Brash, bold and sophisticated – Montreal’s reputation for the unexpected and extraordinary is a huge draw for groups large and small. By Allan Lynch
Sexy and sophisticated are the reigningdescriptions of Montreal. It’sCanada’s Big Apple, and with 10 bars and65 restaurants per sq. km, it’s right upthere with New York, L.A., London andMiami for nightlife. The city has 200 theatrecompanies, 50 dance groups, and,curiously, is the tango capital of NorthAmerica. That’s Montreal, a place ofplenty, including surprises catering to anyand every taste.
It has produced world-class entertainers,like Cirque de Soleil; is a leader in medical research and aerospace; is home to 70 international organizations; and hosts successful events, from the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival to the Grand Prix, to the High Lights Festival during the darkest months of winter. Whatever the time of year, groups can usually pump up their programme by working in some festival or uniquely Montreal event.
While Montreal has the civility of aCanadian city, it also possesses an uncharacteristic boldness. Forty years after hosting Expo 67, this Olympic city does not shy away from grand schemes or big ideas. More than many destinations,Montreal seems to have developed a shorthand which allows industry and government to work together quickly to make things happen. As a result, requests are answered with that little gallic shrug and an “of course.” This is probably why planners rave about the place.
Marie Lou Coupal, CMP, director ofgroup sales at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth,says, “There’s a certain sense of style and individuality. Montreal is not a place where everybody is from the same cookie cutter. We’ve European élan with North American comfort. We like that there is a certain flair and flavour. Everyone takes pride in their specialty. Here a cheese maker isn’t just a cheese maker,he is an artist. Everybody is an artist and they want to impress and give you the best they have to offer.”
COME OUT AND PLAY
Montreal’s élan shines through in both venue offerings and programme elements.The Centre VIP, for example, not only provides modern meeting space for boards and groups up to 250 people, it also has a skating rink on-site. Groups have taken breaks to skate, engage in team-building with a game of pick-up hockey, and held a black-tie event on skates. Cirque Eloize operates from a19th-century railway station, where they employ circus training for team-building and provide acts to entertain at events. Forget centrepieces – imagine the impact of a banquet where trapeze artists perform overhead.
This local pride provides an interesting sales opportunity for groups, according to Tamara Nemchin, marketing and conference manager for the Canadian Association of University Business Officers(CAUBO). “The allure of Montreal, from the perspective of exhibitors and sponsors,is that Quebec is a very different market to access. So when you hold an event in Quebec, you get more of the Quebec delegation to attend. That presents an interesting opportunity for people who are doing business across North America to tap into the Quebec market.”
CAUBO held their annual meeting atthe Hilton Montreal Bonaventure in June, 2006. Nemchin had 460 registered delegates, plus a 55-booth tradeshow. Nemchin was torn by her event’s success. “As an association, we’ve been on a growth pattern, but I can say, for the first time, we had to close registration for our trade show, so that’s what we consider a very successful conference. As a non-profit, whenever like to turn away revenue, although it’s a nice problem to have.”
Scotiabank is another regular Montreal client. Anne Marie Obdam, Scotiabank’s manager of event planning, has project leaders who manage four quarterly managerial meetings a year in the province. Her last 150-person group was at the InterContinental in January. The InterContinental’s bedrooms are located in a 20th century building across the street from the Convention Centre, while its adjacent meeting space ranges from three-centuries-old stone vaults to the Victorian opulence above. The hotel bills itself as having three centuries of style. Obdam used the atrium area, Fortification Lane, for a gala evening. “It’s a line between new and old Montreal, which is rather cool,” she says.
For Obdam, Montreal’s allure is the cuisine.“Absolutely, from the way theyogurts are presented in champagne glasses to the quality of the food and the availability of the fine dining, it’s just phenomenal.And of course, shopping isgood too. But for us, the food gets rave reviews. We’re finding that Quebec participants are extremely knowledgeable.So we spend more on the food there,because that’s where we can exceed expectations.”
While food quality is a treat, Nemchin was surprised to find that off-site venue sadded 10 per cent of the food bill to the facilities rental, when she engaged outside catering. “I had not encountered that before. It was the same at every off-site venue we went to.”
Cynthia Bennell, president of Mississauga,Ont.-based DSM Conference Planning, Inc., has found an explosion in client requests for Montreal. “I’ve probably had four meetings there in 14 years, and then in the past couple of years, my clients ask for it more and more. It’s perceived as a sexy destination. It’s sophisticated,yet fun. If you’re bringing in a younger crowd, there’s lots of nightlife, and the restaurant experience is amazing.”
In 2002, Bennell took 450 lawyers to the Delta Centre-ville. The client, who she describes as “very savvy, very well traveled,” was so impressed with the programme, they are virtually duplicating it in 2007. “This has never happened before for this programme,” she says. Outside of the business sessions, participants will be given spa treatments, an adrenaline rush jet-boating on the Lachine Rapids and ziplining at Mirabel.
SMALL GROUP SAVVY
In spite of massive venues like the ConventionCentre, which can hold 14,000people, and the 300,000-sq.-ft. exhibition space at Place Bonaventure, Montreal hasn’t forgotten the little guy. Associations, which often complain their lack of bedroom buys shuts them out of hotel meeting rooms, have a wealth of choice. The elegant Mount Stephen Club can host meetings, breakfasts,luncheons and dinners for two to400 people. The Mount Royal Centre,which was originally built for a branch of the United Nations, can cater to 12-person boards up to banquets for 650. Groups can hire a room or the entire facility. Even the Casino de Montreal provides a diverse array of options, from the high-roller lifestyle of L’Executive, a plush, self-contained suite that can accommodate small receptions, dinners and board meetings, to the light-filled,lakeside Baccara Room, and 500-seat Cabaret. The Cabaret can be hired as a turn-key evening, with entertainment,or operate with reserved tables. The Casino’s recently refurbished, five-diamond fine dining room, Nuances, is also available for exclusive hire.
Obdam says, “Montreal is no more expensive than anywhere else in Canada. We’ve been able to negotiate very good pricing, especially with the smaller and boutique hotels in Old Montreal. With the bigger hotels, we had to go back a couple of times and that’s okay. We did extremely well and were within budget.”
Bennell, who had a 65-person group in Montreal in April, found chefs willing to work within her budget. “If you give them what you can spend, they’ll come up with something creative. And in Montreal, there are so many activities that are reasonably priced — for example, a guided walking tour in Old Montreal was practically nothing per person, like $150 for 30 people.”She also saved by going to a reputable, but not trendy, French restaurant, where they kept the price to under $50 per person.
In addition to positive delegate responses, Nemchin says, “It’s great to be able to partner with VIA and not just an airline. The Hilton, you get off the train and you’re there. There’s no cab ride, you just walk across the street – outside, if it’s a great day, and underground if it’s not. For me as a planner, to be able to hop on a train that costs $62 and arrive at the doorstep of where you’re planning your event is really convenient.”
Montreal is also somewhat of a buyer’s market, says Nemchin. “In a city like Montreal, there are a lot of vendors and suppliers who want your business, they all come with their pencil sharpeners. When you go to a small town and theygo, ‘well, we’re the only guy in town,’ you have no negotiating power, so in a city like Montreal, their sales representatives and tourism people are very aggressive, in a good way. They know the value of the business and they’re willing to work for it.”
– Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.