Boasting superb venues, plenty of engaging attractions and a unique character all their own, Windsor, London and Cambridge add lustre to Southwestern Ontario’s meetings mix. By Sherryll Sobie, May/June 2008
If you travel to Windsor, Ont., by VIA Rail, and happen to gaze out the window as the train slows to a stop, you will be greeted by the hulking presence of the Ford Motor Co. engine-assembly plant, and you may find yourself thinking that the image just about sums up the city.
After all, the connection is undeniable: The American automotive giant has been here since 1904 and is credited for changing a sleepy town into an industrial powerhouse.
“We are on the cusp of something great,” answers Gordon Orr, managing director, Windsor, Essex County & Pelee Island CVB. Orr is referring to new and ongoing infrastructure initiatives, such as the $400-million expansion and renovation of Casino Windsor and the construction of the $65-million WFCU (Windsor Family Credit Union) multi-purpose arena.
Casino Windsor will be reborn at its gala opening on June 19, 2008. With the metamorphosis comes a new name – Caesars Windsor – and, along with it, all the opulence and elegance associated with that world-class brand. The eye-popping decor is a mix of white Roman statuary, gold-leaf laurels and soft lighting, coupled with modern furnishings and bold colours like ripe raspberry, decadent chocolate and blue turquoise.
Included in the expansion project is a second tower dubbed “Augustus,” with 369 rooms to complement the hotel’s existing 389-room tower. Caesars Windsor also boasts a new ballroom, the largest in the area; more meeting and convention space; and the Colosseum, a multi-functional entertainment complex.
Already, Caesars Windsor has a menu to suit every palate. Neros is an upscale, signature Caesars Palace restaurant, serving up high-end steak, while Legends Sports Bar is the place to grab a bite and place a bet.
Windsor has scored with the WFCU arena. Scheduled for completion in December, 2008, the 302,000-sq.-ft. facility is a 10-minute drive east of downtown. When built, it will be the city’s go-to venue for sporting and trade-show events. Combined, the spectator bowl and three NHL-size community rinks can be transformed into over 80,000 sq. ft. of trade-show floor space.
Don Sadler is the executive director of parks and facilities for the City of Windsor, and has been overseeing the project since day one. WFCU offers “flexibility and choice for exhibitors,” says Sadler, adding the 1,852 free parking spots ensure a “hassle-free experience.”
On a scale of one to 10, Orr awards these two major initiatives “an 11,” explaining that their presence has created a “pocket of optimism” in the city.
If Windsor’s challenge is turning attention away from its industrial past and toward its exciting future, London’s challenge is just garnering any attention at all.
“London tends to be sidestepped,” admits Christine Kropp, innkeeper of the historic Idlewyld Inn. “I don’t know why, because there is so much variety here.”
Walking through the front door of Idlewyld Inn is like taking a proverbial step back in time. The 1878 Victorian mansion has original leather wallpaper, dark-wood trim and antique furnishings. It was a former private residence that is now a full-service boutique hotel with 23 guestrooms, plus elegant parlour and drawing rooms used for meeting space.
In mid-January, Janice Furlotte, regional operations manager, Southwestern Ontario Financial Centre, for Freedom 55 Financial, a division of London Life Insurance Co., helped plan a three-day/two-night incentive getaway at Idlewyld for the Southwestern Ontario Financial Centre’s 16 top performers and their spouses.
The retreat culminated with a black-tie dinner held in the newly renovated Wine Cellar Room. “It’s very private and ideal for group functions,” says Furlotte. Idlewyld Inn is a member of Ontario’s Finest Inns. (www.ontariosfinestinns.com).
The Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, an IACC-certified, purpose-built conference centre, is a state-of-the-art facility. Amphitheatre meeting rooms boast ergonomic seating, non-glare tabletops, built-in touch screens that control audio-visual needs, video-conferencing, web-streaming and wireless technology. On-site information-technology technicians and a designated conference planner assist attendees in achieving their meeting objectives. The 30-acre property features a ropes course – excellent for corporate team-building – plus walking trails and outdoor courts for basketball and volleyball.
“It is difficult to get planners to agree to site inspections of the Lamplighter, because they have pre-conceived perceptions of the Best Western brand. Once they are in the door, they can’t believe the exceptional quality and uniqueness of the hotel,” says Barry Webb, Tourism London’s manager of conventions, referring to the Best Western Lamplighter Inn and Conference Centre.
Lamplighter’s “wow” factor is the tropical atrium oasis. Regardless of the season, sun streams through the all-glass, retractable roof and onto an Olympic-size pool, which is surrounded by a waterfall, fishpond and real palm trees. “It’s a completely different property than what people are used to,” agrees catering manager Claudia Neville. There are 15 meeting rooms, including the 7,600 sq. ft. Crystal Ballroom.
When a planner repeatedly visits a facility, that speaks volumes. Adrienne Clarke, vice-president, client services, Attention Span, a division of Dentsu Canada, has organized meetings at Langdon Hall “five or more” times in the last three-and-a-half years.
Langdon Hall, on 200 wooded acres, in Blair, Ont., near Cambridge, is a member of the upscale Relais & Châteaux organization. Clarke is a repeat customer because of the quality of service. “It’s not forced; they aren’t reading a manual. It comes across as a natural extension of what they do every day.”
Fifty-two guestrooms and suites at the historically-appointed Federal-revival mansion are divided among three separate buildings: the main house (13), the cloister wing (31) and the stables (8). All rooms feature feather beds and down duvets.
For meeting space, Clarke primarily uses the Orchard Room, outfitted with armchair seating, floor-to-ceiling windows and doors that open up to the surrounding greenery.
After a long day of strategizing, groups can indulge in Langdon’s signature treatment, The Body Embrace, at the on-site spa. The “tip to toe” treatment includes a body scrub and mini hydrating facial and ends with a Thai-inspired massage.
According to Kate McKay, CMP, sales manager, the spa’s popularity and excellent reputation has spurred plans for a larger space. She adds, “possibly a larger meeting facility, too.”
As nice as the spa is, perhaps the best treat of all is the food. Chef Jonathan Gushue, who has garnered positive attention from the James Beard Foundation and food critics, creates dishes that are as artistically arresting as they are delicious.
In a recent review of Langdon Hall, the Toronto Star’s restaurant critic, Amy Pataki, gushed, “If a hotel cares enough to churn organic cream into sweet butter for guests, then details matter.”
– Sherryll Sobie is a Toronto-based freelance writer and photographer.
Photos: iStockphoto, Convention & Visitors Bureau of Windsor, Essex County & Pelee Island