CANADA: West coast rediscovered

Vancouver is adding a portfolio of hotels and venues to back up its incentive offering to make the long-haul flight from the UK more than worthwhile, as Stephanie Roberts reports.

The dramatic landscape of Canada's west coast province of British Columbia lends an inspirational and natural backdrop to any incentive.

But in a world of decreasing budgets and ever shorter lead times, it takes more than spectacular scenery to entice the corporate buyer to a destination.

This is an issue about which DMC CanTravWest vice-president sales and marketing Janice Cann is only too aware. "You get the distinct impression many UK groups would rather visit a beach destination if they are going to travel long-haul, so we need to show them exactly what can be done here throughout the year in places such as Vancouver and the mountain resorts, she says. "We need to push home the fact it's not all about the snow but that in our summer months temperatures can reach 35 degC, which gives rise to lots of outdoor incentive opportunities."

It appears UK agencies are continuing to put Vancouver forward as an incentive destination - Travel Impact is looking to place a group in the city as part of a dual-destination programme, as is fellow agency Motivation Travel Management (MTM).

The London-based Canadian Tourism Commission's (CTC) promotions and incentives manager, Kirsty Drake, has reported a surge in enquiries for the west coast this year, and the CTC is preparing to take an agency and its corporate clients on a fam trip later this year, following the debut trip's success last year. "The interest is definitely there, she says, "but now we need to convert that interest to business, which is why we're approaching corporate end users."

While admitting its popularity is cyclical, Eyas managing director Scott Gibbons rates Vancouver highly, describing it as visitor-friendly, attractive and home to a wide range of C&I possibilities. "We've also found it's easier to sell the west coast of Canada than the east because it's a great destination all-year round, he says.

A further bonus of visiting during the summer, adds Cann, is that it avoids the higher accommodation costs synonymous with popular winter sports destinations. In addition, Vancouver is just an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from London, with daily flights from British Airways and Air Canada.

While Vancouver's waterside location and coastal mountain ranges make it an attractive option for incentives, it is also developing as a conference destination.

Already home to the 14,000 sq m Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre (VCEC), which hosts around 350 events each year, the city's meeting space will be tripled when the venue secures funding for its planned expansion.

The centre's director of sales and client services Claire Smith describes the current facility as "boutique - ideal for groups of up to 2,500.

She maintains the planned expansion is to meet demand for larger groups and will assist in the city's bid for the Winter Olympics in 2010.

Winter games expansion

"We have been falling behind other cities in our conference offer, so the plan is to create a new building adjacent to the existing centre," Smith explains. "We hope construction will start at the end of this year."

The centre is supported by the 504-room Pan Pacific and 489-room Fairmont Waterfront hotels. Greater Vancouver Convention & Visitors Bureau (GVCVB) manager, international sales and market development, Richard Yore believes the city already has the hotel capacity to support the centre's expansion.

"The expansion has been planned for a while, so the properties are already in place, he says.

The convention centre is just a five-minute walk from downtown Vancouver, where 10,000 hotel rooms are available. C&I-friendly properties include the Hyatt Regency, which reopened in March following a C$14m (£6m) renovation and the 736-room Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre, one of the city's largest hotels.

Fairmont hotels feature prominently in Vancouver as the chain has four properties, including one on Vancouver Island, which is attached to the Victoria Conference Centre, and one at the airport. In addition to these, the 555-room Hotel Vancouver has meeting capacity for up to 1,500. It recently underwent a C$65m (£28m) restoration and is one of the city's oldest hotels, albeit dating only as far back as 1939.

Young the city may be, but not immune to accommodation trends. Boutique hotels are emerging as the city experiences demand for a wider variety of properties. The 100-room Opus Hotel opened in July and offers a more contemporary style to the traditional hotels. Its location in the trendy Yaletown district is a bonus for groups looking for an area of Vancouver suitable for dine-arounds. Yaletown has a distinct New York style, and many of the former warehouses have been transformed into restaurants, some of which can be hired out in their entirety.

Roger Moore, managing director of event management agency Ahead, believes Vancouver has transformed into a more bustling city over the last few years. "There's better nightlife than there used to be, he says. "There are plenty of restaurants that are great for dine-arounds."

While Eyas' Gibbons is very impressed with Vancouver's venues and facilities, he cites one small snag. "Vancouver operates a very strict no-smoking policy, even in some outside areas, so some groups may find this a little restrictive, he says.

Vancouver's dining offer is not limited to its restaurants, according to Vivian Farkas, sales manager at DMC Rare Indigo.

She cites taking breakfast at the city's aquarium while watching the whales, or hosting dinners at the art gallery or the Museum of the First Nations, which celebrates the culture of Canada's indigenous peoples.

"There are already plenty of venues that are more than willing to open up for groups, she says. "It's also fun to put groups on a floatplane and fly them to a restaurant on an island because that's unique to Vancouver."

The city's outdoors environment forms the majority of incentive programmes.

Delegates can take the cable car to Grouse Mountain, where they can be entertained by professional lumberjacks. First Nations demonstrations and performances, tours of the grizzly bear habitat, as well as winter activities such as ski races and fondue/ snowshoe packages are just some of the alternatives.

Mountain-top venues can seat up to 400 or alternatively, meetings can be given an authentic Canadian feel by being held in the hiwus feasthouse - a traditional cedar longhouse.

Outdoor incentives

UK groups often combine Vancouver with another destination in British Columbia and a popular choice is the mountain resort of Whistler, a two-hour drive away.

Despite the transfer time, DMC Destination Planners president Emily Edwards insists this can easily be incorporated into a programme. She suggests either flying groups part of the way by floatplane, chartering a cruise boat or taking the Royal Hudson steam train which starts running again this summer. Groups that travel by road along the Sea-to-Sky highway can take in any number of stops along the way to enjoy breathtaking views.

Tourism Whistler manager, destination awareness Europe, Monica Leeck explains that while the UK is the largest overseas market for the destination, Whistler is still seen primarily as a ski resort. The board is keen to get groups acquainted with the resort's summer activities and is showcasing them with regular visits to the UK to meet with buyers and by hosting fam trips.

MTM managing director John Derrick has experienced Whistler's offer.

"There's so much to do there in the summer, he says, "you can play golf at one of its four courses, trek, hang glide, or helicopter up the mountains. This is in addition to the all-terrain vehicle tours, summer skiing and snowboarding, horse riding and water sports on Whistler Valley's five lakes. Whistler Mountain's summit even offers meeting space at the Roundhouse Lodge, which holds 1,200 for a cocktail reception or 900 for a buffet dinner.

To reinforce the incentive offer, Whistler provides some of the largest hotel function space in North America for a mountain resort. The 558-room Fairmont Chateau Whistler, part of Leading Hotels of the World and based at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain, seats 1,100 for dinner in its ballroom. There are a further ten meeting rooms and an outdoor terrace with a marquee put up for the warm season. "We're very much a group hotel, 65 per cent of our business is derived from C&I bookings, particularly in summer, explains director of group sales Brigitte Lundrigan.

The resort boasts a variety of other properties, ranging from the all-suite Westin Resort & Spa, which offers 15 meeting rooms for up to 900 theatre-style, to the Delta Whistler Resort, which has capacity for 500 across its meeting space. A Four Seasons property is under construction and will open in 2004.

Furthermore, the Whistler Conference Centre will undergo an expansion programme from October and will reopen in 2003. Tourism Whistler director of meetings and incentive experience Lynda Gilroy firmly believes the resort needs additional facilities. "Whistler has been growing considerably and our facility has not matched that, she says. "The expansion will see our current 13 meeting rooms grow to 19 with the ability to host up to 2,300 delegates."

Their strong conference infrastructure, a good exchange rate and a huge range of incentive activities prove both Vancouver and Whistler can offer the C&I market more than outstanding natural beauty.

As MTM's Derrick concludes: "You can do some wonderful dual-destination trips and they are suitable for groups of all ages. The hotels, DMCs and bureaus are all very professional and they are two of the easiest places in the world in which to operate."

Company: Clerical Medical International
Event: convention plus incentive activities
Date: 18-22 February 2002
Group size: 110
Agency: Skybridge
Destination: Whistler
Budget: undisclosed

When Clerical Medical International (CMI) wanted to thank its key customers, finding a motivational destination was paramount.

CMI turned to Skybridge with a few shortlisted destinations. "The delegates were very well travelled, says account manager Jenifer Lipson. "So we had to come up with somewhere new, and incorporate a ski element."

Whistler was selected because of its accessibility and, according to Lipson, it lent the right kudos to the event.

CMI Financial Management Services regional director Mark Rawson agrees.

"It combined a great location with activities to stretch the experienced traveller while providing a great introduction for the less adventurous, he explains.

Arriving in Vancouver, the group was transported to Whistler Village by private coaches where they were accommodated at the Fairmont property, Chateau Whistler.

Delegates enjoyed an informal dinner, and the half-day convention was hosted in the ballroom the following day. Both Skybridge and CMI were impressed with the hotel. "The Chateau was first class, with excellent rooms and facilities, says Rawson. "Not only that, but it is located just at the foot of the ski slopes."

For the next three days, delegates were able to participate in a range of winter activities, from skiing, dog-sledding, snowmobiling, heli-sightseeing and snowshoe walking.

The location also allowed the group to dine in a variety of restaurants.

"Whistler Village has some fabulous restaurants, which are good for dine-arounds, says Lipson.

Yet it was the final gala evening that was the highlight for Rawson.

The group had taken over Joel's restaurant, part of the hotel's golf club just outside of Whistler Village. The restaurant was themed with ice sculptures, and caricaturists and magicians were invited to provide the evening's entertainment, which concluded with fireworks and live music.

Lipson speaks highly of Whistler as a C&I destination. "The ground agent was extremely focused and everywhere offered high quality services, she says. "Even though it is a two-hour transfer from Vancouver, the destination is superb."

Canadian Tourism Commission
Canada House, Trafalgar Square, London SW1Y 5BJ
Contact: Kirsty Drake
Tel: 020 7258 6478
Exchange rate: £1=C$2.3
Flying time from UK: 8.5 hours

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