Participants came from across Canada, the United States, even South Africa. It was a three-day conference of 75 people to discuss meeting and “facilitating change.” And yet the conference’s best example of change might be where it happened.
Gone were the stale, early morning buffets in drab hallways, the stuffy hotel meeting rooms, and overpriced minibars. In their place: the entire village of Mahone Bay – a picturesque town of 900 on Nova Scotia’s South Shore first settled in 1754. A familiar scene to those who don’t live there may be the three churches nestled at the head of the cove the town overlooks, an image captured on many postcards and calendars.
Bed and breakfasts hosted the participants, while local restaurants fed them. Meetings were held in the community centre.
“Many conferences that I have previously attended have been somewhat impersonal affairs, dry and frankly bordering on the unfriendly,” said Robert Volkwyn, who attended from South Africa and was billeted in a local home. “Being somewhat reserved, the setting helped me settle right into the swing of things.”
The May conference was the test of a concept conceived by a local entrepreneur. Tim Merry’s “village as a venue” idea turns the entire town into a destination for conferences by coupling its tourist infrastructure with the spaces found in any rural community – church and fire halls, community centres, legions. He hopes it will bolster visits to the town in the spring and fall, when tourism rests somewhere between slumber and dormancy.
He considers it “the Airbnb of the convention and conference centre circuit.”
Many rural communities in Nova Scotia are searching for ways to halt an economic ebb that has caused communities such as Springhill to amalgamate with more resilient municipalities. Traditional industries, like forestry, farming and fishing, have suffered. Tourism, a revenue source the province turned to decades ago, contributes 2 per cent to the province’s GDP. It is seasonal, however, with most visitors showing up in the summer.
Mahone Bay is doing better than many communities, in part because it is near Halifax, and also because it has created a tourism niche for itself. The town has some manufacturing and many small businesses catering to the tourists who flock here in July, August and September. But come October, most of the nine bed and breakfasts close until May. Restaurants reduce their hours and trim their staff, or shutter for long hiatuses in the winter.
Mr. Merry thinks his idea is a model other communities could employ. According to the Nova Scotia Tourism Agency, the province nets more than $2-billion in revenues annually through tourism, and it creates 24,000 direct jobs.
Mr. Merry, a meeting facilitator, came up with the notion after holding meetings in venues around the world.
“So it suddenly hit me that all of the facilities we needed to run a really great event were in the village,” said Mr. Merry, who was born in Nova Scotia when his father was stationed there with the Royal Navy, but raised in England. He moved back to Nova Scotia 11 years ago, and has called Mahone Bay home for six years.
The meeting happened at the Mahone Bay Centre, which has meeting rooms, offices, and The Hub, a work space for entrepreneurs that Mr. Merry helped set up. Mateus Bistro, a restaurant that attracts diners from Halifax, organized the food for the morning and afternoon snacks, lunches and dinners, along with Rebecca’s, a new restaurant overlooking the cove that is popular with locals.
Mr. Merry said his business could bring one to two conferences a year to Mahone Bay, but he would like the town to have three to four.
Pam Birdsall, who is from Mahone Bay, attended the conference. Her take is that those who travelled to the meeting appreciated the “human scale” of Mahone Bay and the authenticity of the experience.
“People felt really good about these two young restaurateurs bringing in the food. It wasn’t some big catering thing from a hotel,” Ms. Birdsall said. “Everything was slightly highlighted. There were spotlights on the things that would normally happen in a big venue. They had a brighter light and a more engaging connection for people.”
Ms. Birdsall is co-owner of Birdsall Worthington Pottery, a well-known shop on the main street. She said the store had an uptick in traffic for the time of year during the three days of the conference.
Mr. Merry’s dilemma is how to proceed. “Is this something whereby we need to get everybody together and get everybody on board. Or is this like something where we just need to move it forward and people begin to benefit as a result. Then that builds momentum,” he wonders.
Editor's note: Incorrect references to Mahoney Bay have been corrected in this version.