by Allan Lynch | January 01, 2016

The expansiveness of the northwest region of North America offers a true break from the usual concrete canyons many attendees are accustomed to working in or traveling to-which makes the meetings held there feel like a reward.

And given the close proximity to so much wilderness and wildlife, attendees will feel like they've stepped into the pages of National Geographic.

Alaska: Appeal of the Northern Wilds

Most groups that meet in Alaska look forward to the warmth of its hospitality professionals, its unique culture, and the scenery and animals that have long made it a bucket-list destination. In June, Ducks Unlimited is scheduled to return to Anchorage for the third time in a decade. According to Dana Barton, its director of national events, "Anchorage is a great fit for our organization. We don't always repeat locations, but with things you can't find anywhere else-like the northern lights and the wildlife-we kind of flock back to those locations. Also, the hospitality industry there really knows how to put on an event and welcome a group to the city."

The Alaska Bar Association (ABA) rotates its national convention around the state. Last year it was in Fairbanks and this year it's scheduled to be held in Anchorage in May with an estimated 700 attendees. Mary DeSpain, the group's continuing legal education director, said that knowing when to meet in Alaska can help cut costs. "The tourist season is May 15 to September 15. That's when prices of hotel rooms and everything else are raised," she said. "We plan to always be right at the edge-this year we're going to meet May 11-13."

The ABA convention will be held at the Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center, which offers 200,000 square feet of space. For less-traditional events, planners can rent a train from the Alaska Railroad Corporation for a mobile event. The Alaska Aviation Museum welcomes groups with three venues. Other popular sites include the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. An hour's drive south, in Portage, the staff at the 200-acre Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center can lead attendees on special educational tours. Dinners and receptions can also be arranged.

Just outside of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel, formerly the Millennium Alaskan Hotel. The property is still part of the Millennium chain but underwent a complete renovation in addition to the name change.

Known as a prime spot to view the northern lights, Fairbanks also offers a variety of activities that range from visits with a dog musher and her team to learning how to carve ice to viewing Shakespeare in an open-air theater. For meetings, the city has 175,000 square feet of meeting space and more than 3,300 guest rooms. Venues include the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the Fairbanks Antique Auto Museum. In addition to the Alaska Bar Association, groups meeting in Fairbanks recently include the Association of Alaska School Boards and the Alaska Government Finance Officers Association.

In hotel news, the SpringHill Suites recently renovated its lobby, meeting rooms and breakfast area, the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center boasts a renovated 140-room tower and public space, and both Pike's Waterfront Lodge and the Regency Fairbanks Hotel feature remodeled guest rooms. What was formerly the Comfort Inn is now the Best Western Plus Pioneer Park Inn. And east of the city, Chena Hot Springs Resort has added a 3,500-square-foot event space.

Ketchikan, in southern Alaska, is located within the expansive Tongass National Forest. Groups in the area might also explore Misty Fjords National Monument by boat or floatplane; with deep, glacier-carved canals, inlets and waterfalls, the "Yosemite of the North" is not to be missed. Ketchikan has hosted both state and national associations; recent visitors include the Alaska Municipal League, the Alaska Power Association and the North American Association of Fisheries Economists.

Ketchikan has several properties for groups to work with, such as the Cape Fox Lodge, which has meeting space for up to 200, and the adjacent Ted Ferry Civic Center, which can accommodate special events of up to 500. The Narrows Inn has changed ownership, been remodeled and now operates as the Edgewater Inn Restaurant & Marina. A new 64-room My Place Hotel is expected to open this fall.

 British Columbia: Walking the Green Walk

Vancouver doesn't just talk about being green, it sets ambitious goals and immediately starts working toward them. One is to be the world's greenest city by 2020. In the last five years, the city has reduced vehicle traffic in its downtown by 50 percent. To accomplish this, it enhanced public transportation, encouraged walking and developed dedicated bike lanes, which have been supplemented with a bike-sharing program. Moreover, many downtown hotels have embraced the idea by stocking bikes for guest use, and the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel even staffs a "bike butler."

For the last two years, the TED flagship conference has been held in Vancouver and is scheduled to return again in February with high-profile speakers. The prestigious event, which is already sold out, is held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, where a special pop-up theater was designed just for the talks. Other, independent TEDx talks are held around town throughout the year at various venues. One of the more innovative was held in November at Rogers Arena (home to the NHL's Canucks) and drew 3,500 attendees, many of them the much-chased Millennials.

Planners are awash with venue choices in Vancouver. In addition to Rogers Arena and the 466,500-square-foot, platinum LEED-certified Vancouver Convention Centre, other large options include the 54,000-seat BC Place, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

There are some 13,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center. Fairmont dominates the neighborhood with three properties-the nearby Fairmont Pacific Rim and Fairmont/Waterfront, and four blocks away, the Fairmont/Vancouver-all with newly refurbished meeting space and, at the Fairmont/Vancouver, a new restaurant and bar and a guest-room renovation that is expected to finish this spring. These properties have a unique working relationship. Not only can everything go on a master account, but delegates can use their room card to charge meals and drinks at any of the city-based Fairmont hotels.

Also just steps from the convention center is the Pan Pacific/Vancouver, with newly renovated meeting space and guest rooms. Closer to Nelson Park and the shops of Robson Street is the Sheraton/Wall Centre, which is expected to complete a $37 million renovation of its guest rooms and meeting space this spring. And the new Element/Vancouver Metrotown has 169 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 200 people.

This fall, the $360 million Trump International Hotel & Tower is scheduled to open downtown with 147 guest rooms and 15,000 square feet of meeting space, fine dining, a champagne lounge and a spa. Then, in December, a $600 million, LEED-certified "urban resort" called Parq is expected to open adjacent to BC Place with two new hotels: a 329-room JW Marriott and a 188-room hotel called The Douglas. Other plans include six restaurants, two lounges, gaming and 62,000 square feet of event space, including what will be the city's largest hotel ballroom.

Richmond, the home of Vancouver International Airport, is a worthy host destination on its own. The city offers all kinds of options for networking or free time, ranging from high-end outlet shopping to more than 800 restaurants to the historic village of Steveston, where the Gulf of Georgia Cannery can host up to 500 people. In November, the $10 million Richmond Olympic Experience ("Rox") opened within the Olympic Oval, giving visitors the chance to experience various simulated Olympic experiences like skiing, bobsledding and shooting hockey pucks. Other museum features include a 44-seat screening theater and a meeting suite for up to 190 people.

When it comes to return on investment, Richmond provides a number of value-based options, starting at the international airport. While many properties have Vancouver Airport in their name, the Fairmont is the only one located in the terminal building and can host events of up to 140. Nearby is the newly refurbished Pacific Gateway Hotel (formerly a Delta Hotel), with 24 meeting rooms, plus gardens which can be used for receptions and cocktails.

Another option is a hotel cluster created by the Sheraton/Vancouver Airport, Hilton/Vancouver Airport and Vancouver Airport Marriott Hotel. The three properties are connected and together provide a block of 850 guest rooms and nearly 48,000 square feet of event space, including 18,000 square feet of brand-new meeting space at the Sheraton. Each operates free airport shuttle service, further reducing costs.

This winter, Whistler celebrates 50 years as a ski destination and 40 years as an incorporated community. This popular alpine community regularly hosts organizations of all types including, more recently, the Insurance Brokers Association of British Columbia Annual Conference & Trade Show, the Canadian Association on Water Quality's National Water & Waste Water Conference and the Western Canada Turfgrass Association Show & Conference.

Whistler offers approximately 5,400 guest rooms in 24 hotels and another 5,000 bedrooms in long-stay options (chalets, bed-and-breakfast inns, hostels and townhouses). Slopeside facilities include the Rendezvous Lounge on Blackcomb, which recently completed a $5.4 million renovation, and Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge, which can host up to 1,500 people.

The 65,000-square-foot Whistler Conference Centre has a 4,500-square-foot, sunlit foyer dominated by a massive stone fireplace, a 16,500-square-foot ballroom, 13 breakout rooms, a 255-seat theatre and two on-site kitchens.

The 55,000-square-foot Audain Art Museum is expected to open late this month with a collection valued at $100 million. It also plans to offer event space for hire. Another cultural highlight in town is the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. Thanks to an ingenious pulley system, the venue can easily set up events for as many as 700. The facility also features a cafe with indigenous-inspired fare, a small theater and a cedar longhouse available for small functions.

Alberta: Big Builds, Big Business

In Alberta's provincial capital of Edmonton, the first phase of a 25-acre, $2.5 billion mixed-use entertainment center called the ICE District is scheduled to open this fall. The first facilities to open include the 18,500-seat Rogers Center, the NHL's first silver LEED-certified arena; Winter Garden, with 24,000 square feet of public event space; and the Grand Villa Edmonton Casino.

The city's premier meeting venues remain the Shaw Convention Centre and the Edmonton Expo Centre. The Shaw is configured over three levels on a hillside overlooking the North Saskatchewan River Valley. It has 23 breakout rooms, plus two larger rooms comprising 23,000 and 32,000 square feet. The expo center features 522,000 square feet of space. In November, Farmfair International drew a record number of attendees to its 2015 event at the expo center. The Allied Beauty Association and the Canadian Home Builders' Association also held events at the expo center recently.

In hotel news, the downtown Chateau Lacombe plans to complete a major, multimillion-dollar renovation by this spring, while the Best Western Plus Westwood Inn and the Best Western Cedar Park Inn are expected to finish their makeovers by June. Other updated properties include the Varscona Hotel on Whyte, the Holiday Inn Express/Edmonton Downtown, the Coast/Edmonton Plaza and the Sutton Place Hotel. Last year saw the opening of the 101-room Comfort Inn & Suites/Edmonton International Airport, which has event space for up to 50.

While Edmonton is Alberta's capital, Calgary has the second-highest concentration of head offices in Canada and is known for hosting the world's largest and richest rodeo, the Calgary Stampede. It is also the gateway to the mountain resorts of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.

The city's main meeting space is the 122,000-square-foot Calgary Telus Convention Centre, which hosts some 700 events annually, many related to energy, entrepreneurship and education industries. Steps away is Olympic Plaza, which can be used for group events.

Starwood recently announced plans to build a 250-room Westin Hotel at Calgary International Airport and a 225-room Westin near the Anthony Henday Expressway. Plans include 30,000 and 10,000 square feet of meeting space, respectively, and both are expected to open in 2017. In November, the Wingate by Wyndham/Calgary Airport opened with 110 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 80.

Saskatchewan: Peaceful Prairie

Saskatchewan is probably Canada's quietest province. Perhaps having the Royal Canadian Mounted Police training center in the provincial capital, Regina, has a steadying hand on the region. At Evraz Place, a 109-acre city hub, two big additions are in the works for 2017: a 33,000-seat stadium for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League and the 138,144-square-foot International Trade Center. Evraz Place is already home to the 6,000-seat Brandt Centre (formerly the Regina Agridome) and the 307,000-square-foot Queensbury Convention Centre, which has a newly renovated, 22,000-square-foot ballroom and 12 meeting rooms.

To the northwest, Saskatoon is the province's business center. Group events can be held at TCU Place, the Saskatoon Arts & Convention Centre, which has a 2,000-seat theater and 104,000 square feet of meeting space spread across 21 rooms. Directly across the street are a Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn. South of town, the 40-acre Glen at Crossmount invites groups to spend time amid its apple orchards learning about how to make cider in between their meetings. Its Glenlyon Hall can host up to 200 people. Highly anticipated is the new, $84 million Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, scheduled to open in 2017. It will house the world's largest collection of Picasso linocuts. The Remai building is also expected to have multiple meeting spaces and a 150-seat theater.

Manitoba: Central Connections

Located in the central province of Manitoba, Winnipeg is a very arts-driven city. It is home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and numerous art galleries, museums, historic sites and special-event venues. There's something in the city for everyone, from renowned cultural options to sports teams to new signature attractions like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (which opened in 2014), said Jonathan Strauss, president of the Winnipeg-based Strauss Event & Association Management, which manages two national medical associations and four regional associations. "The museum is really a showstopper for groups," he said. "And there are unique event spaces for private functions." These include a glass boardroom and terrace at the top of the building for up to 30 people and the central Buhler Hall, which can accommodate up to 700.

Strauss also recommends the Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, just 10 minutes from downtown. "It gives you the opportunity to get right up close and personal with polar bears," he said. The exhibit space can host banquets of up to 90 and receptions of up to 250. Assiniboine Park also has five other venues, the largest of which is a conservatory for up to 300.

The RBC Convention Centre is putting the final touches on a $180 million expansion that is expected to be ready by March with some 832,000 square feet of space (nearly double its original size). New features will include an additional ballroom and 131,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space on the third floor.

Winnipeg hotels have also been updating. In 2015, all guest rooms and two ballrooms at the Holiday Inn/Winnipeg Airport West were renovated. The Place Louis Riel Suite Hotel and the Victoria Inn Hotel & Convention Centre were also both renovated, and updates are taking place at the Clarion Hotel & Suites. The Alt Hotel opened across from the MTS Centre last year with 160 guest rooms and seven meeting spaces.

An Experience to Remember

Groups from all around the United States, Canada and elsewhere look to Alaska and the western provinces of Canada for dynamic meetings that attendees will long remember. With eco-friendly cities, farmlands and prairies that are developing unique options, and stunning wilds filled with everything from glaciers to grizzlies, it's easy to see why this region attracts the masses-and will for years to come.