Offering everything from first-rate resorts and a wealth of outdoor activities to the world’s largest Elvis festival, Georgian Bay offers groups plenty. By Sherryll Sobie, September/October 2008
Elvis has left the building. It’s the Monday following the wildly popular Elvis Festival weekend, and Collingwood is decidedly low-key. Most of the storefronts along Hurontario, Collingwood’s main street, are still decorated with busts and photo memorabilia; merchants are too tapped out to change them just yet. On this cotton ball-cloud August day, one storeowner leans against his building, eyes glazed, staring off into the distance.
Collingwood Downtown BIA general manager Susan Nicholson points over the storekeeper’s head at the turn-of-the-century buildings that line the street. “Collingwood’s entire downtown core is the first to be included in the Canadian Registry of Historic Places,” Nicholson explains. Collingwood, she continues, which was incorporated as a town in 1858, is marking its sesquicentennial. Suddenly I hear: “Good morning, Susan.” I turn around and catch a flash of thick, black sideburn.
“That’s Bob Schmuck [yes, that’s his real name],” Nicholson says, noticing my look of amusement. “He’s called ‘Burger Bob,’ as in Burger Bob’s Catering. His company is contracted to run the Festival-operated licensed venues at Elvis. He grows his sideburns and dyes his hair for the festival every year… no jumpsuit though,” she jokes.
COLLINGWOOD IS KING
The fact that Elvis never stepped a blue suede shoe in this town seems not to matter. “We have the world’s largest Elvis Festival, surpassing even the U.S.,” proclaims Nicholson. “This year,” she continues, “we went regional. All the towns within the Georgian Triangle were involved.” The Georgian Triangle encompasses 1,345 sq. km, which, in addition to Collingwood, includes The Town Of The Blue Mountains, Creemore, Wasaga Beach, and Meaford.
Whether it’s Elvis or Dragon Boats, corporate groups or PGA golf tours, the Georgian Triangle knows how to go all out – sideburns, hair dye and all – to show visitors a good time.
Cranberry Resort is a family-owned operation on 750 acres in Collingwood. The sprawling resort consists of the only waterfront property overlooking Georgian Bay, spa, yacht club, three pools, eight tennis courts, low ropes for team building, an 18-hole golf course, a large range of accommodation from doubles to condo suites, and eight flexible conference and meeting rooms. “Within the last five years, we have grown and become more attuned to what conference planners want,” says Marti Williams, director of sales.
FLEX, FLOW AND GROW
For proof, Williams points to the resort’s brand-new 3,600 sq. ft. Bear Estate, the only waterfront property in the entire Collingwood/Blue Mountain Region. The upscale and slick decor of the conference room, which can be divided into three and accommodate a maximum of 275, lends refinement to a rustic outdoor setting. Visible through floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows is a quiet Georgian Bay inlet framed by 16 weeping willow trees.
“We offer groups flex and flow,” Williams continues. “For example, a group can have a morning meeting in the William Watts Ballroom, a working lunch in the main inn’s newly renovated bistro, then hit the links, or go caving off-site in the afternoon.”
REACH FOR THE (TREE) TOP
The Eco-Adventure tour at Scenic Caves Nature Adventures, located just a few minutes west of Collingwood, offers a memorable team-building opportunity for groups. After suiting up in a safety harness, the three-hour tour begins with a walk along southern Ontario’s longest foot suspension bridge. At 413 ft. long, and swaying 82 ft. above terra firma, you can see 10,000 sq. km across the shores of Georgian Bay and the Niagara Escarpment, which is a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve. The sweeping vistas are arresting, and for some, terrifying.
“I’ve seen people who casually walked across the bridge like they were walking on a sidewalk, while others – including a couple of CEOs – have gotten down on their hands and knees and literally crawled across,” says Chris Westbrooke, Scenic Caves Eco-Adventure manager. The tour continues with a treetop walk, where participants balance across another bridge, this time almost 2,000 ft. long and only 10 inches wide. It ends with a swooping ride along a 300 ft. zip line. “Fall is a great time to come to see the colours,” offers Westbrooke. “You can get a bird’s-eye view of brilliant sugar maples and red oaks.”
“When I plan an event, I want everything on property, and I want someone I can talk to,” says Julie Peden, president and chief event strategist, Ruby Sky Event Planning. Over the past two years, Barrie, Ontario-based Peden has had five contracts with the Westin Trillium House, for groups ranging from 25 to 200. “It’s an easy sell for them,” she says of the Intrawest Resort, located at the base of Blue Mountain. Peden attributes her repeat business to three key factors. First, Westin’s 220 guest suites with signature Heavily Bed and Bath amount to one of the most luxurious accommodations in the area. Second, two flexible ballrooms, five meeting rooms and an outdoor terrace allow for versatility and change of scene, all in one central location. And finally, she appreciates the resort’s “full-on service,” as Peden calls it.
“We are planning an awesome event for National Grocer, and the Texan-themed welcome reception will be on the (Millpond) Terrace. We will use a smoker for barbequed ribs and pulled pork sandwiches and we’ll serve homemade, mini-corn bread and puffed apple pie.” The Texan menu for the welcome reception is not part of the regular food and beverage offerings, which Peden points out is an example of Westin’s willingness to customize.
“It’s National Grocer, so the food has to be phenomenal,” she adds, explaining that onsite restaurant Oliver & Bonacini will be catering the event. “The nicest thing about working with Westin is that they will consider all of my requests rather than responding with those dreaded words, ‘That’s not what we normally do…’ I don’t care what is normally done,” says Peden. “I don’t want normal and I’d bet most other planners would say the same.”
Over the last five years, Mary Wademan, office manager, Ontario General Contractor Association, has witnessed rapid growth of their annual Contractor Symposium, from 150 attendees to over 600. The association represents industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors, both union and open-shop. Diversity of budgets adds to the logistical challenge, as contractor firms big and small require accommodation for the three-day, two-night stay. But in 2006, it all came together. “Blue Mountain Resorts is the only facility we’ve found in Ontario that can provide a variety of accommodation and meeting space – at the right price,” Wademan says. Members can choose from one- bedroom suites at Mosaic, the newest and most contemporary hotel on the property, to Rivergrass Mountain Homes, which have two- and three- bedroom townhome-style units. In total, the 1,000-acre property boasts over 800 rooms.
Likewise, 37,000 sq. ft. of combined conference and meeting space means there’s a room to fit just about every occasion. The
llage At Blue Mountain Conference Centre is a chalet-style building with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a total of 18,900 sq. ft. of space spread over three floors. Two ballrooms, Huron Grand (8,524 sq. ft) on the first level, and Georgian Bay (3,962 sq. ft.) on the third, can be used full-size or divided into four. More intimate rooms like Silver Creek I & II (936 sq. ft. each) and the Bayview Executive Boardroom (485 sq. ft.) – all on the third floor – are connected to a terrace that overlooks the golf course and, further out, Georgian Bay.
While each facility on its own is impressive, what really shifts the “wow” factor into high gear is the impression of the overall property. Strolling into the Village is like stepping onto the cobblestone streets of a little European town. Retail shops, including a gallery and a chocolate factory, plus restaurants, cafes and clubs, line the events plaza. The plaza is the hub for village activities including movies under the stars.
Like Julie Peden, Wademan and OGC recognize a good fit when they see it; the ink is now drying on a contract that will extend into 2014.
— Sherryll Sobie is a Toronto-based freelancer.