Ontario is the second-largest and most populous province in Canada and one of North America’s most multifaceted destinations.
"It takes two time zones, Eastern and Central, to keep everyone in synch, and within this vast space are geography, flora, fauna and experiences as diverse as Ontarians themselves," says Ontario Tourism’s Helen Lovekin.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city and the provincial capital, is justly famed for its cosmopolitan character and cultural flair, while regal Ottawa, Canada’s vibrant capital, is an eternal bloom of past and present. Both cities are within an hour’s drive of the U.S. border, but planners can go as near or far as they please in Ontario, from the international cities of Niagara Falls, Windsor, Sault Ste. Marie and Kingston to more northerly escapes such as Thunder Bay and Muskoka.
Surrounded by charming regional towns and villages, Ontario’s cities are rarely far from wildlife and natural wonders. Butterflies, beluga whales and polar bears are highlights, along with over 400,000 freshwater lakes and rivers.
In festive Ontario, there’s always something to do—plan on it.
Canada’s leading convention city and among North America’s most cosmopolitan metros, Toronto invites endless exploration.
"When people visit Toronto for the first time we hear time and again how surprised they are by what they find here," says David Whitaker, president and CEO of Tourism Toronto.
Among the discoveries, Whitaker says, is how large Toronto actually is, including the scope and variety of its hotels, restaurants, nightlife and culture. For planners, that means a near-inexhaustible menu of options for events and outings, including its world-class performing arts scene.
"At the heart of our meetings and conventions success are our award-winning facilities and our experience handling events of all sizes," Whitaker says.
Giving planners a decided advantage, he adds, is accessibility.
"Toronto is within a 90-minute flight for 60 percent of the total U.S. population—with direct flights to match—which means getting more of your delegates, clients and colleagues here," he says.
Making Toronto shine even brighter is the new Allstream Centre, advertised as Canada’s greenest and most energy-efficient conference facility. Situated across from the Direct Energy Centre, this 160,000-square-foot facility boasts Toronto’s largest ballroom (comfortably seating 3,000) and 20 airy second-floor meeting rooms.
Meetings-ready hotels expected to debut in 2010 include the 102-room boutique Thompson Toronto; the 53-story Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, featuring 267 rooms and 159 condominium residences; and the 171-room Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square.
Existing properties that have completed enhancements include Sheraton Centre Toronto. The property, located steps from Eaton Centre and its many stores, has 1,377 redesigned guest rooms, a new ballroom and exhibit hall and a 2.5-acre waterfall garden in its new lobby. The property has more than 115,000 total square footage of meeting space.
The Hyatt Regency Toronto on King and the Westin Harbour Castle also recently completed major renovations.
While amenity-equipped for large-scale gatherings, the Niagara area has long desired a matching convention facility. Now taking shape and scheduled for an early 2011 opening, the new Niagara Convention & Civic Centre promises to answer the call.
Situated close to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls in the fashionable Fallsview Tourist District, the 280,000-square-foot, LEED-certified facility will include an 80,000-square-foot, free-span exhibition hall, 26,500 square feet of flexible meeting and breakout space and an intimate 1,000-seat live performance theater
"This is the last piece in the puzzle," says Kerry Painter, president and general manager of the facility. "Historically, bringing in 1,500 conventioneers would be a stretch, typically involving multiple locations. Planners want to be here, and now they will not only have a building, but a true meetings destination."
The contemporary water-themed facility is surrounded by 5,000 upscale hotel rooms within a one-mile radius, along with numerous dining, retail and entertainment facilities, including the 374-room Fallsview Casino Resort.
The Sheraton Fallsview and the Marriott Fallsview are among the top meetings-ready hotels.
Collectively, the Niagara region boasts more than 15,000 hotel rooms, with an extensive range of product offerings and rate categories from various major brands. Additionally, planners enjoy a full menu of off-agenda diversions, including more than 60 area wineries, more than 500 restaurants, top golf courses and, of course, the area’s signature falls.
This summer, the eyes of the world will be on this famed escape north of Toronto when the acclaimed Deerhurst Resort hosts the 2010 G8 Summit.
"Once Discovered, Never Forgotten," goes Muskoka Tourism’s tagline, capturing the draw of the lakes, granite outcroppings, pine-forested islands and wildlife comprising this 2,500-acre adventurer’s paradise.
Conference facilities within easy reach include the award-winning Taboo Resort Golf & Spa on Lake Muskoka, and The Rosseau, the first JW Marriott Resort & Spa in Canada.
Remote North Muskoka ("worth the drive," as locals say) is where the region’s essential escapes are found. The Deerhurst is here; also ideally suited for corporate retreats is the Northridge Inn & Resort on Lake Bernard.
For planners, Muskoka offers a complete roster of travel products and attractions, from golf and antiquing to year-round outdoor recreation.
Anticipation is the watchword in Canada’s capital city, as Ottawa prepares to launch the brand new Ottawa Convention Centre in April 2011. Within walking distance of 6,000 hotel rooms, the former Ottawa Congress Centre will reopen with almost triple the space (nearly 200,000 square feet) of its previous incarnation. It will overlook the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Committed to environmental responsibility, the new facility is seeking Silver LEED certification.
"There’s never been a better time to host a meeting in Ottawa," says Jantine Van Kregten of Ottawa Tourism. "Excitement is building over the Ottawa Convention Centre reopening, and there’s a real sense of pride in the community. The culinary scene is exploding, festivals are expanding, and there’s a commitment to customer service coming through."
Nearing completion, an as-yet unbranded 440-room hotel will become part of the Hampton Inn Ottawa and Conference Centre complex; other hotel developments include a 191-room Marriott Residence Inn south of downtown, and several mid-range properties east and west of downtown.
After extensive renovations, the event-friendly Canadian Museum of Nature, in its centennial year, unveils its new look in May, and Canada’s largest water park, Calypso Theme Waterpark, will open this summer just east of Ottawa.
Ottawa’s treasure trove of off-site venues include the Canadian Museum of Civilization,
the National Gallery of Canada and the Cold War Museum, which offers board meetings four stories underground in the War Cabinet Room.
Dating to 1673 and with origins as the first capital city of 19th century Canada, Kingston’s successful blend of old and new is a winning combination for planners.
Gateway to the 1,000 Islands and a center of art, culture and music, "Limestone City" comes with a spectacular waterfront evocatively backed by historic architecture. An emerging force in alternative energy, advanced manufacturing and the research and development sectors, Kingston’s heart beats in its buzzing downtown core, where the conference-capable Grand Theatre and K-Rock Centre are within walking distance of four large hotels.
"Our location makes us an ideal middle meeting point between larger metros such as Toronto and Montreal," says Tourism Kingston’s Connie Markle. "From harbor tours to the many museums highlighting our glorious history, planners have an array of agenda-enhancing activities."
In addition to myriad waterway adventures, off-site options include the International Hockey Hall of Fame and the MacLachlan Woodworking Museum. At the meetings-ready Fort Henry National Historical Site, the changing of the guard, resplendent in 1867 British infantry uniforms, is a must-see.
Sault Ste. Marie
Among Canada’s oldest European settlements and popularly known as the "Soo," this historic riverfront community of 80,000 is a spirited choice in the heart of the Great Lakes region. It shares its name with its sister city in Michigan directly across the Saint Mary River-spanning International Bridge (Interstate 75).
A focal point of this sports and entertainment destination is the 30,000-square-foot Essar Centre, formerly the Steelback Centre. It offers exhibit space for 110 booths and multipurpose gathering venues.
The 212-room Great Northern Hotel & Conference Centre, with more than 15,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, is recognized as Northern Ontario’s largest conference facility. Other meetings-ready properties include the high-tech Pavilion at the 180-room Algoma Water Tower Inn resort, and the new 195-room Delta Sault Ste. Marie Waterfront Hotel and Conference Centre, with more than 10,000 square feet of conference space.
Popular attractions include the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site, boat tours of the Sault locks (which connect Lake Superior with the lower Great Lakes), and the scenic Agawa Canyon Tour Train.
Windsor, Essex County and Pelee Island
Windsor, just minutes from Detroit via either the Ambassador Bridge or the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, is accessible to 60 percent of the entire population of the U.S. and Canada.
The jewel of the "City of Roses" is Caesars Windsor, which became Canada’s largest casino resort when it opened its
$439 million expansion property in June 2008. Rebranded with the world-renowned Caesars name, the riverfront resort offers a royal flush of amenities for planners, including 758 hotel rooms in two towers looking out across the Detroit River at Motown’s skyscrapers, and a 100,000-square-foot convention center.
Unique off-site ideas include tours of the historic Canadian Club Brand Centre, once the offices and factory for Canadian Club whisky and featuring formal gardens overlooking the Detroit River, and the Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum, once the terminal sanctuary for pre-Civil War slaves from the Southern U.S.
Charming Pelee Island, one of several attractions in Essex County, is mainland Canada’s southernmost point. Point Pelee National Park is a natural paradise, attracting migratory birds and butterflies every year.
First explored by 17th century European fur traders, the former "Baie de Tonnere" serves as the meetings and tourism focal point for Northern Ontario.
"Blending a rich urban culture with all the amenities of a modern convention community,
Thunder Bay is an inspired choice for any major convention, business meeting or team-building retreat," says Rose Marie Tarnowski, convention and visitor services coordinator for Tourism Thunder Bay.
A community of over 120,000 people on the shores of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay’s numerous attractions include professional theater and a symphony orchestra. The city offers more than 1,900 hotel rooms and a wide range of meeting venues, including six conference hotels as well as Lakehead University’s indoor sport facility.
"Unique outdoor activities often take place at Fort William Historical Park and Chippewa Park, while some groups opt for sailing, fishing or flight-seeing charters," Tarnowski says.
—Frequent Meetings East contributor Jeff Heilman will be covering the Greater Toronto area in our next issue.