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Ontario's Niagara Region Carves a Distinctive Niche

A growing movement favouring locally-produced food, coupled with an established wine industry, lend a unique regional flavour to meetings and events in this scenic area.


A growing movement favouring locally-produced food, coupled with an established wine industry, lend a unique regional flavour to meetings and events in this scenic area. By Sherryll Sobie, November/December 2008

Vidal Icewine GrapesThese days, planning a first-rate event means planning a green event. And the best place to start is in your own backyard – or more realistically, the backyard of the destination in which your event is taking place.

Imagine it: Dusk is setting as your delegates mingle around a flagstone patio heated by a raised, gas-burning fireplace at its centre. Inside the LEED-certified building, the interior, wrapped in black, grey and white, strikes a stylish note. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally-recognized standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which promotes healthier indoor air and efficiency in energy and water.

On one side of the room, a wine bar stretches almost wall-to-wall. Directly across, a two-storey-high ceiling and towering windows capture the warm glow of the lowering sun. Guests begin filtering in as the chef, who uses only local ingredients, prepares this evening’s meal. He has whipped up farm-fresh eggs and garlic, beets and smoked ricotta, pickerel and pancetta, lamb and chorizo, and for dessert, lavender-poached apricots. Forget the 100-mile diet. Everything on this menu is within a 30-mile radius. Is this for real?

Yes. It was an actual event, with a sold-out guest list of 40, hosted by Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.-based Stratus Vineyards (stratuswines.com) in conjunction with local-food pioneer Stephen Treadwell, chef/owner of Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine, in neighbouring Port Dalhousie, Ont. (treadwellcuisine.com). Treadwell’s son, James, co-owner and sommelier, says events like this can become the tipping point for change.

EATING LOCAL
“Eating local food, like fish from the Great Lakes, not only is healthy and reduces the carbon footprint, but encourages you to support local artisans, whose passion is providing these ingredients,” he says, reclining in the restaurant’s cozy lounge. “People everywhere are becoming more aware and conscientious of where their food is coming from. Meeting planners know this and are trying to incorporate it into their events.”

Strategically located within driving distance of 62 per cent of the Canadian population (and 55 per cent of the U.S.), Niagara is best known for its magnificent falls. But the region also boasts the perfect mix of location (wedged, as it is, between Lakes Ontario and Erie), mild climate (lying on the 42nd Parallel, the same latitude as Bordeaux, France) and nutrient-rich soil that produces some of the best fruit, vegetables and wines in Canada.

“Only Okanagan and Halifax can grow what we do,” says celebrity chef Anna Olson, sipping coffee in her café and retail shop, Olson Foods + Bakery, also in Port Dalhousie (olsonfoodsandbakery.com). Olson is a cookbook author and host of several Food Network television shows, including her latest, Fresh with Anna Olson. In between taping the show and running her café, she is available as a speaker for group functions.

“Within a 20-minute drive, you can taste local artisan cheese, in Jordan Station, at the Upper Canada Cheese Company; locally-cured meats by Mario Pingue; and sweet peppers at St. David’s Hydroponics,” says Olson, adding, “while you’re driving, you can stop at the side of the road and buy a bushel of apples from a local farmer.”

It’s a lovely image, all right. But how does it affect the meetings and incentive travel market and why should delegates and planners care?

BETTER EXPERIENCE
Rose Swagemakers weighs in with an answer that is both practical and philosophical. Swagemakers is vice-president, operations for The Innovolve Group Inc., the Toronto-based meeting planning and sustainability consulting company responsible for putting together The Green Meeting Guide (innovolve.com).

Says Swagemakers, “Delegates should care because they will have a better destination experience, healthier food options, and will be helping to protect the environment. Planners should care because they will be offering a better product and experience, and they will be building stronger relations with the local tourism organizations who can help source unique and cost-reducing programme options.

“And we as planners have a moral obligation,” she continues. “The nature of the business we are in can be very wasteful. We need to make some changes in our programmes that not only benefit the delegates, the local destination, but our planet Earth and the environment as a whole. We need to do this for our future generations and to protect the tourism industry that we are in.”

As a starting point, Swagemakers suggests sourcing local and eco-aware suppliers wherever you hold an event. Visit the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies website at balle.org. The Toronto Chapter is called Green Enterprise Toronto (greenenterprise.net).

The team behind the development of Niagara Convention and Civic Centre, a $100-million project slated for completion in April, 2011, takes the L-word (‘local’) very seriously. The LEED-certified facility will be located 500 yards from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and within a one-mile radius of 5,000 hotel rooms and the Fallsview Casino Resort. When completed, it will be the region’s first large-scale convention centre.

“In season, our aim will be 100-per-cent local food,” says Kerry Painter, CFE, president and general manager. “Out-of-season, less so, but there is local meat and cheese here, too, so the possibilities are endless.”

VEGETABLE GARDEN
Painter, who serves on IAAM’s committee on sustainable development and green meetings, says she would eventually like the convention centre to have a vegetable and herb garden. She sees the garden becoming part of a field-to-table component that could be offered to guests. The convention centre is currently accepting bookings for meetings and events (fallsviewconventions.com).

Flat Rock Cellars, located in Jordan, Ont., just a few minutes east of Niagara, takes the field-to-table component to yet another level with their programme, In The Winemaker’s Boots.

“It isn’t a (passive) tour where we tell the group, ‘this is the press, this is the tank, ” says Flat Rock president Ed Madronich. “The whole idea of the programme is to get involved by literally getting your hands dirty.” And that means hand-picking, sorting and plunging grapes, ending with a taste of delicious, freshly squeezed juice and, later, some wine, of course. It’s a unique off-site activity for groups interested in experiencing what it’s like to work with the land.

Flat Rock will tailor the Boots programme to suit the needs of your group, whether it’s a two-hour diversion or a whole-day team-building session. The environmentally-sustainable property – which uses geothermal and gravity flow to reduce energy consumption in the winemaking process (among other initiatives) – has two architecturally-impressive meeting rooms hosting up to 30 (flatrockcellars.com).

Inniskillin, incorporated in 1975 by founders Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo, is one of Canada’s first estate wineries. Recently, the company has focused its efforts on a couple of building renovations that have greatly enhanced the property.

FOUNDERS’ HALL
Founders’ Hall, once a dark, barrel-aging facility, is now a light-filled hospitality centre with an open demonstration kitchen. The high ceilings covered in cedar planks, coupled with a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design, lend the space a cozy yet refined flair.

Also newly renovated: the historic Brae Burn Barn, built in the 1920s and housing a winery boutique and two main wine-tasting bars. This is a public area, so if you’re looking for a private tasting experience, check out the underground wine library and barrel cellar (inniskillin.com). Evening events could include all the above-mentioned spaces, which are linked by a scenic piazza.

Vintage Hotels features three properties boasting CAA/AAA Four Diamond Awards for both accommodation and dining: Prince of Wales, Queen’s Landing and Pillar & Post, which has recently undergone upgrades to all its suites. On the lower level, the 100 Fountain Spa carries Vitality Vino Therapy, a line of skin and body-care products containing grape by-products from local vineyards (vintage-hotels.com).

EASIER JOB
Drita Bogic, manager, events and sponsorships with Markel, a Toronto-based insurance company, says retaining a local DMC just makes good sense. “We engaged Natalie Lowe from Peninsula Programs & Events (peninsuladmc.com) and it made my job easier, because she knows the destination so well.”

Lowe, who has lived and worked in the area for 12 years, says, “Our company does Niagara-specific support and logistics, from managing whole parts of the programme, like transportation, offsite events and activities, to supporting the planners with local onsite staff who are knowledgeable and professional.”

“What surprised me about Niagara,” Bogic continues, “is the selection of activities, from golf, to spa, to heli-tours. Plus, the level of service and the quality of the food is amazing.”

Bogic’s two-day event took place last June, with 40 delegates, mostly from Toronto. One of the highlights that has made a lasting impression on her group was a Treadwell-catered dinner at Stratus.

“The dinner was on the outside patio with a panoramic view of the vineyard. The wine was fantastic, the food was delicious – it felt like we were in a different place, like an intimate European village.”

Bogic is currently in the process of planning an event for next spring, and she’s “seriously considering” a second visit to Niagara. “The event last June really was one of the best ever and people keep talking about it even now… I can’t think of a better place to take a group.

– Sherryll Sobie is a Toronto-based freelance writer.



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