Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers 36,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space as well as stunning views and world-class skiing in the winter. In the summer, attendees can participate in activities such as hiking, canoeing and more.
We had to change from Mounties — [they’re] not sexy enough,” says Chantal Sturk-Nadeau, executive director, Business Events Canada, says of Canada’s image. “It’s not just the landscape and nature. That was not resonating enough with [attracting] meetings. We had to change the story: Why would you choose Canada over the US? Why and how?”
So Business Events Canada (BEC), a division of Destination Canada, set out to organize strategic partnerships with meetings organizations such as Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and incentive houses. BEC also created priority economic sectors to align with certain cities and lure meetings that would lead to foreign investment — and the other way around.
“It’s a long game to attract the C-suite, not just the day-to-day of where meetings are hosted to grow business in Canada,”
Just an hour and a half from New York City by air, Montréal feels like a European getaway but with a much more favorable exchange rate. Even in the heart of winter, the 2.5-mile Promenade Fleuve-Montagne walkway calls on attendees to bundle up for a walking tour from the river to the mountain thanks to clear signage all along the route.
For foodies, there is dry-aged beef at Maggie Oakes in Old Montréal, longtime favorite Schwartz’s Deli for smoked meats and Au Pied de Cochon for an upscale, playful version of Québécois specialties beyond poutine. The restaurant offers an especially popular traditional sugar shack meal during maple syrup season.
“It’s an electric city that’s got a great vibe,” says Jeffrey M. Weinman, principal, Summit Event Management, Inc. His client of 17 years, a Fortune 100 company, in August was looking for a “new and exciting destination that would motivate, be easy to work with and have cultural areas” for an incentive meeting of some 400 attendees and their spouses.
Montréal fit the bill, and not just anywhere in Montréal: Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. “We did a site inspection, and it was the best value for that fit. One property would have been a better value dollar-wise, but the flow wouldn’t have worked. It was important to get that ‘wow’ factor.”
That factor involved, as it so often does, getting the food and beverage (F&B) right by spending time with the chef to “touch on things Montréal is famous for and that we know our people like.” Results: buckets of fresh, hot French fries made with different types of potatoes; a make-your-own poutine station with several gravies, cheese curds and pulled pork; and a grilled cheese night with various cheeses and fillings in a panini maker.
At the welcome reception, performers from Montréal-based Cirque Éloize put on a show in the hotel’s 21st-floor C2 Space, with its windows that overlook the city, a roof deck, patio and removable furniture for an arrangement that can accommodate up to 220 attendees.
“We set it up reception-style, with a stage, a contortionist and juggler. The entertainment right away as you walk in was a woman with a giant Hula-Hoop, then a rolling skating duo on a 6-foot [high] circular stage.”
For the general welcome reception, Weinman and the hotel agreed to combine rooms with multimedia takes on old and modern Montréal on pillars, walls and ceilings. “They were wonderful in making it appetizing for us,” he says. “It just set the weekend; it was the exclamation point on the weekend.”
He also provided attendees with a Passport MTL card good for 48 hours so they could experience the city in their own way, with free unlimited transportation and 28 attractions discounted or free.
Weinman says the people of Montréal, both in the meetings industry and the residents themselves, seem very welcoming and open.” They immediately change to English from French; no attitude about not speaking the language,” he says. “[I’m] hearing from the C-levels what a great job we’ve done and how much people are enjoying it; watching people’s reactions to everything that’s going on — that makes all the work worth it.”
The Vieux-Québec area’s undisputed shining city on the hill continues be the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which under various management has been wowing visitors since it opened in 1893. For a 250-attendee convention of doctors in June 2018, the F&B team whipped up a themed menu where each course and cocktail was based on a Beatles song. There was soup in a 1970s beer can, Sergeant Pepper beef, Lady Madonna trout and a cake the shape and color of a yellow submarine. The G7 meeting of seven industrialized democracies, as it happens, was in town at the same time, creating more security without actually interrupting the festivities.
“I used to work with the Canadian Embassy in Paris; this evening reminded me of this,” a planner summed up. “If you think it’s something a hotel can’t do, Frontenac can do it.”
Also in Old Québec is the Hôtel Manoir Victoria, with 156 rooms and meeting/banquet space for 175 attendees. The onsite restaurant, Chez Boulay-Bistro Boréal, serves cuisine it describes as “Nordic” — local Québec fish, duck terrine, blood pudding and bison tartare.
Another hotel, The Relais & Châteaux Auberge Saint-Antoine has several meeting rooms as well as jazz nights at its Bar Artéfac.
The Québec City Marriott Downtown is, like the rest of Old Québec, within walking distance from the Québec City Convention Centre. The center can accommodate up to 9,000 attendees and connects by underground walkway to the Hilton Québec and Delta Hotels by Marriott Québec. After a day of meetings, attendees can amble over to the Plains of Abraham or Le Musée du Chocolat, which offers history and artifacts of chocolate making going back 200 years. Get the chocolate, of course, at the adjacent chocolatier, Érico.
Planners looking for an unusual incentive space can do as a Portland, OR-based IT start-up did for its September 2018 annual retreat of 65 attendees: stay at a monastery. Le Monastère des Augustines is a converted monastery built in 1639 that offers a complimentary breakfast, yoga and meditation, and “cozy” monks’ cells. It has Wi-Fi, but no TVs.
“[The IT start-up attendees] were looking for something a little more exotic, boutique, with a full buyout, that has more character than a generic hotel,” the planner says of the group. “They chose Québec City as the right mix of a small, walkable place but at same time enough variety about the property.”
Some of that variety included La Revanche, a snacks, beer and board games spot in the old city, as well as a nearby BeaverTails food truck serving up Canadian “queues de castor” — large, flat pastry in the shape of the rodent’s tail to which any number of sweet topping and/or fillings can be applied. As a team-building exercise, curling was the sport of choice, with a rink, workshop and tournament outside; in September, that was still possible.
The monastery has a chapel area that can be used as a meeting space, along with a restaurant, catering and banquet menus that can provide, as it did for this group, a poutine station.
“We were surprised how affordable things were,” the planner noted. Still, he acknowledges that the language barrier, lack of “lift” comparable to other cities and weather unpredictability can be a challenge for some. “Québec has a very rich and palpable personality; take advantage of the fact that it’s a unique destination — language, food, people, history — do the best to unearth and share that.” Planner tip: “The safety net of a local DMC helps with transfers, so you don’t have to do it in Québécois French.”
With 192,000 sf of meeting space 20 minutes from Ottawa International Airport, and a bridge leading directly to the 492-room Westin Ottawa and gigantic CF Rideau Centre shopping mall, the Shaw Centre is probably Ottawa’s most obvious draw for meeting planners. It can and will host anything from a Parent & Child Show to a Cannabis and Hemp Expo (complete with a bake lounge) with the same degree of verve. The center’s four levels all overlook the city’s Rideau Canal, which during Canada’s frigid winters famously transforms into the Rideau Canal Skateway. Attendees can glide along the world’s largest skating rink — it’s 4.8 miles long — for 24 hours a day in season.
The Delta Hotels by Marriott Ottawa City Centre provides just more than 24,000 sf of meeting space. Though it’s not specifically offered as such, an enterprising planner might find the outdoor rooftop terrace just the thing for a small gathering in kind weather.
Cher, Def Leppard and Michael Bublé are just a few of the 2019 headliners at the Canadian Tire Centre, about a 15-minute drive from the downtown area. Among the sports bars and casual dining spots at the hockey arena is The Vault, the private dining space in the members-only Club Red steakhouse that promises select attendees some face time with the chef and sommelier. The nearby Sens House Sports Bar & Grill in the Byward Market offers fans who can’t make the hockey match an authentic arena experience; this one complete with a 1,500-sf portion of the dining room with a retractable roof and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Ottawa is also home to the National Gallery of Canada, which will soon exhibit among many other things, the portraits of Paul Gauguin and International Indigenous Art Exhibition 2019, and home to the National Arts Centre, celebrating 50 years.
Tips from a planner who has met often in the city: “Morning runs along the Ottawa River over the bridges are what makes Ottawa, Ottawa. The airport is well-designed but busy; consider flying to Montréal and driving in.”
Home to Canada’s three largest hotels — the 1,590-room Chelsea Hotel, Toronto; the 42-story, 1,377-room Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel; and the 1,365-room Fairmont Royal York — Toronto has also become a kind of watchword for “multicultural.”
That’s one of its many draws for Brianna Mark, CMP, senior event planner, Internal Communications, with Mozilla Corporation. “Even if not backed by fact, people feel safer traveling into Canada than the U.S.,” she says, an especially important consideration for Mozilla, where some 50 percent of employees work remotely all over the world.
To keep people connected, Mozilla holds an “all hands” event every June and September, remassing its far-flung workers for five days of togetherness. In June, some 1,400 attendees will converge in Toronto, where Mozilla has one of its nine offices.
“The exchange rate is always in our favor,” Mark says. “There’s really good airlift from most of our destinations, the airport to the core is easy and the city is walkable and safe. Toronto is on our list every single time we source. It’s a natural fit; a cultural match for flying people from all over the world.”
She says she appreciates how responsive Tourism Toronto is, and is a fan of Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, where she convened the semiannual meeting a few years ago. “When we did a site visit, they pulled out all the stops with a bunch of people in fox outfits (Mozilla’s logo) greeting us and specific elevators with branding. It showed that they took time to know us and our brand.”
For Mark, who has food allergies, negotiations about food come foremost. “We want everyone to eat something they want and something they can [eat]. Part of that is working really closely and making sure we understand the ingredients and things are properly labeled.” She offered build-your-own buffets at every meal and specified a gluten-free buffet with dedicated accoutrements.
Isn’t this rather expensive? Not necessarily. “I go in with my budget, and I let them propose something. I find that hotels want to deliver as much as I want them to deliver, so the more info I give them up front, the better. You’d be surprised what they can come up when you allow them to be creative.”
Elsewhere in Toronto, the 65-story, 260-room former Adelaide Hotel Toronto has been up-marketed to The St. Regis Toronto. The hotel has more than 100 new suites, a new design of the common spaces and an ornate restaurant, LOUIX LOUIS, serving craft cocktails and a sumptuous take on American cuisine such as a burger topped with brie, foie gras and tomato compote while overlooking Lake Ontario from its perch on the 31st floor.
The CN Tower’s LookOut Level observatory has a new glass floor one level up from the original that offers a vertiginous look straight down to complement the floor-to-ceiling “Window Walls.”
In other venue action, the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto recently moved into a 55,000-sf former industrial space, and Four Seasons Hotel Toronto remains a hot spot thanks to its Café Boulud and, from the same chef, a bar and charcuterie space called d|bar.
Two words: Aurora Sky. The 800,000-sf space is the world’s largest legal cannabis production facility — 100,000 kilos per year when fully operational, and it has recently moved into producing hemp as well. The city views this facility as part of its next wave in economic expansion.
Edmonton EXPO Centre, with 522,000 sf, and the now-named Edmonton Convention Centre (known for decades as the Shaw Conference Centre until its naming rights ended in 2018), with 150,000 sf, are the city’s convention hubs. The city’s 12,000 rooms in 55 hotels offer plenty of options for meetings of all sizes.
The La Ronde restaurant on the 24th floor of the 307-room Chateau Lacombe Hotel offers attendees a revolution every 88 minutes, accompanied by views of the Saskatchewan River and, if diners choose, a Chateaubriand for Two on Wednesdays or, on Thursdays, Steak Diane and Cherries Jubilee. Planners have 14,000 sf of event space to manipulate.
Another venue within walking distance of the Edmonton Convention Centre, the Quarter Note Hotel Edmonton Downtown, features 150 blockable rooms for a total of 255, and nearly 9,000 sf of meeting and event space, including banquet space for 240.
Winters see the Silver Skate Festival in Hawrelak Park. Along with the expected skating and ice sculptures, highlights of the festival include the opportunity for attendees to cook “bannock” — a Native American fry bread — over an open fire.
Between a four- and five-hour drive south and a little west — about 470 km — sits the venerable Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Built more than 100 years ago as a base for outdoor enthusiasts and skiers, the resort offers 36,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space.
“I would live there. If it were up to me, I would hold every meeting there.” That’s how Jason Gross, assistant vice president, travel, Captive Resources feels about Vancouver, where he regularly holds meetings at Fairmont Waterfront, Fairmont Pacific Rim and Rosewood Hotel Georgia. But a group of some 350 entrepreneurs — nearly 600 attendees including spouses — who meet every January and June wanted to visit St. Thomas in the Caribbean for their January 2018 meeting. Hurricanes Irma and Maria had other plans, so as Gross scrambled for a new place, he naturally looked north. Available was the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a venue he’d seen years ago, and not with great excitement.
“At this time, we had no other options. We were a little hesitant; we’re used to being on the waterfront, not the city center, so it wasn’t something that we jumped at,” Gross says. What began as a last resort soon became a favorite. “They blew it out of the park,” he says. “It was as close to a perfect meeting as we’ve ever had. We are now choosing them over the [Fairmont] Waterfront.”
In the planning stages, the hotel didn’t take advantage of the bind he was in, he says, and he didn’t feel put upon even though the hotel had the upper hand in negotiations. They were responsive, contracting went completely smoothly and they returned emails. It also didn’t hurt that the hotel looked completely different — “night and day” — from when he’d last seen it in 2015, thanks to a $55 million renovation of the common areas, lobbies, restaurants and the addition of 8,000 sf of meeting space in a dedicated wing, all within walking distance of the Vancouver Convention Centre.
And on the attendee front, no long lines at the check-in, no complaints about the rooms — even though the rooms were of varying layouts and square footage. “They must have been that good, that clean, that fresh,” Gross speculates.
He organized a president’s dinner onsite in the British Columbia ballroom for 400 people using standard menus with only slight changes — “there was zero push back when we asked for surf and turf.”
The group also ate at the onsite restaurant, Notch8 Restaurant & Bar, which serves “very modern/slightly upscale, Canadian-geared farm to table,” including fresh Dungeness crab. “I heard the greatest compliment: ‘I would go to it even though it’s in another hotel’,” he says. He also steered attendees to Chambar, a Belgian and seafood restaurant in Downtown Vancouver; and the sustainable seafood restaurant Blue Water Cafe.
Attendees had plenty of time to take in many of the sights of the region. They took the North Shore tour, visiting Stanley Park with its rainforest, Grouse Mountain, and Capilano Suspension Bridge Park; went on a Discover Vancouver bus tour that included the Olympic Village and some popular craft beer spots; made time for the Sea to Sky Gondola sightseeing tour; and browsed in the Museum of Anthropology and the Botanical Garden at University of British Columbia. By far the most popular outing, requiring a second round for foodies, was the tour of the Granville Island Public Market.
Now, there’s talk of returning in 2022.
“Vancouver as a destination; go for it and don’t look back,” Gross says. “When it comes to activities, live music and nightlife, it’s the best total package destination we go to. They really understand group business.” Most of his attendees are not from big cities, he says, so a place like Toronto strikes them as too big. But “nature in Vancouver with a strong urban core really speaks to people.”
“Nothing says Calgary better than the Stampede,” says one planner who held his annual convention there in August 2018 with 900 franchisees and families of a U.S. auto industry company.
The ‘hot-diggity-dog’ excitement of the rodeo held in this city in the Mountain Time Zone infects some 1 million people every July. His group stayed in three hotels connected via walkway to the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre — the Hyatt Regency Calgary, the Fairmont Palliser and the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel.
His group does a charity 5K walk every year, working closely with Tourism Calgary to find “a safe and interesting route” that included the Calgary Tower, home of the Sky 360 Restaurant & Lounge, which revolves once per hour 510 feet up, the scenic walking path along Bow River and Canada Olympic Park. The dream of the Olympics is still alive as the city mulls bidding to host the 2026 Olympics.
BMO Centre at Stampede Park, the larger of the city’s convention centers, offers 500,000 sf of event space. Plans in 2016 to create even more meeting space by demolishing the Stampede Corral have so far come to nothing; one of the local hockey clubs plans to play a “Corral” series in the space this year.
And the $245 million, oval-shaped architectural marvel that is the Calgary Central Library opened late last year, levitating over a public plaza below and beckoning with meeting spaces and conference rooms. C&IT