Witch Balls, Alpacas, Nordic Walks, & Geodesic Domes: Which of These 101 Experiences Will You Try?
There are few better ways to appreciate the unique attractions of a destination than to ask a local. That concept is taken a step further by 101 Experiences, a curated collection of activities based in Northeastern Ontario created and run by individuals passionate about their region and eager to share with others.
Whatever their group size or interest—nature photography, sound baths, an outing with alpacas—visitors will spend memorable afternoon or evening experiencing something new in the company of a Northeastern Ontario local.
101 Experiences is the brainchild of Temiskaming Shores native Nicole Guertin, an entrepreneur and co-founder (with partner Jocelyn Blais) of Les Suites des Presidents, a collection of historic homes made available to visitors seeking unique accommodations.
“Nicole was operating these guest houses and guests would say, ‘what is there to do here?’’’ says Abby Cook, tourism development consultant for 101 Experiences. “She knew there was so much potential, so many people who had skills and passions directly related to a Northern Ontario experience.”
Guertin determined that with a little guidance, these creative locals could develop their interests into unique experiences for visitors. With this idea and funding thanks to a government grant, 101 Experiences was born. In 2019, Guertin and her team began taking applications and reaching out directly to those they knew had interests or skills that could work well for the program.
Initial Demand Driven by International Visitors
But the timing of the initial launch proved ill-fated, coming in March 2020, just as restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic made gathering in groups all but impossible. The 101 Experiences team shifted to online training for hosts, and helping them develop programs for virtual audiences. Workshops began in November 2020, as prospective hosts were grouped into cohorts of several individuals, where they bounced ideas off one another and refined the concept of their programs.
Each determined the best length of the experience and set their own price, with all the money going back to the hosts themselves. After developing their program, the hosts were then able to share them on Airbnb Experiences, expanding their audience even further and helping attract international viewers.
In the spring of 2021, as hosts began to welcome their first guests, they found demand was actually higher than expected.
“We saw a lot of international traffic during our virtual campaign—people from England, from Mexico, from the Philippines, from Australia, tuning in to our hosts’ experiences,” says Cook. “People wanted to experience Northeast Ontario and Canadian culture, and wanted to see what it’s all about even if they could not travel here themselves at that time.”
For example, one experience host who had initially planned a farmer’s market experience for attendees shifted to a “Canadiana in the Kitchen” workshop, teaching attendees how to cook several local dishes. An exploration of sustainable farming in North Bay became a virtual geodesic dome tour.
Finally Ready for Face-to-Face
After the “virtual launch,” 101 Experiences was able to finally operate in-person in June 2021, and currently offers 25 live experiences. These are organized into roughly eight categories, such as “Food & Drink,” “Arts & Culture” and “Wellness.”
In the interim, Guertin was awarded the 2021 Desjardins Group Excellence Award for her work helping to elevate the hospitality offerings of the region and helping to spread her passion for sharing the region with others. However, she had to retire from operating Experiences 101 due to health issues, putting in place a team to ensure the program could continue in her absence.
On October 18th, Guertin passed away peacefully surrounded by her family and friends. While her loss has been difficult for 101 Experiences and the whole Northeastern Ontario community, it has given the organization’s members a renewed sense of purpose.
“Before Nicole left, she ensured that each member of 101 Experiences had a job to do, and we are all looking forward to carrying on Nicole's legacy and seeing through her final big dream,” says Cook. “Before Nicole's departure, she created the Niska Entrepreneurial and Leadership fund, to help support entrepreneurs and social enterprises that need support and funds to reach their dreams. Nicole's final wish was that in lieu of flowers and gifts, donations be made to her fund, to help big dreamers make those dreams reality.”
Following Guertin’s vision for 101 Experiences, the program not only enhances tourism offerings for Northeastern Ontario but also works to cultivate inclusivity, working closely with the local Indigenous and Francophone communities. This includes collaborating with an Indigenous advisory committee when developing programs related to these interests, ensuring the instructors are Indigenous themselves and that the content is appropriately presented for educational purposes. Activities include a workshop on “Tipi Protocols and Teachings” led by Lynne Cormier, an Anishnawbe Kwe from Matachewan First Nation, as well as a session on “Teachings of the Dream Catcher.”
Not Just for Tourists
The 101 Experiences are also opportunities for locals to get a better sense of what’s in their own backyard and for newcomers to get to know their neighbours. For example, an experience host has developed a historical and geological tour through Ken Ross Park in Kirkland Lake of “Secrets of the 2.6 Billion-Year-Old Rocks.”
“A big thing that we saw in the development and taking stats is that a lot of people come here, but if they don't find that sense of community, they leave. So this is a way to help integrate that in,” says Cook.
The program incorporates experiences from Temiskaming to Hearst, Kirkland Lake to North Bay, and now covers much of Northeastern Ontario.
Hosts are encouraged to develop programs for each season or at least cold- and warm-weather variations. In warmer months, groups can take a standup paddleboard outing and shift to an ice skating, antique snowmobiling, or “winter yoga” experience once temperatures drop (Cook expects for the full slate of winter activities to be up on the site in November). The experiences may also be holiday-themed—in October, Cook teaches a “Witch Balls & Beer: Women in Brewing” experience through North Bay’s Gateway City Brewery.
Keeping it Personal
These experiences generally aim for groups of six to 10 people, to ensure a personal touch, but ultimately it’s the host’s decision on what they are comfortable with or believe would best suit the content. Some hosts can handle as many people as space allows, others may be willing to provide an experience to an audience of one—Cook recommends just reaching out to the experience host with any special requests. Ultimately, she says, 101 Experiences is a way for locals to share what they love with others.
“The first thing we're looking for is passion for the subject matter and for sharing,” says Cook. “As long as they have that passion, even if it's quirky, chances are someone else also loves that thing as well.”
She gives the example of the “Body and Soul Alpaca Walk” in Timmins, hosted by the owner of a local alpaca farm, not only giving visitors a chance to spend some time with some adorable animals but also connecting the experience to mindfulness and the outdoors. Or there’s the historic tour of the century-old Haileybury Golf Club in Temiskaming Shores.
“Jean-Pierre Rivet, the host, has written a book about the course and has developed an experience where he takes you through the course, and at each hole, he tells you the history of maybe a landmark at that site, or the Indigenous history in the area, and at the end, he takes you into the clubhouse and you get to grab a drink,” says Cook. “It’s not your everyday experience, but if you’re a golfer in Southern Ontario looking for a new course to go to, you see that and go ‘that sounds really interesting,’ and it would bring you our way.”
For more info and to choose your own experience in Northeastern Ontario, visit 101 Experiences today!