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Paul Brokenshire’s message to visitors: look beyond the image
Poor old Sudbury. Nowhere else in the country has been as much maligned. Polluting smokestacks, acid rain, nickel mines, labour unrest and a scarred landscape resembling the backside of the moon, are all indelible images branded into the Canadian psyche, whenever anyone mentions Sudbury. A public relations nightmare.
And yet the city with the bad rep has a convention and visitor’s department, whose mandate is to attract conventions sporting events, trade shows and special events.
According to Paul Brokenshire, its manager: “Absolutely, one of my major hurdles is overcoming the negative views that the national media routinely portray about Sudbury. My job has always been an uphill battle with this city’s negative image.”
He concludes that over the past 20 years, he has heard all the jokes and putdowns; but he soldiers on, while he and the city politicians politely laugh all the way to the bank. The convention and sporting events industry brought in about $38-million for the local community in 1996.
Armed with an engaging 22-minute video on the positive aspects of the city, professional brochures and a handy compact disc for the computer literate, Mr. Brokenshire has managed to do the near impossible: aggressively market Sudbury as a viable destination, in the multibillion-dollar convention and sporting event industry. How on earth does he do it?
“We are a medium-sized city [population 164,000] with an outdoor atmosphere, combined with urban amenities,” he said. “For instance, we have 33 lakes within the boundaries of the city of Sudbury, and convention delegates often go fishing or boating on these lakes. That’s one of my major selling points. Plus we are a convenient jumping off point to some of Northeastern Ontario’s most popular wilderness areas, and many conventioneers routinely take advantage of that.”
There’s more. “Ask any convention delegate or sporting participant after they visit Sudbury for the first time and you will find how surprised and delighted they are to have experienced our northern hospitality. And almost every time, they are also totally amazed that the city’s natural surroundings are as green and forested as they are, as opposed to some blackened moonscape image they previously thought existed here.”
Indeed, over the past 20 years, Sudbury has gone from ugly duckling to something of a swan. Substantial pollution-abatement programs at the two major mining giants, Inco and Falconbridge, in combination with massive revegetation programs, that have won the city many international awards, have dramatically improved the natural environment.
In addition, economic diversification, a burgeoning cultural scene and an expanding retail sector, with $120-million worth of new construction under way, make this city the regional service centre for Northeastern Ontario.
“Sudbury’s reputation has improved greatly as a host site for conventions and sporting events as witnessed by repeat business and our more positive status within the hospitality industry,” Mr. Brokenshire said, adding quickly, “Plus our quality of service, excellent sporting facilities and our lower costs.”
There is no doubt that compared to major urban centres, the cost of doing business in this northern community 400 kilometres north of Toronto is substantially less expensive. But Mr. Brokenshire could also add that the civic pride and devotion most Sudburians feel towards their community, is also a valuable selling point. They defend their town every chance they get, and constantly complain that the national media unfairly pick on the city.
In fact, the local population has a friendly, small-town attitude.
Last week’s Canadian Special Olympics Summer Games brought about 4,000 participants and visitors to the city and left behind almost $4-million in economic benefits.
Jim Jordan, the event’s president, agrees that smaller centres such as Sudbury show an extraordinary good will toward worthy causes and the spirit of voluntarism seems much more prevalent. “In many respects, communities of this size are ideal for a large sporting event,” he said. “We don’t get lost in the shuffle and the local media give us tremendous support and coverage. They really roll out the red carpet.
When Mr. Jordan first met Mr. Brokenshire, “he was trying to determine if my organization would be interested in coming to a city the size of Sudbury, and at the same time he was trying to sell the community to us. We had a huge degree of comfort in coming to Sudbury, due to the city’s past history of hosting the Ontario’s chapter’s special Olympics in 1993, and we were very impressed by the high caliber of sporting facilities throughout the city.”
Recently, Mr. Brokenshire confirmed the biggest catch of his career: an annual First Nations hockey tournament that is expected to generate $25-million for local businesses over six years.
After 20 years of promoting Sudbury, its’ “negative image” has almost become secondary. His only real long-term problem is the city’s lack of a major convention facility. In a perfect world, a centre that could accommodate, “feed and meet” 1,200 people would open up a much larger market for Sudbury and all of Northern Ontario. It would be a big boost to the tourism industry, but that has to wait until the economy improves.
In the meantime, Mr. Brokenshire presses on. “We know the city has done a great job, due to the fact that many conventioneers return with their families for vacations. We are slowly but surely changing the negative perception most Canadians have of our wonderful, friendly little city, one delegate or visitor at a time.”