Nova Scotia’s historic Halifax easily accommodates small, medium and large groups, thanks to vibrant nightlife, a compact downtown core and a diverse array of unique venues. By Allan Lynch, March/April 2008
Halifax is compact, connected, comfortable and confounding. Confounding because while Nova Scotia’s coastal capital is as historic as expected, visitors are surprised to discover how hip it is.
Halifax is home to federal-government departments; is a regional banking centre; has a hot IT and research sector; and is the home port for the Atlantic fleet. But this working port is not just home to battleships and container vessels. It is now home port to two cruise ships (the 31-cabin tall ship Caledonia and 210-passenger Pearl Seas) and hosts 124 cruise-ship visits a year.
Among the unanticipated pleasures is Halifax’s vibrant nightlife – fueled by the 30,000 students attending seven degree-granting institutions – and the city’s role as home to one of the largest Buddhist communities in North America.
It is this complementary mix of cultures, ancient buildings and youthful population which makes Halifax such an enticing destination. During the day, kilted bagpipers busk outside the Victorian-styled Public Gardens. At night, the streets ring out with the competing sounds of passionate Celtic music and hard-driving indie rock.
Day or night, downtown Halifax’s compact size translates into budget-stretching savings on transportation. Virtually every hotel in the core is connected to, or beside, some off-site venue. For instance, the World Trade Centre, which features 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, shares a building with the 10,000-seat Metro Centre. Both are connected via pedways and underground walkways to 1,050 bedrooms in the Prince George, Delta Barrington, Delta Halifax and Halifax Marriott Harbourfront hotels. The Marriott sits between Historic Properties – the old privateers warehouses that have been converted into restaurants, pubs and trendy shops – and Casino Nova Scotia. The Delta Barrington fronts Historic Properties.
The Delta Halifax is part of Scotia Square and across from the Delta Barrington. The Prince George adjoins the WTCC and sits at the base of Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. The Lord Nelson Hotel is across from the Public Gardens and beside the main shopping street, Spring Garden Road. The Holiday Inn Select overlooks the Commons, a vast green space, which leads to the Citadel. The Westin Nova Scotian is across a parking lot from Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum, and the Cunard Centre, a 53,000-sq.-ft., column-free venue beside the harbour.
Scattered in between these properties are a variety of unique venues, with decor built-in, available for receptions, dinners and small meetings. The North Magazine, at Citadel Hill, can host a daytime board meeting, while the Victorian-era Soldier’s Library is often the scene of special themed dinners, with kilts provided for the men and hoop skirts for the women. The harbourside small-boat gallery at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a popular space for receptions, as is the colonial-era Dominion Building housing the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS), across from Province House.
In an area of less than half a square mile, Halifax contains over 250 years of architectural styles and large chunks of Canada’s history. Its museum collections range from two of the greatest disasters of the 20th century – the Halifax Explosion and the sinking of the Titanic – to poignant stories like the Maude Lewis Gallery at the AGNS.
Sandra Gage, director of marketing and communications for the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), who brought 568 conference delegates to The Westin Nova Scotian Hotel last October, was impressed by the candour of suppliers who told her upfront if they were capable of handling her business. “People were very honest about what they could offer us,” Gage says. “We felt like we got good value for our money based on that honesty. People were very good, and I felt really good about the way we were serviced there.”
A case in point was the annual gala dinner and awards ceremony. Traditionally, the CAC gala starts with a reception, with awards presented while people sit at their banquet tables. That setup wasn’t working, because people tended to talk through the ceremonies. Gage and her colleagues suggested a change, whereby the Cunard Centre was divided into three areas, where attendees moved from a stand-up reception to seated awards ceremony to sit-down banquet. Elizabeth Newman, of RCR Catering, took the vision of a reconfigured setup and made it happen.
Gage says, “It was the very first time we changed the format of the awards show; where traditionally it used to be a sit-down dinner, that venue allowed us to have a function where we could move from a reception to an awards show to a dinner, all in one setting. It was a seamless flow and we had very positive response, to the point where we have now established a standard where we can’t go back. It was really effective.”
Mary Wademan, office manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA), organized their annual meeting and conference for 100 delegates and companions at the Prince George Hotel, last September. Wademan says, “We cancelled San Francisco for Halifax.” It was a decision she didn’t regret. For Wademan, Halifax’s surprise was “how close everything was. I found when I went down for my site visit, I could walk to any of the places I wanted to go to, which for me, is fabulous. And for our attendees, it’s great, too, because they like to explore the city, and the whole downtown area was within walking distance.”
The OGCA had a particularly busy business and social schedule in Halifax. Due to the number of unique options the city provides, they canceled their usual free night. Wademan says, “We had a dinner cruise on the tall ship Silva, which is fabulous. It was a really nice cruise. The food was excellent.”
Additional activities included visits to Peggy’s Cove, Alexander Keith’s Brewery and a traditional lobster dinner.
Wademan was also happy with Halifax pricing. Not only did she get attractive rates at the hotel, she was able to put together a healthy delegate’s package on her $50-per-person budget.
One of the higher-profile, large groups to come to Halifax was the 2006 Juno Awards.
Melanie Berry, president of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), says, “Halifax was great. The Juno Awards’ mandate is to take the music to the fans. So it seemed extremely logical to go to Halifax, which is a place that is a hotbed of musical talent and is also a place Canadian musicians visit on tour. There are always challenges. It is one of the smaller arenas that we’ve been to, but the Metro Centre was excellent to work with.”
What viewers didn’t see on television was how the Junos spread out and worked with the whole city. In addition to their nationally televised broadcast, they used the Halifax Forum for a charity hockey game between musicians and ex-NHL players. There was an opening reception for 1,200 at Pier 21 and dinner for 1,200 at World Trade Centre. Over two nights, 100 musical acts performed at 12 clubs and pubs across Halifax.
While the Junos set up headquarters in the Delta Barrington and Delta Halifax, attendees spread out to neighbouring hotels surrounding the Metro Centre. Berry says, “It is good Halifax has multiple venues for accommoda
ons. It really works for us because some people have their hotels that they like, whether it’s The Westin or the Delta, and we like to provide a price range” for attendees who range from up-and-coming indie artists to company presidents.
Whatever the budget, size or sector, planners bask in delegates’ comments about Halifax. Gage says her participant reactions were “overwhelmingly positive. People are telling us it was probably the best conference we’ve done yet, and we feel that was due to the hospitality of the city of Halifax and being able to get out of the hotel in a very short time frame and enjoy a vibrant downtown core – and also due to Halifax’s more relaxed attitude. Halifax gives you a number of opportunities that might not be available elsewhere.”
Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.