Businesses near LRT fully on board with free train passes for convention-goers

Ottawa Tourism pilot project aims to encourage out-of-town delegates to explore more of the capital
Etienne
Etienne Cuerrier of Hintonburg eatery Meat Press says a plan to provide convention-goers with free transit could help his business. File photo

Colin Knight figures he has just the thing for out-of-town delegates looking to let off some steam after a long, hard day on the convention floor. 

Knight is the general manager of LumberJaxe, an axe-throwing venue that opened this summer just west of Preston Street at the City Centre complex. The new facility has become a hit with workplaces seeking a fun, relaxing team-building activity. 

"It's different. It's not just about sharp axes and wood," says Knight, who estimates 90 per cent of his business in December came from corporate customers. 

"You get that first stick in the board and then you get better and better – it's addicting. You're allowed to kind of let loose a little bit and get a little primal, get some aggression out, some laughter, some fun, and just get better at something."

A five-minute walk from the Bayview LRT station at the junction of the Trillium and Confederation lines, LumberJaxe attracts a lot of axe-throwing enthusiasts who take the train, Knight says, adding City Centre's proximity to light rail was one of the main selling points of that location. 

Thanks to a new partnership between Ottawa Tourism and OC Transpo, LumberJaxe and other businesses near LRT stations could get an even bigger boost in 2020. 

As part of a year-long pilot project, Ottawa Tourism is providing free transit passes to delegates from about eight major meetings and conventions catering mainly to participants from outside Canada. Equipped with a smart card or a paper pass, users will be able to hop on the train or ride the bus as often as they want for the duration of their stay in the capital. 

Knight is a big fan of public transit and says any promotion that encourages visitors to leave their hotels and explore other parts of the city is a good thing for the tourism industry as a whole. 

"It really sort of changes the outlook people have and the fun that really can be had in Ottawa," he says. 

Ottawa Tourism vice-president of meetings and major events Lesley Mackay says out-of town visitors already pump $2.2 billion into the city's economy each year. With the new pilot program, "we have an opportunity to increase that (total)," she says. 

"I think it would be great for (convention delegates) to have more options than just attractions) in the immediate downtown core. If this allows them on a free night to get elsewhere, then we'd like to see that." 

Etienne Cuerrier, co-owner of Hintonburg eatery Meat Press, says he's already noticed a healthy spike in lunchtime traffic at his sandwich shop south of Bayview Station since the Confederation Line opened. He's hoping the new program will entice a few more hungry patrons to his restaurant, which has racked up rave reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor.

"I'm positive that this will make an impact on all the businesses (near LRT)," he says. "It does make it way more accessible for sure."

A few blocks away at Escape Manor on Wellington West, co-owner Steve Wilson says the new program will be "fantastic on many levels" for his thriving escape room. 

The trendy tourist destination already offers a portable version of the escape room experience in a "Maxwell Smart-style briefcase" that can be set up on convention room floors, but Wilson says he'd love to see more delegates actually venture out to one of the company's four Ottawa locations. 

"I'm positive that this will make an impact on all the businesses (near LRT)," he says. "It does make it way more accessible for sure."

"I'm positive that this will make an impact on all the businesses (near LRT)."

A few blocks away at Escape Manor on Wellington West, co-owner Steve Wilson says the new program will be "fantastic on many levels" for his thriving escape room. 

The trendy tourist destination already offers a portable version of the escape room experience in a "Maxwell Smart-style briefcase" that can be set up on convention room floors, but Wilson says he'd love to see more delegates actually venture out to one of the company's four Ottawa locations. 

Pathway to new business

"It's an ideal breakout for convention business, and it's a great excuse for them to get outside of the Shaw Centre or EY and come out and try something different, he says. Escape Manor is actively targeting that market segment, he adds, noting the company is doubling the size of its Hintonburg facility in January to accommodate more out-of-town adventure-seekers. 

As the second-coldest capital city in the world, Ottawa can be a tough sell for downtown convention facilities seeking to fill winter timeslots, Mackay notes. If the transit program gets the green light after the test phase, she and her industry cohorts are hoping more meeting planners from outside Canada might give the city a second look knowing delegates can shuttle throughout the central core in the relative warmth of an underground train tunnel.

"It allows event organizers to do things like have people stay at a hotel over near Lyon Station but attend sessions over at, say, the Shaw Centre ... completely painlessly just by tapping their card," explains Pat Scrimgeour, OC Transpo's director of transit customer systems and planning. 

“That's a great selling feature for us that we haven't had before," Mackay says. "This is kind of our new (underground) pathway, if you will." 

The passes will be embedded with a code that allows OC Transpo and Ottawa Tourism to track how often they're used and where passengers board the train. Mackay says it's too early yet to put a total price tag on the program, but she's confident the economic spinoffs it will help generate will be well worth the cost. 

"It's not a big financial burden," says Scrimgeour, adding that in the future the transit passes could be loaded directly on to delegates' registration cards or emailed to users before they arrive in Ottawa, allowing them to take the bus or, eventually, the train free of charge from the airport to their hotels. 

With LRT slated to expand farther east, west and south over the next few years, the program could turn sites outside the downtown core such as Algonquin College into viable meeting and convention centres, he adds. 

"We've got business partners who are keen on this, and they can see reasons for them as well as for the city why we should encourage this. There's all kinds of things we can do with it as it goes."