Sophisticated and rustic, Jasper serves up wilderness with a five-star rating. By Allan Lynch, July/August 2007
Jasper represents the type of Canada most Canadians envisage when thinking about their country. It is crisp and clean. It has virgin forest crisscrossed by pristine rivers traveling between glacier-fed lakes which lie in valleys protected by walls of magnificent, snow-topped mountains. And it is populated by iconic, free-roaming wildlife. Elk munch on roadside vegetation, indifferent to the clicks of cameras from hastily stopped traffic. On the Icefields Parkway, frisky caribou race alongside vehicles before darting into the forest. Grizzlies roam wherever they want, and curly-horned mountain sheep stop in the middle of the road, flashing their white backsides as if to moon visitors, while agile mountain goats defy gravity, leaping from rock face to rock face. It screams Canada.
For 100 years (its centennial is in September), Jasper has been under the protection of Canada’s national park system, and the success of that system is evident everywhere. There is the preserved 1900s Craftsman-style architecture, with delicious touches like the post office, with its diamond-cut, leaded-glass bay windows. There is the cottage-like branch of the CIBC. Above all, there is plenty of undisturbed wilderness.
With a permanent population of 4,700, which soars to 20,000 in summer, the town of Jasper is a sophisticated mountain community. While there is a proliferation of stores selling mountain gear and souvenirs, there are also high-end boutiques carrying the latest fashions, accessories and jewelry from trendy Canadian designers. There are art galleries. And with 35 restaurants, there’s enough variety, inventiveness and quality to provide top-notch dine-around options for group programmes.
“We’re a small mountain town in the middle of a big park, but we’re also a first-class destination,” says Helen Kelleher-Empey, general manager of Jasper Tourism and Commerce. “We have great Rocky Mountain cuisine; we’ve got awesome trail systems, great rafting, hiking, mountain biking; we’ve everything for the outdoors to offer, as well as having some art galleries, and a great museum. We have a little bit of everything, but on a smaller scale. And we’re a lot of fun.”
Kelleher-Empey explains why Jasperites believe all roads lead here. “Vancouver is eight hours drive, Calgary is five and Edmonton is four.” Plus, the community has three rail services — VIA Rail’s Canadian, the Skeena (which operates from Prince Rupert, B.C.) and the Rocky Mountaineer. “So you can get here from any of the major centres, whether it’s by train or car,” she says. “But if you come by rail, you can hold some of your meetings on the train, and you’ve already started your conference. That frees up your time to enjoy the activities in Jasper.”
Without question, transportation is the overriding concern for planners when considering Jasper. Ellyn Holzman, CMP, a partner at Ottawa’s Unconventional Planning, who, in late May, had 175 members, exhibitors and guests of the Canadian Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge for its annual conference, believes Jasper is one destination where planners shouldn’t fear the travel. Rather, they should embrace it as part of the programme. “We had people who flew to Vancouver and took the Rocky Mountaineer to Jasper. We did run one shuttle bus from Calgary on the way up and then out via Edmonton because we wanted people to experience the Columbia Icefields and one of the most beautiful drives in the world, from Lake Louise to Jasper. And then we had members who rented cars. Some car pooled. Because we officially started our meeting on a Wednesday, many people spent a night in Lake Louise/Banff on the way up and made a trip of it, and that was the intention right from the beginning, to expose people to the Rockies.”
Claude Paul Boivin, president of Ottawa-based Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC), says, “For us, the journey was part of the destination. The drive is breathtaking. And it is actually therapeutic,” allowing members to disconnect from the office and focus on the natural beauty of the Rockies. “We thought the drive might be (a problem), but it turned out not to be.”
In June, 2005, 150 members and spouses attended the ACEC annual general meeting at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. “Our policy is to go to resorts and be out of the way. This is the most pleasant, luxurious, out-of-the-way place, I think, in Canada. So for us, the decision was easy.”
Carolyn Sutherland, ACEC’s special events manager, says, “I was impressed by the luxury and beauty of the resort.” Her delegates weren’t deterred by the travel. “In fact, we had our highest attendance ever, and a lot of people planned vacations around the conference.”
Transportation, however, is a factor when moving speakers in and out. Planners who have worked with the destination advise bringing them in a day ahead and keeping them an extra night after they’ve spoken.
The joy of Jasper is that it is just that far enough away to keep it from being a theme park, while maintaining a certain inclusive exclusivity that won’t bust the budget. Dianne Shaw, executive assistant to the general manager for the western region of Alstom Canada, organized a three-day training conference for 75 people at the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre, last November. She says, “We knew what we wanted to spend on rooms, and they included breakfast with the room rental, so that took off a meal, which let me go a little bit further on my dinners.” The other pleasant surprise was the bar tab. “We had an open bar (each evening) and I was surprised when I got my bill – and we’re talking construction guys – how low our costs were.”
Holzman says costs are comparable to any other resort destination. “One of the good things is there is no provincial tax in Alberta. So that helps the budget. We charged the same meeting registration rate as we charged in Victoria and will charge next year in Newfoundland, but because of the location, venue and uniqueness of it, our sponsorship dollars were significant, so that enabled us to do some extra things. But our social programme was not overly expensive. Our optional activities, like golf – Jasper has one of the finest courses in the country, designed by Stanley Thomson – for that quality of course, is very reasonable. And the white-water rafting – those things were fairly inexpensive.”
A hidden bonus is the longer days experienced that far north. Holzman’s doctors could golf until 10:30 at night, which helps reduce scheduling conflicts.
The other benefit was how easy it is to sell Jasper to members. Going with a name destination and resort everyone knew, but few had been to, says Boivin, “made it easier for us to sell.” He has the luxury of having a membership comprised of CEOs, who are not as price-sensitive as other associations. “For most of them, this is a business expense as opposed to a personal expense.” With some increased costs, “we raised our registration from $800 to $1,250 and it didn’t make a dent in our registration. It is perceived as higher quality, and certainly at the Fairmont, it’s not for somebody who’s on a tight budget.”
Holzman also saw good numbers. “Our trade show was sold out, and our sponsorship was the highest it’s been in years.” Trade-show exhibitors were also smart, she says. “They realized where they were going, so they did scale back, to some degree, their booths, as opposed to bringin
in their big heavy equipment. They really wanted to be there because of the opportunity to network with the attendees, not just during the day at the trade show, but at our social activities in the evening,” like sharing bison burgers, horseshoes and a beach bonfire at Trefoil Lake.
While Jasper may seem like a known quantity, Sutherland advises, “If you think it’s going to be rural, you’re in for a pleasant surprise, because it’s rustic luxury.” The community and resort came through with everything from the expected — cruises on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island; hiking on Mount Edith Cavell to Angel Glacier; and white-water rafting at Athabasca Falls — to a Latin salsa class. “They have a really good on-site fitness person who came up with that plan. And that was one of our most popular offerings,” she laughs.
What is guaranteed, says Boivin, “is the beauty and the calm and peacefulness of it. You walk out the door and you have that mountain, and a lake you can walk to. So it’s the peacefulness, and yet we don’t sacrifice on the qualify of the service.” In short, wilderness with a five-star rating.
Perhaps that’s why Queen Elizabeth, on her last royal tour, chose Jasper as the place for her personal time.
Jasper may be distant, but it’s not without amenities. In winter, it has 1,700 bedrooms available (and in summer, 2,300). Eight properties have meeting facilities.
There are a number of activities that could be fun programme elements or, like dog sledding, could be used for a quintessentially Canadian team-building experience.
Rail option: The Rocky Mountaineer operates a train from Whistler, through the Fraser Valley to Jasper, and Jasper to Vancouver. The Skeena runs between Jasper and Prince Rupert, B.C., and VIA Rail’s Canadian travels between Vancouver and Toronto. Delegates can fly into Edmonton and pick up the train there for the five-hour ride to Jasper, or travel through the mountains from Vancouver. A new weekend service, the Snow Train, leaves Edmonton Friday afternoons and returns from Jasper on Sunday evenings.
Some time-pressed delegates have chartered small planes into the Hinton, Alta., airport (62 km. away) and driven to Jasper.
– Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.