by Allan Lynch | December 01, 2015

When it comes to good friends and neighbors, Canada is both. It’s also a good place to do business, which is why so many associations hold their conventions, annual meetings and trade shows in Canada year after year.

The eastern provinces of Canada are attractive for many reasons, including a modern infrastructure, commonality of culture (or, by contrast, a very European feel in the cities with a French heritage), ease of access, favorable exchange rates and an educated workforce. And with all manner of natural and man-made attractions—many unique to this part of the world—attendees can easily turn a business trip into a memorable vacation as well.

Ontario: Heart of a Nation

Ontario is Canada’s economic engine. The provincial capital, Toronto, is the nation’s largest city, and last summer it hosted the 2015 Pan Am & Parapan Am Games, which drew 7,000 athletes from 41 countries. To host the games, the city and province spent $2.5 billion on new infrastructure, from improved roads and expanded public transit to new and improved sporting venues that are now available for group use.

More than 600 events each year are held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which features more than 600,000 square feet of space. Groups that have recently used the facility include the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, which has held its annual congress there three of the last eight years, and the Canadian Wind Energy Association, whose October exhibition drew 103 vendors and more than 1,400 attendees. Two miles west is the Enercare Centre (formerly the Direct Energy Centre), the largest event space in Canada with more than 1 million square feet of dedicated space, situated amid the 192-acre Exhibition Place campus. Other campus tenants include the 160,000-square-foot, LEED-certified Allstream Centre; the 200,000-square-foot Better Living Centre, a bandshell and park; and the Queen Elizabeth Building, with 63,000 square feet of space.

To keep up with the steady flow of events, many city hotels have undergone improvements. The Fairmont Royal York is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation of its public spaces and guest rooms, 800 of which are expected to be updated by year’s end. A few blocks north, the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel is also expected to finish its extensive renovation this month; the project includes the update of all 1,373 guest rooms and the addition of a new ballroom and exhibit hall. Also nearby is the Omni King Edward, built in 1903 and reopened in September after a two-year renovation.

At Exhibition Place, the X Hotel is expected to open in spring 2016; plans include 404 guest rooms and more than 25,000 square feet of event space. Closer to Ryerson University, which offers special-event space for up to 180 people, the Chelsea Hotel Toronto (formerly the Delta/Chelsea and briefly the Eaton/Chelsea) is recently renovated.

The Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which caters to 2.4 million travelers annually from an island next to downtown, is now accessible via a pedestrian tunnel (previously it was only accessible by ferry). From a new terminal pavilion downtown, it takes six minutes to traverse the underground tunnel using automatic sidewalks and then ascend to the check-in area. The metro area’s larger airport, Toronto Pearson International, is located in Mississauga and also boasts new transportation options. The UP Express train runs to and from Toronto’s Union Station, with departures every 15 minutes. It’s a 25-minute ride, and departing delegates can now check-in at airline kiosks within Union Station before their train’s departure.

For meetings on the go, the Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel & Suites is just across the street from Pearson. Its meeting space and guest rooms are benefiting from a renovation, and the hotel’s lower lobby will be converted into a third ballroom, which will expand the property’s total meeting space to 27,000 square feet. Just southwest of the airport, the Delta Meadowvale Hotel & Conference Centre has been reflagged as the Hilton/Mississauga-Meadowvale.

One of the larger groups that has come through Toronto in recent years was Lions Clubs International. Its international convention was held in July 2014 with 16,500 delegates. The group held room blocks at 20 properties, with the Fairmont Royal York as its headquarters hotel and the Sheraton hosting a special multi-day leadership-training program. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre was used for registration, the trade show, voting and other seminars and workshops, and still other functions were organized at the nearby, 19,800-seat Air Canada Centre.

Gloria Geske, the division manager of Lions Clubs International, said she was impressed by the cooperation from the city, which closed down a main street for a parade, and by the attentiveness of the convention bureau’s staff. “They were always checking in with us and making sure everything was okay and helping out with things we needed to accomplish,” Geske said. “Considering the size of Toronto, to get that level of cooperation was remarkable.”

Also impressive was the walkability of the city and the number of options delegates could enjoy during their free time. “Cruises on the lake, bike rides on the islands and the attractions in that convention center area—Ripleys Aquarium, CN Tower, the ballparks,” she said, listing just a few. “And world-class entertainment. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were there right after our meeting, so a lot of people stayed over and went to those concerts.”

An hour west of Toronto is Canada’s Technology Triangle, comprising Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge. This is, unsurprisingly, a smart area. In addition to some 1,000 local tech firms, the University of Waterloo is a major player. The smaller Wilfrid Laurier University has received accolades as a sustainable campus and between May and August welcomes association groups with a variety of conference spaces and technology resources.

In recognition of the growing meetings market, the 194-room Delta/Waterloo opened this year with 6,500 square feet of meeting space and the Four Points by Sheraton/Waterloo-Kitchener opened in early 2014 with two small meeting rooms. A larger option is the Crowne Plaza/Kitchener, which has function space for up to 600 people.

One of the better-known attractions in Ontario is Niagara Falls, where association conferences have reported some of their highest attendance numbers, according to the Niagara Falls Tourism Visitor & Convention Bureau. Though dominated by this natural attraction, the Niagara Falls area is home to a variety of other recreational and leisure activities that can be incorporated into an agenda. Nearly two dozen wineries, ecotourism opportunities, restaurants offering a bird’s-eye view of the falls and chartered cruises of the Niagara Great Gorge, complete with fireworks, are just some of the possibilities. Further, next year, Niagara Adventure Excursions Inc. and the Niagara Parks Commission are planning to launch zip line and aerial adventure courses.

The Canadian capital of Ottawa is gearing up for a big celebration: the nation’s 150th anniversary, in 2017. To prepare for this milestone, national museums and facilities are getting—or have recently completed—face-lifts. Many of these attractions double as event sites, including the Canadian Museum of Nature, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canada Aviation & Space Museum and the Canadian War Museum. The National Arts Centre is undergoing an expansion that will more than double its space by 2017 but currently welcomes groups with several performance halls and smaller meeting spaces. A multi-use development called the Innovation Center at Bayview Yards is expected to open late next year with meeting space, while the Global Centre for Pluralism is also in the works, and both the Canadian Science & Technology Museum and the Bank of Canada Museum are scheduled to reopen in 2017. Just over the Ottawa River, in Gatineau (Québec), the Canadian Museum of History’s Grand Hall can be configured to seat up to 800 people for banquets.

Near the University of Ottawa is the LEED-certified, 192,000-square-foot Shaw Centre. An alternative venue is the EY Centre. It has four connected state-of-the-art exhibit halls ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 square feet that can be used individually or together.

Québec: Historic Hosts

Montréal is growing as a meetings destination. Yves Lalumière, president and chief executive officer of Tourisme Montréal, reported that between January and April, the number of business travelers increased by 14 percent over the same period in 2014. Additionally, he reported that the U.S. market alone soared by 81 percent. Major venues for meetings include the Palais des congrès, which has 113 event rooms and three ballrooms; the historic Marché Bonsecours, with four spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 975 people; and the World Trade Centre, whose main Ruelle des Fortifications can host up to 800. A handful of new hotels with meeting space are scheduled to open this year including the Renaissance/Montréal Downtown, set to open its doors in January. And this summer, the downtown Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel plans to close until June 2017 so it can be updated.

About 75 miles north of Montréal’s Trudeau International Airport is the Laurentian resort community of Mont-Tremblant, which can easily host small to mid-sized groups. It offers 1,900 guest rooms in 13 hotels, 75 restaurants, a casino and a convention center that can host up to 650 people—not to mention all sorts of outdoor activities.

Québec City is famous for its history. Founded in 1608, it’s one of North America’s oldest communities and the continent’s only walled city. Today its historic district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many historic sites offer event space. The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec is months away from completing a new building that will add exhibition space. The museum already has a restaurant and terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence River as well as meeting space for up to 1,000 people.

Another historic site is the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, where in 1943, Allies leaders discussed World War II strategy. The property still hosts many a meeting today with space for up to 700 delegates. Just up the street, la salle des promotions du Séminaire de Québec, part of Laval University, is now available for group use. Even older than the seminary is Le Monastère des Augustines, North America’s oldest hospital building, reopened in 2015 as a hotel and wellness center. Features include 65 simple guest rooms (no TV or Wi-Fi) and 11 meeting rooms.

For large-scale events, planners can look to the 18,259-seat Videotron Centre, which opened in September. The multi-purpose venue has already hosted National Hockey League games and concerts. The LEED-certified Québec City Convention Centre is another modern choice for up to 2,000 people.

Kathryn Smith, the recently retired director of meetings for the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine, said the conference she organized in Québec City in 2010 was the highlight of her 27-year career with the association and was highly spoken about by members. “Everyone still talks about that meeting,” she said. “For the next five years, everyone kept saying, ‘Is it going to be as good as Québec City?’”

Smith praised the convention center staff as “amazing,” and said that other venues around town were just as memorable. Among these was the deconsecrated Chapelle du Musée de l’Amérique francophone, where the group enjoyed a dinner performance of songs from the Phantom of the Opera. “The food was perfect, the music was amazing and it sold out,” Smith said. “My president-to-be came over with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I have never been so moved at a performance in my life.’”

Up the St. Lawrence River, the Charlevoix region is another stunning area, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve filled with fjords, farms, coves and quaint villages. A luxurious resort awaits in La Malbaie: the riverfront Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, which recently refurbished its guest rooms.

New Brunswick: Happy to Accommodate

The capital of New Brunswick, Fredericton, has traditionally been challenged when it comes to airlift. However, that is changing. Both Air Canada and WestJet have increased service to the city’s international airport. In May, approximately 1,150 people from 43 different airports flew into Fredericton to attend the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton, and Air Canada and the city helped make that happen with bigger planes and more flights, said Liette Philippe, owner of Liette P Meeting Planning Services, which manages the event. Since the science fair caters to a 12-to-18-year-old demographic, the University of New Brunswick campus was employed for accommodations and program space, providing a “level of service above and beyond anything I had ever seen before at a university,” Philippe said. “They were super professional, super accommodating, threw in all kinds of free stuff and weren’t nickel-and-diming us.”

Downtown, the LEED-certified Fredericton Convention Center offers 36,000 square feet of meeting space and is adjacent to the 709-seat Playhouse, which welcomes outside events. Also nearby is the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which is adding a new 14,000-square-foot space that can be used for group functions. The project is expected to be complete in late 2017. Additional networking venues include four city-based microbreweries and the King’s Landing Historical Settlement, a 19th-century living history village 20 miles west of town.

In hotel news, a Hampton Inn by Hilton is scheduled to open this month. The Delta/Fredericton has completely renovated its guest rooms and meeting space, and the Lakeview Inn & Suites has been rebranded as the Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Fredericton. And the city recently approved construction of a Hilton Garden Inn next to the convention center. It is expected to open in 2017.

About 85 miles to the south, on the Bay of Fundy, the Algonquin Resort (a Marriott Autograph Collection property) in St. Andrews reopened in 2014 after an extensive renovation. And planners whose delegates are anglers should take note: New Brunswick is home to five of the world’s top salmon rivers, one of which is the Miramichi River. In the City of Miramichi, the Rodd/Miramichi River is newly renovated.

Nova Scotia: Banking on Business

The wheels of change are in motion in Halifax. New builds are underway that will greatly improve the city’s hospitality infrastructure. Highly anticipated is the Halifax Convention Centre, expected to open in January 2017 with 120,000 square feet of space, including a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. It will be connected to more than 1,000 guest rooms via a system of covered walkways and within three blocks of another 730 guest rooms. At present, the city’s main meeting venues include the World Trade & Convention Centre, with event space for up to 2,000 attendees; the upgraded, 10,000-seat Scotiabank Centre; and 15 minutes from downtown, Exhibition Park, with 102,000 square feet of space and free parking for more than 2,000 cars.

The city’s two largest hotels, the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront and the Westin Nova Scotian, are located on Halifax Harbour and are close to entertainment and meeting options—the Marriott to a casino and the Westin to the expanded Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which can accommodate up to 550 people. Next to the museum is the Cunard Centre, which can host up to 4,000 people.

Prince Edward Island: Never a Dull Moment

Meeting planners needn’t look long for fun options that take in the scenery on Prince Edward Island. Convivial networking events can be held at microbreweries in Charlottetown, and lobster boils for up to 200 people are just part of the package at the Clinton Hills event center in the town of Clinton.

The recently remodeled Delta/Prince Edward in Charlottetown is attached to the two-year-old Prince Edward Island Convention Centre, and the two offer a combined 50,000 square feet of meeting facilities. Four short blocks from the convention center is the Confederation Centre of the Arts, with a 1,100-seat theater and a variety of smaller spaces. It’s adjacent to the Holman Grand Hotel and a block from the Rodd/Charlottetown. Neither is far from event facilities at the University of Prince Edward Island and Holland College. Two other Rodd properties also serve groups: the Rodd Crowbush Golf & Beach Resort in Morell and the seasonal Rodd Brudenell River Resort in Cardigan.

Newfoundland & Labrador: Wild & Wonderful

While Newfoundland and Labrador may be on the far northeastern shores of North America, they’re worth exploring. Anthony Patey, executive director of the Newfoundland & Labrador Dental Association, organized the 2015 Canadian Dental Association National Conference in the capital of St. John’s in August. The growing accolades, improved and expanded flight service and Patey’s team’s marketing efforts helped draw 1,680 attendees, a significant increase from the last time the event was held in the province in 2006. “Newfoundland is not the center of Canada and people have got to want to come here, but a lot of people came early or stayed late,” Patey said. “That’s a good thing!”

Since the St. John’s Convention Centre was under construction (it is expected to reopen early next year after a multimillion-dollar expansion that will increase its event space to 100,000 square feet), Patey turned to the Delta St. John’s Hotel & Conference Centre for educational sessions and the connected Mile One Centre for the group’s 120-booth trade show. He also organized a pub crawl along George Street. New hotels include the 84-room Jag Hotel and a 120-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites, which recently opened at the airport.

Poised for the Crowds

Eastern Canada may be home to North America’s oldest communities, but it’s not standing still. Instead, money is being poured into meetings infrastructure in an effort to compete with destinations anywhere. As a result, planners have a solid support team, backed by hospitality-industry professionals that know how to woo attendees and assure association executives that events in these provinces will be successful.