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Lessons learned from 9-11 can apply to current crisis

Tourist Information team leader looks back on events of Sept. 11, 2001
File photo shows International bridge. Truck drivers, unable to cross the bridge, were stranded and assisted by staff at the Sault Ste. Marie Ontario Travel Information Centre. Michael Purvis/SooToday

Sept. 11, 2001, is etched in the minds of a generation.

We all know where we were when news of the terror attacks on The World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon broke.

Most of us spent the day glued to the news reports, trying to comprehend what just happened. Others were called upon to roll up their sleeves and help out as best they could because it was their job and duty called.

That was the case for employees at Sault Ste. Marie’s Ontario Travel Information Centre on Queen Street.

Along with colleagues across the province, three Sault employees of the Ontario Travel Information Centre were recognized by Premier Dalton McGuinty as outstanding Ontario public servants.

Lorraine Duncan, Angela Romano and Janice Trainor were among the 2001 recipients of Amethyst Awards, which honour excellence in the Ontario Public Service.

“Their commitment to achieving service excellence was put to the ultimate test when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, started a travel crisis in Ontario,” said Premier Dalton McGuinty at the time.

“Thousands of panicked and stranded travellers were put at ease as the TIC staff stepped up to comfort them. They helped visitors get in touch with their families and aided truckers by monitoring the border crossings. Through it all, they showed diligence, compassion and good judgement.”

Romano is currently team leader at the centre. She was at home when the events started to unfold. On her drive into work, she knew it would be a day like no other.

“We showed them compassion and did our best to assist travellers during a time of uncertainty,” said Romano. “Our staff is known to be compassionate and we provide great service.”

Staff at the time helped truck drivers who were stranded and not able to cross the border. They brought them water, updates on the border situation and provided phones if they needed to call family.

The efforts reached all travellers in the city who had their plans disrupted. There were flights cancelled or grounded in the Sault.

They helped people find accommodations at hotels and rental cars for those travelling inside Canada. Travellers were given recommendations for restaurants and where to get groceries.

Because the centre is near the border, it’s a convenient place to use. It was also a comforting place.

“People tend to trust us because we are part of the Government of Ontario,” said Romano. She also said the personal face-to-face contact at the centre is something travellers appreciate.

The time of year made everything more challenging. “The fall is always super busy,” she said, pointing to the Agawa Canyon Tour train and fall colours viewing.

Staff at the centre are called travel counsellors and as counsellors, they encounter a wide range of people and problems. Sept. 11, 2001, was a huge event, but travellers need support on a regular basis.

“Oftentimes you have people come to the city when something unexpected happens,” said Romano. The unexpected could include car trouble or an emergency that requires them to get home quickly.

“They are just frazzled. We really aim to help people as best we can,” she said.

The centre is currently working with modified hours, Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

While 9-11 posed a problem with travellers stranded who could not cross the border to get home, the current COVID situation is keeping U.S. tourists out of Canada. It’s sent the tourism industry in a tailspin.

“It’s not been a good year, obviously,” said Beth Potter, President and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO).

The association expects to lose more than 58 percent of the estimated $36 billion in annual tourism receipts.

Potter, however, says Ontario’s tourism industry is resilient and it has faced challenges before.

A silver lining in the dark cloud is a jump in Ontarians exploring what their own province has to offer.

She said the month of August saw a lot of people out and about in Northern Ontario.

Businesses along the highway have done fairly well, but the more remote outfits are hurting.

“It’s like the childhood nursery rhyme, when you’re good, you’re very, very good; but when you’re bad, you’re awful,” said Potter.

“More people from southern Ontario are heading North, which is a great sign,” said Potter. There are many more staycations across Ontario overall which is a good sign.

Ontario’s tourist operators are looking at “how do we market ourselves so we don’t find ourselves in this predicament in the future,” said Potter.

She specifically pointed out that many new Canadians have been exploring what Northern Ontario has to offer.

She said it’s hard to tell how the fall colour season will go.

The Agawa Canyon Train is idle and Potter says there are not a lot of bus tours. However, she said some in the industry are looking at the traditional Snowbird market as potential fall colour tourists.

Instead of driving to Florida, drive north to see the colours,” she said.

Potter is optimistic the industry can build back better.

“We learn things after we go through challenging periods,” she said.