by Allan Lynch | December 01, 2016

Next year is a significant one for Canada, which will celebrate its sesquicentennial—that’s 150 years—as a country. Of course, its history goes back more than a millennia, and its eastern provinces in particular have hosted everyone from the Native Americans to the Vikings to the French and the British.

While Eastern Canada boasts some of the richest and oldest history in the Western Hemisphere, it also has plenty of new offerings for groups. The sesquicentennial has spurred federal and provincial governments—as well as industry partners—to invest in all kinds of refurbishments, expansions and developments. These projects have nicely updated landmark venues, hotels and attractions and brought everything up to speed for modern meetings.

Ontario: Central Perks

Ontario has a lot to offer visiting association groups, from its southern wine country to Niagara Falls to the lakeside destination of Toronto, Canada’s largest city and financial center. Toronto is home to the continent’s third-largest stock market and Canada’s highest concentration of corporate headquarters. It’s also an international hub where more than 160 languages are spoken.

Beyond Toronto’s strong work ethic, it is a playful city, drawing more than 40 million visitors a year, making it the most-visited destination in Canada. It has a vibrant theater district, a handful of professional sports teams (whose stadiums welcome group events) and several cultural attractions. Sports fans may enjoy a gathering at the Hockey Hall of Fame, which can be booked in its entirety for up to 1,000 people. Groups interested in art might look to the Aga Khan Museum, which opened two years ago with a significant collection of Islamic art and event space for up to 350. More traditional event spaces include the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which has more than 500,000 square feet of space and a 1,232-seat theater; the 160,000-square-foot, LEED-certified Allstream Centre; and the 42,000-square-foot Scarborough Convention Centre.

Three of the largest hotels in Canada are in the city center. The grand dame of them all is the Fairmont Royal York, built in 1929 across from Union Station and recently updated with a multimillion-dollar property refurbishment. It has meeting space for up to 1,670. A few blocks away, the Sheraton City Centre wrapped up a $120 million guest-room renovation and expansion this spring. Guest rooms at the Chelsea Hotel are also newly refurbished.

Toronto is served by two airports. The smaller Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is reached via a new downtown, underground pedestrian tunnel with moving sidewalks. Accessibility to Pearson International Airport is also substantially improved with the addition of the Union Pearson Express, a 25-minute, Wi-Fi-equipped train ride between the airport and downtown. Nearby, the International Plaza Hotel has been rebranded as the Delta Toronto Airport & Conference Centre and is scheduled to open in March following a renovation with 433 guest rooms, meeting space for up to 2,000 and free shuttle service to Pearson Airport.

West of the airport, Kitchener and Waterloo continue to pitch themselves as the heart of a burgeoning technology corridor. Innovation also happens at two local universities, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), all of which offer group gathering space and serve as a resource for event speakers. Other event venues include the 46,437-square-foot Bingemans Conference Centre; the Tannery Event Centre, a historic mill with space for up to 250; the Waterloo Region Museum, which can host up to 450; and the University of Waterloo’s Federation Hall, which can seat up to 550.

In September, the International Association of Law Enforcement Planners held a training conference with 145 attendees at the Delta/Waterloo. According to local conference organizer Margaret Gloade, it was the organization’s fourth time in Canada. Off-site activities included a welcome reception at CIGI, followed by a truly Canadian networking event—a curling bonspiel—held at the KW Granite Club.

Gloade said that Waterloo appealed to the group for several reasons. Planners liked the number of educational institutions, think tanks and their resources. “We were able to tap into several speakers from these local institutes to complement the learning agenda,” she said. Meanwhile, delegates could walk to shops, restaurants and were eager to see local attractions.

In downtown Kitchener, the 1893 Walper Hotel is completely renovated and was relaunched earlier this year. It features 92 modern guest rooms and 6,000 square feet of space. And in the nearby town of Cambridge, the award-winning Langdon Hall has benefited from a 35,000-square-foot expansion, which includes eight new guest suites, an event room and a day spa.

The Canadian capital of Ottawa is party central. Some of the anticipated highlights to celebrate the sesquicentennial include the Canadian Tulip Festival in May, to feature 300,000 blooming “Canada 150” tulips (a white flower with red flames that resemble the maple leaf), and “Ignite 150,” a series of 17 stunts and happenings around town, such as a yoga session on a floating barge accompanied by a live orchestra or a gourmet dining experience 165 feet above the ground or a picnic in July on the Alexandra Bridge.

In addition, seemingly every corner of the capital has been improved, and all kinds of venues are prepared to welcome group events, most notably the city’s collection of national museums and galleries. Possibilities include the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization), the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the National Arts Centre (undergoing a renovation and expansion that is expected to finish by January 2018), the Canada Agriculture & Food Museum, and the Canada Aviation & Space Museum. The 100,000-square-foot Diefenbunker, now Canada’s Cold War Museum, can host up to 150 people in total security and secrecy.

The 192,000-square-foot, LEED-certified Shaw Centre is a popular pick with planners, as is the Ottawa Conference & Event Center, with 43,000 square feet of space. Both are connected to recognized hotel brands. South of downtown, near the city’s international airport, is the new, $20 million Infinity Convention Centre, which opened in October with 15,000 square feet of space for up to 1,200 people. It is adjacent to a Holiday Inn Express and a Hampton Inn. Two miles away is the 220,000-square-foot EY Centre. Additional conference spaces can be found at the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College.

Québec: Meetings Magnifique

While Canada commemorates the 150th anniversary since its founding, Montréal will celebrate its 375th birthday, and starting this month, it will host 200 events over the following 375 days. Montréal has always been a celebratory city, though. It is home to 100 annual festivals celebrating comedy, music, film, food, fireworks and more.

The National Association of College & University Business Officers recently held its annual meeting at the Palais des congrès de Montréal with 2,500 attendees. According to Earla Jones, who organized the event, the group narrowed down the choice of locations to Toronto, New York City, Boston and Montréal. “But Montréal felt like we’re truly in an international destination. So that was key,” she said. “And then the facility itself—the palais—is a perfect fit for our group. We had our big opening event there, a Cirque (du Soleil) performance. It was the only space that could hold our size and have the rigging points they needed.”

Jones said her group worked with eight city hotel properties (the Palais des congrès is connected to 4,000 hotel rooms and is within walking distance to 15,000 more), and in addition to business sessions and programs, the group’s agenda included a campus tour of McGill University, events at a couple of restaurants in Old Montréal and a 5K run near the Science Centre.

Jones’ main learning curve involved tax reclamation. Foreign groups can claim back part of the taxes they pay for goods and services in Canada. “That was an interesting process, learning about how the tax incentives work,” Jones said.

New and unique venues for events include the 46th floor observation deck of the downtown Au Sommet Place Ville Marie, with space for up to 200 people; six city churches, the most significant of which is St.-Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, marked by a 97-meter-high dome and able to host group functions of up to 700; and the Notre-Dame Basilica, with space for gatherings of up to 2,700.

Two new hotels have attracted the attention of planners. The 142-room Renaissance/Downtown opened in January with a rooftop terrace, a restaurant and meeting space for up to 112, and the 127-room William Gray Hotel opened this summer with two ballrooms, three boardrooms, a courtyard and a rooftop terrace. In the just-like-new category is the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which is scheduled to reopen in June 2017 after a $140 million transformation (although the project isn’t expected to be completed until the end of 2017); plans include 500 guest rooms by the reopening date (with an eventual inventory of 950), nearly 85,000 square feet of event space, a restaurant and a wellness center.

The walled old town of Québec City feels like Europe with its architecture, cobblestone streets, cultural attractions and cuisine, all of which appeal to attendees. The hub for most meetings, however, is the Québec City Convention Centre, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. In the last two decades it has hosted 1,028 conventions, a quarter of which were international groups. This spring, the center announced it had signed 24 national and international conferences, a significant number of them groups in the medical field.

Aside from the main cities in the province, other destinations have proved to be popular with groups. In Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, the Hilton Lac-Leamy features an on-site casino, meeting space for up to 1,600 and lake views from all guest rooms. Fifty miles up the Ottawa River, in the village of Montebello, the Fairmont Le Château Montebello is the world’s largest log building. Depending on season, attendees can enjoy tennis, golf, horseback riding, dog sledding, snowmobiling, sleigh rides, curling and cross-country skiing. Year-round, the property offers conference space for up to 500.

Another four-season resort community is that of Mont-Tremblant, located 85 miles north of Montréal. The pedestrian village has 1,900 guest rooms, 75 restaurants, a casino and a 10,500-square-foot convention center with 12 rooms.

Québec’s “rustic riviera” is the Charlevoix area, where the monied elite and presidents of France vacation. It is also a popular place for business groups. In La Malbaie, the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu is perched on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River and has meeting space for up to 1,000 delegates. Property amenities include a golf course, a spa and indoor pool, an observatory and an adjacent casino.

New Brunswick: Changing Horizons

Although the provincial capital, Fredericton, is a small city with about 60,000 residents, it offers a surprising number of amenities and new additions for its size; for one thing, the entire downtown has free Wi-Fi access. It is also experiencing a spurt of new hotel construction. In 2015, a 103-room Hampton Inn & Suites opened with a 60-person meeting room. Hotels expected to open in late 2017 include a 110-room Hilton Garden Inn and a 122-room Cambria Hotel & Suites.

The 36,000-square-foot, LEED-certified Fredericton Convention Centre continues to host an increasing number of attendees. Three other venues are steps away: the 709-seat Fredericton Playhouse; the Lord Beaverbrook Crowne Plaza Hotel, with 12 event rooms; and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which is adding a $28 million, 14,000-square-foot wing, scheduled to open in mid-2017 with new galleries, a café and a multipurpose theater.

In Saint John, the city’s downtown—known here as Uptown—is also seeing a growth in new restaurant and gallery openings, with more planned to open soon. Also Uptown is the 24,000-square-foot, harborside Saint John Trade & Convention Centre, which recently completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade and improved bandwidth capabilities. The center is part of a complex that connects it to the New Brunswick Museum, whose whale gallery is popular for dinners and receptions; City Hall; an aquatic center; a shopping complex; the Delta/Saint John, currently undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation; and the Hilton/Saint John. Additional city venues include the Lily Lake Pavilion, which can host dinners for up to 200, and the 852-seat Imperial Theatre. The waterfront Marco Polo Cruise Terminal can host receptions of up to 1,000.

Prince Edward Island: Fresh Options

Prince Edward Island is the land of lobster. And oysters. Mussels. Clams. In short, it’s been described as the “Garden of the Gulf.” Groups with members who appreciate fresh seafood might head to New Glasgow, a town on the River Clyde, where New Glasgow Lobster Suppers can cater events of up to 350 from May through October. Also in town is the award-winning PEI Preserve Company, which presents farm-fresh food at its restaurant (also open seasonally).

The province’s main meeting space is found in Charlottetown: the harborside Prince Edward Island Convention Centre which, with the adjacent Delta Hotel, offers 50,000 square feet of event space. Nearby properties with their own function space include the Great George Hotel, with meeting space for up to 50; the Rodd/Charlottetown, able to accommodate special events of up to 400; the Holman Grand Hotel, offering event space for up to 150; and the Best Western/Charlottetown, with meeting space for up to 200.

The University of Prince Edward Island and Holland College both have conference-services departments and offer meeting spaces, overnight accommodations and catering. The Confederation Centre of the Arts houses 12 spaces, including an 1,100-seat theater, a concourse for up to 600 and a restaurant for up to 80 people.

Nova Scotia: Open to New Ideas

The cool, coastal, capital city of Halifax is a century older than Canada but has vibrant art, music and cultural scenes, largely fueled by students attending the local seven universities. Visually, Halifax is an architectural treasure trove, with structures ranging from 250-year-old privateers’ warehouses to the hilltop Citadel (able to host thousands of people) to elegant Georgian mansions.

The $500 million Nova Centre complex in the entertainment district is under construction with shops, restaurants and a 120,000-square-foot convention center scheduled to open next December. Plans include a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and connection to 1,000 guest rooms via a system of covered walkways.

Water is Halifax’s raison d’être. Founded by the Royal Navy in 1749 and still home to Canada’s Atlantic fleet, it is also a hotbed for ocean and life-sciences research and, in fact, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography is one of the world’s four leading ocean research institutes. Abundant opportunities for group activities are found at the harborfront, from excursions on tall ships to land-and-sea exploration aboard amphibious Harbour Hoppers. The Seaport Farmers’ Market has four venues, the largest of which can host up to 866 people, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has event space for up to 250. Also popular is the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, with space for up to 1,000.

Earlier this year, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society held an academic conference in town, working with St. Mary’s University as the local host. “The conference-service office was exceptional, and the catering office on campus was very open to our ideas. All in all, they were very well organized, easy to communicate with, and I feel like I made some friends along the way,” said organizer Maryanne Fisher.

The organization held social events around the city: at the Citadel for its opening reception, a café-bar called the Economy Shoe Shop, the Fickle Frog pub for a student event and the Halifax Alehouse for a get-together. And at the end of the conference, the group traveled an hour southwest to Peggy’s Cove Village for a tour. “The venues were great, and staff were friendly and on the ball,” Fisher said.

The Lord Nelson served as the group’s conference hotel, from which attendees could easily walk to event sites and the waterfront. Fisher also said the city feels safe and offered a variety of efficient and economical transportation options and attractions. “I know several delegates ended up staying for a few days in the area to sightsee and seemed to generally enjoy themselves,” she said.

Newfoundland & Labrador: Bigger & Better Business

The big news in St. John’s is this year’s debut of the expanded and renovated St. John’s Convention Centre, now featuring 47,000 square feet of divisible meeting space for up to 2,175 people. The convention center is connected to the 6,000-seat Mile One Centre and a Delta Hotel with its own 25,000 square feet of meeting space. An upcoming property is the 148-room Alt Hotel, scheduled to open in spring 2017 with 4,000 square feet of meeting space.

Several local outfitters specialize in group birding tours, hiking adventures or trail-running excursions. Or meeting planners can let attendees create their own free-time agenda, which might include a night of Celtic rock or traditional Irish music.

Ready for its Closeup

With a slew of recently completed renovations, a year’s worth of festivities planned for the sesquicentennial and new conference venues and hotels prepared to make their debut, there’s never been a better time to bring your group to Canada’s eastern provinces. While large cities will undoubtedly host the bulk of business, association planners have every reason to include a trip to the country’s national parks, historic sites and marine areas, which will offer free admission for the duration of 2017.