Fuelled by Alberta’s booming oil industry and overall strong economy, meeting planners from across the globe are seeing ‘The Old West’ in a new light.
In addition to cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Fort McMurray, many other Alberta locales are catching planners’ interest because of their diversity and convenient locations, say local experts.
“Why select Alberta? Where can one go that offers a greater range of landscape, attractions and facilities?” asks Joseph Macdonald, trail boss for Home On The Range Adventure Tours Ltd., which offers personal and corporate “Western experiences” across the province.
“For those who want to pursue the mystique of the classic Rockies while being pampered, we offer the likes of the spas and Fairmont properties at Lake Louise, Jasper and Banff, combined with golf courses and scenery that is unrivaled.”
Calgary and Edmonton also offer easy air access to major centres around the world — many through direct flights, adds Macdonald.
“We can bring you the big city, the majestic Rockies and hide-aways that offer experiences that others only hear about or dream of,” he says.
Macdonald would know. Since 2001, Macdonald and business partner Fletcher O’Grady have been making visitors’ dreams a reality through authentic Alberta and Rocky Mountain western experiences, such as guest ranches, working ranches, cattle drives and horse pack trips.
Home on the Range currently offers more than 20 half- and full-day team-building experiences to companies — not to mention the variations available to meet each group’s personal, physical and financial requirements.
Some recent examples include a half-day program for the senior staff of a Hawaiian bank on a Rocky Mountain retreat in Banff, or a multi-day survivor-based canoe and camp expedition for senior executives with an American auto manufacturer.
The company’s specially created Incentive and Corporate programs have also included independent demonstration rodeos, corporate cattle drives, as well as multi-day winter wilderness camp and traditional survival skills programs.
“Our two greatest strengths are our creativity and personal attention to the needs of our clients,” says Macdonald. “We pride ourselves on being different and never standing still.”
Known as “Cowtown” to some and the “Stampede City” to others, Calgary is becoming recognized as a top 10 international meeting destination.
The city has hosted, in recent years, several major international events, including the G-8 summit, World Petroleum Congress and World Police and Fire Games, with the Juno Awards (2008), WorldSkills Competition (2009) and the Global Petroleum Show (2010) to come.
Calgary, home to the world-famous Calgary Stampede, has more than 400,000 square feet of unique and diverse meeting space spread out across 32 sites, including the Telus Convention Centre, Calgary Exhibition and Stampede and Fort Calgary Historic Park.
The city also has close to 11,000 accommodation rooms, 4,036 of which are in the downtown core.
“The city itself is known for its Western hospitality, and people want to experience this,” says Telus Convention Centre communications manager Heather Lundy. “It has also become known as a very vibrant, young city with dining, cultural activities and outdoor amenities.”
Much like Calgary’s changing landscape, the Telus Convention has also undergone considerable changes to accommodate the increased demand. Located in the historical Olympic Plaza cultural district, the centre has evolved from Canada’s first full-service facility in 1974 to a state-of-the-art 130,000-square-foot facility that, after extensive renovations in 2000, is now spread out across two buildings.
The convention centre can accommodate up to 4,000 guests. Its largest ballroom measures 20,000 square feet and can cater to upwards of 3,500 people. The appeal of meeting at the centre, or Calgary, however, is not limited to the size of the facilities, says Lundy.
“We offer an experience,” she says, noting the centre’s new branding initiative, ‘Experience the Inspiration of Calgary.’ “Experience encompasses everything from our service, food and beverage to guest services.”
Like its counterparts down Highway 2, Edmonton’s meeting industry is also feeling the heat from the province’s hot economy. The city’s 34 convention hotels, which combined offer 354,500 square feet of meeting space, are seeing more visits from regional, national and a growing number of international clients than ever before, says Bob Dunham, director of meetings, business travel and events for Tourism Edmonton.
“A result of the hot economy is that our destination is in the spotlight more than ever,” he says. “The volume of new business opportunities and the market mix has been enhanced to some extent by the fact Alberta’s economy is the faster growing, the strongest, in Canada.”
That’s not to mention the wealth of alternate meeting sites all within walking distance of the city’s 11,500 hotel rooms, such as Citadel Theatre, Commonwealth Stadium Fort Edmonton and Jubilee Auditorium.
The city also has two of the largest convention and exhibition facilities in Western Canada. The Shaw Conference Centre, situated in the heart of the city’s vibrant downtown core, is a 155,000-square-foot-facility that can accommodate up to 7,000 people.
Northlands Park meanwhile, has 400,000 square feet of exhibition space for more than 17,000 people. The site hosts 2,500 events that attract more than 3.5 million visitors every year.
“Each client has different motivations. I believe, in our case, they want to experience a place they have yet to meet in — to try something different, an attractive alternative,” says Dunham.
Regarded as Canada’s playground, Banff is continuing to cash in on its proximity to the majestic Canadian Rockies, as well as major cities such as Edmonton and Calgary. With more than 1,600 kilometres of hiking trails, 270 downhill ski runs and countless other outdoor opportunities within mere minutes of the 7,500-person resort town, many area conference centres officials say location remains a top selling feature for planners.
“We recently conducted a survey with meeting planners from all sectors, and their number one reason for working with us was location, location, location,” says Banff Centre conference marketing officer Katie Daniel.
Once in Banff — located less than 130 kilometres northwest of Calgary — planners have plenty of meeting spaces, and accommodation options, from which to choose.
The Banff Centre boasts more than 60 multi-functional meeting rooms that can accommodate upwards of 1,000 delegates. Beyond the boardroom, the centre offers some 400 guestrooms spread out over two facilities. It also includes a 350-seat marché-style dining room, a 32-seat wine bar and 64-seat à la carte restaurant showcasing signatures of creative, local, fresh, seasonal, and colorful fare in every dish, says Daniel.
The Fairmont Hot Springs Resort adds to Banff’s meeting capacity with 76,000 square feet of versatile function and exhibition space across 23 rooms and halls. The property, instantly recognizable by its gothic-inspired architecture, also has two dedicated conference concierges on staff.
“They can find everything from an additional LCD projector to your favorite brand of soda. The finest details are taken care from beginning to end,” says Lori Grant, public relations regional director at the Fairmont Hot Springs. “Meeting planners are spoiled for choice.”
The hotel boasts more than 770 guestrooms, as well as access to gourmet dining, two championship 18-hole golf courses, numerous recreational activities and Canada’s largest odorless natural hot springs.
“We embrace where we live and work, and clients can see it in the face of every colleague they encounter,” says Grant. “We have, outside our door, some of the most pristine wilderness in the world.”
Much like Banff, location also plays a significant role for Red Deer’s meeting industry. Situated halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, the city of more than 85,000 residents is a popular middle ground for companies with offices in both cities, says Westerner Park general manager John Harms.
“The fact that we’re an hour and 10 minutes from both international airports is definitely a draw,” he says. “Companies with branches in both Calgary and Edmonton can meet for day meetings in Red Deer.”
Westerner Park has seen a lot of that business. The 115-acre park, which was developed in 1981, offers more than 300,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, as well as banquet facilities than can accommodate 20 to 3,000 people.
The park also includes a unique 2,600-square-foot Bavarian-themed log-structure chalet that offers groups of up to 300, a private outdoor seating space, as well as an adjoining park and amphitheatre area.
Yet even with its current facilities — the largest in Red Deer — Harms believes Westerner Park, and Red Deer for that matter, could still stand for more room.
“Our feeling is that we’re still short of that kind of space. We can have more. If we build it, they will come,” he says, adding, in the past decade the number of hotel rooms in the city has tripled to nearly 2,400 today.
Ranked as having the second best climate in Canada behind Vancouver, and one of the lowest costs of doing business in the world, Lethbridge has stepped out of the shadows and into the meeting industry’s spotlight.
Located in the Alberta badlands, two hours south of Calgary and one hour north of the Montana border, the city of more than 81,000 prides itself on its niche, small to mid-size meeting and convention industry.
“We acknowledge that we are not a fit for everyone, however, we have had great success at attracting meetings in our niche market …” says Kerry Lowe, director of conventions and event development for Economic Development Lethbridge.
Lethbridge, which enjoys more than 320 days of sunshine per year, is also a popular alternative to planners not looking to break the bank. The city was recently ranked in a KPMG study 10th out of 128 cities in nine industrialized countries for offering the lowest cost of doing business.
“We are an affordable alternative to big cities and resort sites,” says Lowe. “Although we are not located in the oil patch, we are still experiencing the benefits of Alberta’s booming economy.”
Fueling the city’s boom is its unique meeting spaces. The Fort Whoop-up Centre, for example, is an authentic fur trading fort that features five period rooms for up to 20 people each.
The Galt Museum & Archives, meanwhile, houses a spectacular glassed-in gallery that takes full advantage of the museum’s location overlooking Indian Battle Park and the meandering Oldman River.
“When speaking about facilities, what sets us apart are our unique meeting venues,” says Lowe. “We have the capability to host a gala in a lovely ballroom for up to 650 people, but can also offer the experience of an opening reception for 300 people in a national historic site.”
The times they are a changin’ in Medicine Hat. Located in the Alberta foothills less than three hours south of Calgary, the thriving city of nearly 57,000 residents has embraced increasing meeting and conference demand with a number of multi-functional meeting spaces and accommodation options.
Leading the charge is the Medicine Hat Lodge, one of southern Alberta’s largest meeting and conference centres.
The Lodge, which boasts 221 guest rooms and suites, currently has nine meeting spaces totaling nearly 16,000 square feet that can accommodate upwards of 600 people. It is about to break ground on an expansion, however, that will redesign and renovate its conference facilities, as well as expand its two restaurants, lounge and casino.
“Business has been very consistent over the past few years. However, we have not been able to increase our large conventions due to our present conference centre size, hence the expansion where we plan to target larger groups,” says sales and marketing director Melanie Beals.
She admits one reason behind the expansion is an increase in the number of international clients requiring meeting space in the city.
In addition to hosting clients from throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, Medicine Hat sees a number of international clients from the United Kingdom, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand, says Beals.
“Due to the close proximity to CFB Suffield, we have been seeing increased trends in U.K. and U.S. travel to facilitate training at the base,” she says.
Medicine Hat also has the advantage of its proximity to several international tourist attractions, such as the National Historic Clay District, Dinosaur Park and Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park.
Fort McMurray and beyond
With conference and hotel facilities in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake, Jasper and Peace River, Sawridge Inns and Conference Centres has experienced perhaps the most significant impact from Alberta’s hot economy.
Sawridge’s northern locale plays a significant factor in who its does business with. Three of its four properties are very closely tied to the province’s booming oil business, and as such derive a lot of revenues from it, says Pierre Frigon, marketing director of group and leisure sales.
“We have recently noticed that the oil sector (derived) meeting/conference business is now looking to hold the majority of their conferences, meetings — and in particular retreats and parties within the regions in which they are active,” he says, noting its Slave Lake and Peace River properties, for example, can comfortably accommodate up to 1,000 delegates combined in locations where that service was once lacking or virtually non-existent.
“Naturally, since all of our properties are located in Alberta’s north do have large conference and meeting facilities, we have been on the receiving end of much of this business, and are looking for more.”
In Fort McMurray, Sawridge’s 3½-star property includes more than 22,000 square feet of meeting space suitable for up to 800 people — a virtual necessity in a city that has nearly doubled its population in the last decade to 64,500 residents. It’s also located just 10 minutes from the Fort McMurray airport, and less than half an hour to Suncor and Syncrude’s facilities.
Sawridge’s 153-room conference resort in the heart of Jasper National Park, meanwhile, offers elegant accommodations in an inn-style atmosphere, along with the Mountain Wellness Day Spa and conference facilities for up to 250.