“If you count Silo no. 5, Hangar 16 is one of the oldest structures in Montreal’s Old Port that’s still standing”. The red corrugated metal-faced building that proudly displays the SOS Labyrinthe logo, has stood in the Old Port for 106 years, and has become a very popular attraction in the area. And, “SOS Labyrinthe has resided here since 2015,” states Jean Perron, the man behind the SOS Labyrinthe venture. “In the 90’s, I was part of the team that established the Old Port of Montreal Society as the director of business and program development, among other roles. Some years later, from 2005 to 2007, I was general director of the Old Montreal SDC,” he explains. We think it’s safe to say that he knows le Vieux like the back of his hand!
Once we were comfortably settled inside of Hangar 15, we asked him how he was doing. “How am I? That’s a good question! Ha ha ha! Pretty well, given the times we live in.” COVID-19 had an immense impact on SOS Labyrinthe’s 2020 season. “Last year we had an exceptional summer! Our best up to that point! On Black Friday, we sold season passes for summer 2020. We were gearing up for another great season. Then March 13th: shut down! We had to stop everything.” After that, their telephone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. School groups, which normally make up around 15% of their clientele, cancelled their reservations. Its season opening was planned for April 27th to the end of October this year, and each year the labyrinth stays open throughout the week, primarily to serve their school clientele. Good year or not, an average of 15,000 students come to take on the obstacles of the labyrinth. But not this year. Of course, tourists won’t be coming to visit either. “Tourists represent 30% of our traffic. So, if you include the students, we’ve lost 45% of our visitors all at once!”
“We’ll be operating at a loss this year.” You may ask, Why open then? ”Because we’re crazy!” Mr. Perron exclaims. “To be an entrepreneur, you have to be passionate… and a little bit mad! For us, it wasn’t even a question: we would still open, that much was clear. We just didn’t know when.” The “when” finally came on June 27th. During the months of our forced closure, Jean and his team didn’t sit idly by: they took down all the canvases and deep-cleaned the facility, installed hand sanitizer dispensers, and creator David Trottier modified the course of the popular attraction by adding three roundabouts, designed to show visitors the way of traffic thanks to orange arrows on the floor. No more crossings or head-on collisions. The real feat of this complete overhaul is that the path to gather clues is not any easier: the right direction to walk may be indicated, but the maze’s solution is not!
“Obviously, there are costs and we have to accept that. But the positive in this situation is that it forced us to change and innovate,” Jean Perron clarified. He’s a man who clearly makes it a habit to find the good in anything and roll with the punches. He also notes that COVID also helped reinforce solidarity between the Gens du Vieux, as evidenced by the joint partnership between Old Montreal and the Old Port that took place this summer. He hopes that this partnership will grow and flourish, because “we are much stronger as a group.” This notion of teaming up is essential for him; after all, this experienced entrepreneur initiated the creation of the Old Port Sponsor Union, in order to consolidate and better promote the Old Port as a prime destination to visit. Mr. Perron and his team never lack for ideas! They declined to go any further, since everything is on ice for the time being, and they didn’t want to ruin the surprise!
While he is excitedly looking toward his future plans, he easily switches to talking about his past. Jean Perron remembers the Old Port before it became this wonderfully pleasant recreo-touristic destination. On the banks of the river, there were nothing but silos, much like the now celebrated Silo no. 5. It was in 1992, on the city of Montreal’s 350th anniversary, that the view-obstructing silos were torn to the ground, and sites like the Old Port and the Pointe-à-Callière museum were made archeological and historical sites. That’s when the Old Port became what it is today.
In 2014, SOS Labyrinthe’s business plan was all drawn up and accepted. In 2015, they opened the doors to Hangar 16. However, the labyrinth had existed long before, albeit in another form and under a different name. In fact, the concept of a labyrinth in the Old Port dates back nearly 30 years! The idea came from Paul Chartier, when he was on a trip to Japan with his son. They visited a labyrinth… and exited the maze pretty let down. The labyrinth wasn’t based around the notion of challenge. It was too simple and competitive, according to Mr. Chartier, who had the vision of building a labyrinth in the image of real life: full of obstacles, dead-ends, backtracks and detours, discoveries, and learning. SOS Labyrinthe was therefore constructed around this model of finding clues, and learning neat historical facts. All with the single goal of everyone winning at the end, both young and old alike.
When we asked Jean Perron what he hopes to see for the rest of 2020, he immediately expressed a wish to benefit the world: “A vaccine. Medicine to stop or better control COVID. I hope that public health and safety can return.” Then, he followed up with a wish for the community of le Vieux, in which he is very active: “There is such a huge potential” he enthused, while pointing at the map of the Old Port that spans the wall behind us. “We have to go forward. We need to work together with Tourism Montreal, hand in hand, and focus on the locals: attract people from here, entice them to come discover their historic neighbourhood and show them its uniqueness and magnificence.”
He personally wants Attractions SOS to get back to its cruising speed. “Perspective. You need to have perspective if you want to advance and get back on the highway!” For Jean, having perspective is what allows him to project his envisioned future and allows him to make decisions. And at the moment, that vision of the future is what is so hard to grasp, as COIVD is “like a dragon from hell!” It is terror-inspiring and we don’t have an easy way to subdue it… “but we’ll continue on like we have been, because we’re crazy! We have to act, we are too impassioned by what we do. We’re also thinking about international projects… We’ll work on it.” “Togetherness” is the keyword according to Jean Perron. Teaming up to move mountains. Having conversations together to find new ideas and establish partnerships that are profitable to all. Jean Perron is a man of vision, who is ready to see the “dragon” taken down, so that he can press on with all the projects that we can feel bubbling over in his mind.