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On the Scene: Destination Canada’s Legendary Winter Incentive Experience in Quebec City

The group poses for a photo with Bonhomme outside his ice castle

“Little town, it’s a quiet village—every day like the one before. Little town full of little people waking up to say, ‘Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!”

I may not have been Belle singing down French village streets, but the atmosphere of Quebec City felt like stepping into the setting of Beauty and the Beast.

Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a 130-year-old hotel
Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a 130-year-old hotel

I woke up to coffee, croissants and chocolatine every morning from the city’s crown jewel, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, and felt as though I may have been living in my own French-provincial wonderland looking out the 14th-floor Gold Lounge window down to the rushing, icy waters of the St. Lawrence River.  

The host hotel for Destination Canada’s Incentive Canada–Winter 2023 event in Quebec City won the Guinness World Record for most photographed hotel in the world, according to Atlas Obscura, and when the shuttle took us up the hill through Old Quebec City’s fortifications, through the quaint European-style storefronts and down winding narrow streets to the grand front doors of the hotel, I completely understood why.  

It’s difficult not to look up and take in the soaring 260-foot central tower and ponder how you’re staying in the very place President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other leaders of the Allies met during World War II for the Octagon Conference, planning what would become known as D-Day, the largest invasion force in human history. 

Nearly 80 years later, there I was, walking through rotating doors into a lobby transporting me back to the decade it was built, more excited about now having something in common with Celine Dion (a frequent hotel guest) than FDR, but grateful either way for the view from my 11th-floor guest room window and opportunity to experience 130 years of hotel history in a city as beautiful as Quebec.  

“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” the receptionist greeted me as I checked in. “Welcome to the castle.” 

Hotel de Glace and Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

Sitting beside my breakfast plate and to pair with my vanilla yogurt and raspberry cream cheese puff pastry was a hot latte, still steaming and topped with foam, that for all I know could’ve been poured by Mrs. Potts herself—though there was no chip in my cup.

At first, I couldn’t tell you how it got there or who made it so perfect, but when a dining staff member returned to make me a second latte, I wasn’t surprised to discover the magic behind my first one had to do with Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac’s exceptional staff and service and their genuine gratitude for being there.

Posing for a photo inside the chapel at Hotel de Glace
Posing for a photo inside the chapel at Hotel de Glace. Credit: Destination Canada

Following breakfast at the Fairmont, the other early arrivals and I boarded a shuttle to Hotel de Glace—which is completely made of ice—for an exclusive visit. Offering its guests a bucket list-worthy winter experience, Hotel de Glace transforms in its appearance every year as new artists carve and sculpt different designs into the hotel’s guest room walls. 

For only three months a year, guests can spend a night in one of Hotel de Glace’s unique guest rooms and suites, which are all built using ice molds and feature access to shared saunas and hot tubs to warm up before a night beneath the stars and snowflakes. Guests also receive an insulated sleeping bag, and a night at Hotel de Glace includes an additional room inside Hotel Valcartier, a four-star family hotel offering 153 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 400 guests just a few yards away.  

Our tour of Hotel de Glace finished with a trip to the ice workshop to learn how ice glasses are made before testing them ourselves with a few cocktails at Bar de Glace.

Between our time at Hotel de Glace and our welcome reception and dinner, I shuffled up and down the snowy streets of the city in my UGG boots (the wrong kind of boots for Quebec City in February), got lost for a bit in a residential area, and tried a BeaverTail—sort of like the American elephant ear—with hazelnut spread and powdered sugar. 

Dinner at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
Dinner at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Credit: Destination Canada

A horse pulling a carriage trotted past the Fairmont when I made my way back past local cafes and La Boutique de Noel—the year-round Christmas shop—for Incentive Canada’s welcome reception and dinner. I swapped my snowpants-style overalls for a denim pair and gathered with the group in the prefunction space outside the Fairmont’s Salle de Bal. The hotel’s Grand Ballroom can welcome up to 1,000 guests and boasts 10 massive, dangling crystal chandeliers for each of Canada’s 10 provinces that were installed for the Canadian Centennial in 1967.  

The way the ballroom twinkled from the hundreds of crystals sparkling overhead left everyone speechless as curtains were pulled back to reveal two long dining tables situated beneath the chandeliers. Walking in, the fog swirling and spinning up the legs of every dining chair made the tables look like they were floating on clouds.

Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac became the first historic hotel in Canada to achieve carbon neutrality in 2020, following a long-time commitment to sustainability. (At one point, the hotel planted a tree for every guest who declined housekeeping!)

For our welcome reception and dinner, the team at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac took it one step further by weaving sustainability into dinner through decor representing boreal forests, or forests growing in high-latitude environments with frequent freezing temperatures (like those in Quebec!), alongside our place cards and five-course menus.

Dinner at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
Dinner at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Credit: Destination Canada

While a few fellow attendees and I discussed the unexpected burst of flavor that came after biting into the sea buckthorns topping our desserts, the ballroom’s windows began to dance. The lights illuminating the chandeliers started to flicker, the four musicians from the Quebec Symphony Orchestra stopped playing their instruments, and suddenly the ballroom’s ceiling began to crack and fall apart, revealing a “hole” overhead with a view of the galaxies. All that was missing was an enchanted candelabra singing Be Our Guest.

Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, with the audiovisual aid of Encore, showcased a level of video projection mapping I’ve never experienced before. The history of the hotel literally played out on the walls surrounding us, from its blueprints to its recovery from a fire to some of its most-notable guests and dignitaries, and when the show concluded, a few attendees even stood from their seats to applaud.

It was the perfect happy ending to the first chapter of our Incentive Canada–Winter 2023 fairytale. 

[Related: Destination Canada Announces City Additions to Global Destination Sustainability Index]

Coast-to-Coast Canadian Incentives

The optional morning walk to kickstart day two may or may not have kept even my adventurous Gen Z spirit in bed (It was really cold!), but every Incentive Canada–Winter 2023 attendee, partners and clients alike, arrived at 8 a.m. sharp to begin four hours of back-to-back one-on-one appointments.

Taylor during Incentive Canada - Winter 2023 one-on-one appointments
Taylor during Incentive Canada - Winter 2023 one-on-one appointments. Credit: Destination Canada

Destination Canada brought in representatives from places like Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, Prince Edward Island, Whistler and more, and 10 minutes with each of them wasn’t nearly long enough to hear all their destinations had to offer meetings and events.  

The appointments are what made the trip Incentive Canada rather than Incentive Quebec, because even though I spent most of my time within Quebec City’s fortified walls, I left with knowledge and friends across the entire country and a growing curiosity to come back and explore even more. 

I learned a trip to the largest ski resort in North America, Whistler Blackcomb, takes you on a sea-to-sky highway recognized by National Geographic as one of the most scenic drives in the world; that Canmore, a town in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, encourages visitors to “Pledge to the Peaks” and take care of the land and mountains they are on; and that Banff & Lake Louise offers a co-branded Visa card co-investment opportunity for groups in which a percentage of end funds are donated to a charity of the client’s choice. In the world of incentives, Canada has opportunities from coast to coast.  

Taylor wearing Destination Canada gear at Erabliere du Lac-Beauport, or the Sugar Shack
Taylor wearing Destination Canada gear at Erabliere du Lac-Beauport, or the Sugar Shack

A Sugar Shack Experience: Making Maple Syrup

Clad in matching red-and-white Canadian gear, the group shuffled our way from the shuttle to a bonfire surrounded by Adirondack chairs draped in plaid blankets and a bar serving glasses of the simple and uniquely Canadian drink, Caribou—red wine, hard liquor and maple syrup.  

Once we all had a glass in our mittens, we gathered at a traditional Quebecois sugar shack, Erabliere du Lac-Beauport, for an educational presentation on how maple syrup has been made in sugar shacks throughout history, and afterwards all we wanted to do was try some maple syrup.

Our maple-infused lumberjack lunch started with French-Canadian pea soup followed by heaping plates of ham, meat pie, maple-flavor brown beans with pork and more, all drenched in maple syrup. Dessert consisted of homemade pancakes, sugar pies and maple taffy on the snow. 

Enjoying maple taffy on snow after lunch at the Sugar Shack
Enjoying maple taffy on snow after lunch at the Sugar Shack

Throughout the entire meal, La Famille Painchaud entertained with an impressive cover of Charlie Daniel’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia, a rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow played with a bow and saw (rather than a violin), and one member doing a handstand on a hoverboard while carrying the cello and playing Eminem’s Lose Yourself with his feet! 

I felt back in my French-provincial fairytale once again, watching members of La Famille Painchaud perform tricks you’d only imagine possible in cartoons and rooms emanating the same energy as the scene in the tavern from my favorite Disney princess movie. “No one’s slick as Gaston,” but I doubt the villain could play the cello with his big toe. 

Outside, after rolling a popsicle stick in hot maple taffy drizzled onto snow and popping it straight into my mouth, I threw axes over my head at wooden targets, used an old-fashioned lumberjack saw to saw myself an uneven coaster, all the while watching a few attendees who went snowshoeing carefully searching for snow that wasn’t so soft they’d sink in. When everyone had their chance to purchase a bottle of maple syrup to-go, from the village back to the castle we went.

Fireside Chat With Bastien Industries and Dinner at Le Parlementaire

All the way down the main hallway off the Fairmont’s lobby is an elegant entryway leading to Sam Bistro on the right, with poutine the entire table is bound to pick at, and Champlain Restaurant to the left, featuring cutting-edge regional cuisine. The restaurant’s wine fridge in the center of the room features ladders that glide across the floor like the ones in the Beast’s castle library.

Our fireside chat with Bastien Industries—a Quebec-based company that produces 100% authentic Canadian Huron-Wendat moccasins and handicrafts using traditional Indigenous techniques and craftsmanship, took place in Champlain Restaurant. The classic and popular restaurant can be transformed into an intimate and elegant private event space and features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the St. Lawrence River finished with artistic touches.  

Together, Jennifer Attersall, director, incentive travel at Destination Canada, and Jason Picard-Binet, CEO and owner of Bastien Industries and part of the Huron-Wendat Nation, discussed cultural sustainability, the incentive industry and the history of the Huron-Wendat Nation in the space during our fireside chat. 

Prefunction cocktail reception at Le Parlementaire
Prefunction cocktail reception at Le Parlementaire. Credit: Destination Canada

After the conversation and on our way to the Parliament Building of Quebec (Hotel du Parlement du Quebec), I heard attendees discussing their appreciation of Destination Canada for including time dedicated to cultural sustainability on the agenda. Not only did we learn more about the destination through our conversation, but we left knowing we learned something meaningful and can help preserve Quebec’s culture. 

With my forehead against the shuttle window, I squinted at the Parliament Building of Quebec, trying to figure out if the silhouettes in many of the building’s windows were actors or real people waiting to give us a warm and elaborate welcome—there was seemingly no limit to the surprises at Incentive Canada – Winter 2023—however, the silhouettes turned out to be 26 statues representing some of the city’s key historical figures.

The Parliament Building of Quebec is a grand, eight-story home to the National Assembly of Quebec and Le Parlementaire, a fine dining restaurant serving Canadian cuisine in the building’s ornate dining room, a space typically reserved for dignitaries and politicians.

Quebec City Business Destination organized our dinner at Le Parlementaire, a building not showcased to the public, and our entertainment for the evening. Executive Chef Martin Gagne put together a menu featuring puff pastry, foie gras, homemade black pudding and apples finished with a coffee caramel, and sweet clover shortbread with cloudberry jam and homemade marshmallow. Between courses, we were serenaded in French, and the way the words flowed in every song made me wish I could speak the language.

[Related: Expert Tips for Bringing a U.S. Meeting to Canada]

Local and Legendary Incentive Experiences

Strøm Nordic Spa in Old Quebec City
Strøm Nordic Spa in Old Quebec City

Never have I been more excited to wake up to my alarm than I was the morning of my incentive experience at Strøm Nordic Spa in Old Quebec. While I packed my swimsuit and tied my hair back to soak in the steaming Nordic bath, others slipped into snowpants and got ready for ice canoeing on the St. Lawrence River or ice climbing frozen waterfalls. 

When I saw my view of the St. Lawrence River from the spa’s infinity pool overlooking it, I was all the more satisfied with my spa decision, as the icy waters of the river shifted currents right in front of my eyes, changing directions with the tides. And as I sat with my arms perched on the ledge, the winter wind freezing small strands of my wet hair, I considered all the possibilities Destination Canada offered meeting attendees for incentive experiences—skiing and canoeing and climbing and massages and facials—and appreciated how uniquely Canadian the experiences were. Even the spa, offering experiences and treatments unique to Old Quebec, is something that I can’t find back home in Chicago. 

[Related: Achieve Simple Wellness With Historical Spa Treatments]

During a conversation with Chantal Sturk-Nadeau, executive director, business events at Destination Canada, she brought up the need to now educate groups on experiences rather than destinations. 

Taylor posing in front of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
Taylor posing in front of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

“The concept around a destination and why you should bring your meeting, incentive or group is now instead educating them on the types of experiences a destination has that are different,” Sturk-Nadeau said. “It’s making people aware that Canada has Europe. It’s making them aware that, whatever the value proposition is for whatever audience, they love our tried-and-true, but is it because that’s all we’re telling them about? It’s all they know.

“It’s not us trying to say, ‘Don’t go to other beaches,’” she continued, “It’s more for them to understand that we have beaches, too. If they don’t want to go away from beaches, we have beaches, but we’ll show you beaches in a different way.”

Sturk-Nadeau’s ultimate goal is to see increased knowledge—especially in the U.S.—of all that Canada is and can offer. Destination Canada attends more than 40 different events in and outside the country annually, representing the country alongside their partners. The way to keep visitor appetite alive, she believes, is continuing to tell different Canadian stories in different ways, changing audience perception and showing them something new.

“Now is a really good time and opportunity to take that leap,” Sturk-Nadeau said. “Come to Canada and see something new. Everyone’s been in their own comfort zone for two to three years. Take that leap again and take that leap into Canada. You’re going to experience something completely transformational that you perhaps have never even thought of doing before.”

Taylor posing with an ice sculpture of Destination Canada's logo
Taylor posing with an ice sculpture of Destination Canada's logo

Those transformational Canadian moments, Sturk-Nadeau said, showcase the difference in legendary versus luxury experiences. Ultimately, the difference between legendary and luxury experiences, especially incentives, is subjective, but what meeting and event attendees are searching for more often now is more once-in-a-lifetime than beaches, palm trees and all-inclusive resorts. 

“Canada is legendary at the center of our experiences,” Sturk-Nadeau said. “We have all your bucket-list things that you can’t necessarily get anywhere else, and if you can, it’s going to be  given to you in a completely different way. 

“When you’re nose-to-nose with a polar bear in a tundra buggy in the middle of the tundra and it’s just this barren way—you can’t even see the difference between the terrain covered in snow and the sky,” Sturk-Nadeau said. “And all of a sudden, you see this mother and her three cubs walking, and they come right up to the tundra buggy. The mother came up like this,” Sturk-Nadeau lifted her arms above her head like she was looking through a window, “and she was right there, nose to nose with me. The experience was transformational. That’s where we have our legendary.” 

I didn’t brush noses with a polar bear, but my time in Canada showed me how legendary the country can truly be no matter how you choose to experience it. 

Destination Canada

Read this next: 3 Bucket List-Worthy Executive Retreat Experiences Surrounded By Nature and Wildlife

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.