractions and visitor components benefits the hotel,” Stacinski said.
Taking a unique approach to ownership, the organization invited the area's First Nation communities to become co-owners in the endeavour. In the end, six joined GSCT on the project: Aundeck Omni Kaning, M’Chigeeng, Sagamok, Sheshegwaning, Whitefish River, and Wiikwemikoong.
Each partner contributed a portion of the $12.5-million price tag, and additional funding was secured from Aboriginal Business Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp.
In the early stages, there was talk of partnering with an established brand, but in the end, the stakeholders went with the belief that a unique 'Manitoulin’ banner would fare better amongst visitors to the region.
Nine years later, the hotel is busy and has earned a reputation for quality in its accommodations, food and hospitality.
In conjunction with GSCT, the hotel had found a niche providing guides for motor coach tours, where visitors can experience an onboard narrative of Manitoulin's rich history and an overview of the region.
They also developed exclusive itineraries for independent travellers, families and groups, with activities ranging from guided nature hikes to drumming and traditional teachings, a traditional Indigenous feast, and more.
Much of that activity petered out during the last two years of the pandemic, Stacinski said, but the hotel has made up for it in other ways.
In the early days of the pandemic, the hotel became the preferred accommodation for essential workers travelling through the area, he noted, and this past summer, it’s been a preferred stop for visitors from outside the region who felt safe travelling again.
“We hope that things get back to where they were with bus tours and weddings and group tours; however, in the same breath we're cognizant of doing the best we ever did, and we did no weddings, we did no bus tours, we did no highly discounted travel groups,” Stacinski mused.
“I find that very interesting from a higher level of analytics.”
Currently developing its first ever strategic plan, the hotel is exploring the possibility of incorporating an education element into its services.
Stacinski said that might involve offering Indigenous youth in the hospitality and tourism industries training and placement opportunities where they can hone their skills before starting their careers – or even their own businesses – in the industry that has really put Manitoulin on the map.
“We’re looking at using our four walls to our fullest capacity and not just being a hotel and convention centre.”
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