NORTH BAY -- In an effort to spark new ideas and help grow the tourism experience in northern Ontario, a special edition mentorship and grant program was launched on Tuesday.

The program is in partnership with Designation Northern Ontario, Tourism Excellence North and the Ontario Tourism Innovation Lab. Although a new addition to support businesses during a particularly challenging time, program lead with Ontario Tourism Innovation Lab Justin Lafontaine said it builds off previous spark programs.

"The goal is to encourage small business owners across the north to come forward with some new innovative ideas on how they might re-image or expand their tourism business or offerings to attract new markets and new visitors in response to the pandemic impacts and in regards to evolving travel landscapes going forward," Lafontaine said.

Applications are open from Feb. 16 until March 19. Find more information here.   

Although a new version of the program, similar spark programs have been helping businesses since 2018.

"We have an amazing diversity in terms of who our applicants are as well as their ideas," said Lafontaine. "We have had ideas about re-imaging space or venues in certain areas, creating new tourism experiences, new partnerships. We have a number of new indigenous tourism programming ideas and experience that were awarded and lots of others [like] culinary tourism, cultural tourism, you name it."

This is the first time that the program has been open to the entire northern Ontario region and officials are hoping to receive between 25 and 35 applicants.

"Three winners will be selected," Lafontaine said. "Each will receive a $3,000 grant. They’ll be matched with a tourism mentor and they’ll receive additional in-kind services bundle from Tourism Excellence North valued at over $9,000."

Three other businesses will also be matched up with a mentor.

"We will also have three runners up who will receive another package of support through mentorship and through that Tourism Excellence North in-kind package," he said.

The application process includes a 1,000-word minimum response to eight questions and a one-minute introduction video. A Dragon’s Den-style pitch session will be held to select the winners.

"Innovation is key to industry competitiveness and success," said Destination Northern Ontario Executive Director David MacLachlan in a media release. "It is more important now than ever to enable the region’s tourism entrepreneurs, businesses and operators to respond, adapt and recover as a result of the global COVID-19 crisis."

With the pandemic still a factor right now, Lafontaine said the program focuses on the early stages, making it so businesses can be ready to go when tourism starts up again.

"We really focus on that early stage, so we're encouraging people to come forward with those ideas, sparking those ideas and then working with them through the grant, the mentorship to help move them to the next level," he said.

"So within the next year, they’ll have developed their idea. Maybe there’s an opportunity to launch depending on what the status or the scenario is in the province in the coming months. But again, we’re at that early stage, so we’re keen to support and help them develop and move forward with the idea so they can launch sometime in the near future."