Boasting a user-friendly, inner-city meetings infrastructure, Edmonton is taking its place among Canada’s elite meetings cities. By David Pye, July/August 2008
When it comes to hosting events, the city of Edmonton knows how to roll out the red carpet with a unique combination of Western hospitality and international flare. On the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, the thriving metropolis of just over one-million is earning its rightful place alongside Canada’s elite cities. As Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton has experienced an economic boom in recent years, largely due to a red-hot oil and gas industry, which has garnered global attention. In response, the city has developed an infrastructure worthy of its growing international reputation as a consummate host.
At the forefront of infrastructure upgrades, Edmonton International Airport is the fastest-growing airport in Canada. The facility is in the midst of a $1.1-billion expansion, driven by passenger increases of almost 50 per cent over the past three years. A brand-new concourse will add 13 new passenger gates by 2012 and will enable the facility to accommodate nine-million passengers annually.
“The expansion has certainly allowed us to get into the game in terms of offering affordable and convenient air access into our city from across North America,” says Glenn Duncan, director for meetings, business travel and events, with Edmonton Tourism. “It’s been a major improvement that has certainly helped our position in the meetings market.”
In adhering to a philosophy of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ the city of Edmonton has developed an attractive and user-friendly inner-city meetings infrastructure to accommodate a growing demand for event space. Edmonton Tourism has taken a proactive role in driving that demand by targeting business across North America, primarily from the association markets in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Washington, DC. Associations account for approximately two-thirds of the city’s overall meetings business, with corporate meetings and events accounting for the rest.
“First and foremost, we look for city-wide conventions, which we classify as requiring the usage of two major hotel properties or more,” explains Duncan. “When we look at our ultimate comfort zone, I would say it falls anywhere between 500 and 5,000 delegates, with 2,500 being the ideal mark.”
To support the city-wide business, Edmonton offers more than one-million sq. ft. of downtown meetings space amongst its portfolio of major hotels and dedicated conference facilities. Most of those spaces are within walking distance of each other in a compact downtown core, making multiple facility usage an attractive option that many other cities can’t offer. The city also offers 3,000 hotel rooms in the downtown core, with up to 75 per cent of them available for major conferences.
The city’s primary hotels targeting the business market include the elegance of Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, a 199-room property featuring more than 13,000 sq. ft. of function space. The nearby Delta Edmonton Centre Suite Hotel offers attractive one-bedroom suites and the added touch of the brand’s Delta Meetings Maestros, while Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe kicks in an additional 14,000 sq. ft. of meetings space with spectacular views of the River Valley. Just minutes away, The Sutton Place Hotel Edmonton, with its crystal chandeliers, Italian marble and Persian rugs, hosts meetings in style. The ballroom can accommodate 600 theatre-style, in addition to nine dedicated meeting rooms for groups ranging from 20 to 150. The brand-new Matrix Hotel Edmonton brings business chic to new heights with its 185 trendy guestrooms and 8,500 sq. ft. of function space.
DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Rounding off the city’s core convention hotels, Westin Edmonton offers 413 guestrooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meetings space and is directly connected to the Shaw Conference Centre (SCC). The SCC is Edmonton’s premiere downtown meetings venue and features 250,000 sq. ft. of multi-functional space. The SCC is the largest meetings facility of its kind in Alberta and has been a modern work in progress since opening in 1983. The three-level facility includes 82,000 sq. ft. of contiguous, column-free exhibit space accommodating 335 trade-show booths. The space can also be configured to accommodate 6,000, theatre-style. The facility also features a 16,000-sq.-ft. carpeted lobby and, on a separate level, 30 state-of-the-art breakout rooms ranging from 395 sq. ft. to 3,720 sq. ft.
“It’s a very large and user-friendly facility, which impresses people with its abundance of natural lighting and its unique features,” says Duncan. “It’s a beautiful design which cascades down into our River Valley. It’s not your typical downtown convention facility and it is very much a feather in our cap for the meetings market.”
In 2008, the SCC is set to achieve its highest numbers to date as host of 50 major events, representing 517,000 delegate-attendee days and an economic impact of $47.6-million. Part of that success can be attributed to the addition of Hall D, a 26,900-sq.-ft. extension which opened in March, 2006. Hall D can accommodate 1,200 for sunset cocktails or sit-down dinners and features 30-ft. windows offering 270-degree views of the River Valley.
The design of Hall D also incorporates leading-edge technologies that help reduce the consumption of energy and water and forms part of an overall SCC strategy aimed at reducing carbon footprints. In an effort to help meeting planners green their events, the SCC has introduced an initiative called ‘Simple Steps’ to help place an environmental focus on all aspects of the meeting process. SCC staff will work with planners from the organizing to the cleanup stage, to minimize the carbon footprint. The ‘Simple Steps’ programme follows several initiatives implemented internally by the SCC that have earned the facility a BOMA Go Green certification from the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada.
“We used the Shaw Conference Centre for six concurrent sessions over two days, with the main business conference being held in the larger space,” says Simon Mellor, vice- president, construction sector for dmg world media Dubai Ltd. “The lower-level meeting rooms were terrific for our programme and we were able to flip out the bigger space into a banquet facility in the evening.”
In his former capacity as the company’s business development director, Mellor, in March, 2008, helped organize the World Heavy Oil Congress, in Edmonton, bringing in 2,000 delegates from all over the world. The full programme featured a conference and exhibition, three gala dinners (two at the SCC and one at the Westin Edmonton) and breakfasts in the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald and luncheons in the SCC. The close proximity of Edmonton’s downtown hotels to the SCC, coupled with the support his organization received from the city of Edmonton, allowed Mellor to produce a programme that was virtually seamless.
“There was really nothing that we wanted to bring to the party, so to speak, that the Edmonton team was not able to accommodate,” says Mellor. “I cannot say enough about the quality of support that the city was able to bring to our event and we have already made arrangements to bring it back to Edmonton in 2011.”
Just minutes from the downtown core, Northlands is a massive exhibit and trade-show facility which is currently in the midst of a $145.7-million expansion. Northlands currently hosts more than 2,500 events annually, attracting more than four-million visitors. In 2009, Northlands w
l unveil Evolution 2009, an expansion and business redesign project that will offer a whole new realm of conventions-business options, including additional exhibit space, new state-of-the-art breakout rooms and new plenary spaces. The additions will include 200,000 sq. ft. of new trade- and consumer-show space, as well as four new exhibit halls, a new conference area with meeting rooms, a ballroom and more, combining to offer a total of 500,000 sq. ft. of flexible space.
Echoing Mellor’s positive experience is Lisa Baroldi, project coordinator for the 2009 Global Youth Assembly (themed ‘building community’ and targeting a 16-to-28-year-old demographic), presented by Edmonton’s John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. After a successful programme, in 2007, which included 600 youth delegates from around the world, Baroldi has been hard at work organizing the July, 2009, follow-up, expected to draw 1,000 delegates for a conference at Grant MacEwan College.
“Fantastically helpful Edmonton Tourism has been handling quotes from several venues and hotels, which has made my job much easier,” says Baroldi. “They are also exploring packages for delegates who want to see the Rocky Mountains, visit Edmonton sites and participate in some of the city’s festival activities.”
One of the city’s newest products for the meetings market is ‘Festival in a Box,’ an initiative that allows planners to draw from the city’s wide range of themed festivals and performing arts to enhance their programmes. From decorations and live performances to full-blown variety shows, the initiative helps provide delegates with an intimate look at Edmonton’s multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. With over 30 annual events – many of them concurrent – Edmonton has earned the moniker of Canada’s ‘Festival City.’ From the Jazz Festival to the Fringe Theatre Festival, Edmonton takes advantage of daylight hours that stretch through 11:00 p.m. in the summer months to stage some of Canada’s most heralded events.
Edmonton also offers an abundance of unique cultural venues, including Fort Edmonton Park, close to the downtown core. The fort is a tribute to Edmonton life in the mid-1800s and features multiple rentable buildings that are ideal for hosting off-site functions in the heart of the city. Other cultural gems include the elegant surroundings of the Royal Alberta Museum, the lush botanical gardens of the Muttart Conservatory and the unique halls and chambers of the Winspear Centre for Performing Arts. In 2009, the city will unveil the new Art Gallery of Alberta, a spectacularly designed structure that will include dedicated meetings spaces and food and beverage stations for catered events. Edmonton is also gateway to the majestic Rocky Mountains and is just three and a half hours from the mountain enclave of Jasper, a popular destination for pre- and post-conference itineraries and stunningly beautiful day trips.
“We are still the most affordable destination out of the major Canadian cities and if you stack us up against them, we will come out ahead more often than not,” says Duncan. “Add to that the fact that we have no provincial sales tax in Alberta and you have some very compelling reasons to meet in Edmonton.”
— David Pye is a Montreal-based freelance writer.