Boasting European flare, international appeal and exuberant joie de vivre, this Quebec city is like nowhere else in North America and offers groups a myriad of exciting options. By David Pye, March/April 2009
Palais des congrès
American author David Homel described his adopted hometown of Montreal as “a city made for the expatriate; the perplexed individual hanging between the Old World and the New.” It is precisely that mix of old and new that makes the city of Montreal one of North America’s most unique meeting destinations.
That eclectic mix is something that Karen Ouimet, project leader with Maritz Canada Inc., in Mississauga, Ont., appreciates. A native of Montreal, Ouimet has worked in the meetings industry for 12 years, from food and beverage (f&b) and sales positions in some of Montreal’s finest hotels, to working with a Montreal DMC on group programmes.
“Montreal is a very eclectic city, with a lot to offer meeting planners,” she says. “It’s just such a dynamic city that allows you to plan some very different types of programmes.”
From Expo 67 to the 1976 Olympic Games, Montreal is no stranger to hosting the world, ranking first in Canada and second in North America for hosting international conferences.
“Montreal works extremely well for city-wides,” says Ouimet. “The city’s convention centre is linked underground to several hotels, which is a big advantage in the winter months.”
In 2008, the Palais des congrès (congresmtl.com) celebrated its 25th anniversary and continues to grow in size and reputation. Since opening its doors in 1983, the venue has hosted more than 4,000 events, generating more than three-million room nights and approximately $4-billion in economic spinoffs. A two-year expansion project, completed in 2002, virtually doubled the facility’s floor space, enabling it to accommodate city-wide conventions for up to 15,000 delegates.
“The great thing about Montreal is that the convention centre is far from being the only venue in town for meetings,” notes Ouimet. “Many of the downtown hotels have some great space, as well.”
Another meetings option is Centre Mont-Royal. Situated in the heart of downtown, and supported by 3,000 nearby hotel rooms, the multi-functional complex occupies four floors of an office building and provides 50,000 sq. ft. of combined meeting space accommodating 900. Amenities include large foyers with floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular city views and a newly opened outdoor terrace, overlooking Mansfield Street and capable of hosting cocktail receptions for 150.
Montreal’s tourism industry has seen significant growth in recent years and has added about 2,000 new hotel rooms in the last two years alone. Montreal’s diverse portfolio includes approximately 27,000 hotel rooms, including 15,000 in the downtown core and more than 4,000 connected directly with the convention centre via a 20-mile network of underground passages linking 10 subway stations, 200 restaurants, 1,700 boutiques and numerous major hotels.
“There are some great branded and chained hotels in the city that are fantastic to work with from a planner perspective,” notes Ouimet. “But I also like to keep Montreal’s fabulous boutique properties in mind, each with their own unique personality that offers a more intimate setting.”
On top of that, Montreal’s vibrant culture, with its lively nightlife, critically acclaimed arts scene and array of fine international cuisine, is a big draw.
“Montreal’s history is engrained in a passion for food,” says Ouimet, who adds that the city is full of top local chefs, as well as international chefs drawn to the city’s eclectic culinary scene. “It’s always great to be able to showcase a city’s best restaurants for a group programme and Montreal has so many options to choose from.”
Ouimet points out that Montreal’s international reputation for hosting festivals provides creative options, particularly during summer events, including the International Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival.
Cirque du Soleil
“Tying programmes into some of Montreal’s summer festivals is a great option for meeting planners,” says Ouimet, who has booked groups around the Just for Laughs festival’s gala evening shows. “The Just for Laughs Museum is a great venue available to groups as well, and offers very unique rooms, where stages can be built for private comedy shows or concerts during the jazz festival.”
Ouimet points out that the city has a huge talent pool to draw from for special events, including world-famous Cirque du Soleil.
“Cirque is always a big draw, considering that the whole concept was born in Montreal,” she says. “Seeing an actual performance is a great experience, but they also provide planners with a database of their individual artists, who can be incorporated into a gala event.”
Ouimet is fond of Montreal’s unique venues, particularly in the summer, when the city comes to life with a joie de vivre that can be felt throughout its streets.
“One of my favourites is Chalet du Mont-Royal, which is an old historic chateau on top of Mount Royal, with spectacular views overlooking the city,” she says. “The venue is like a blank canvas and it can be transformed into virtually anything you want, within city guidelines, of course.”
Ouimet also looked to take advantage of Montreal’s status as Hollywood North when she sourced a road show to book into one of the expansive production hangars of Mel’s Cité de Cinéma.
“There is such a wide variety of really unique venues at your fingertips,” she says. “It all depends on the level of creativity that you want to infuse into your programme.”
Montreal’s international reputation for meetings, conventions and incentive programmes continues to grow due to the active role played by the city’s tourism sector. In 2009, Tourisme Montreal will invest almost $2-million in financial assistance to groups.
Moreover, Tourisme Montréal continues to offer a cash-back option to organizations booking their meetings directly through the bureau. The offer can reach up to $10 per room-night reserved and used, which can then be reinvested in the programme.
Despite the economy, 2009 looks encouraging, with close to 90,000 delegates and 225,000 room nights confirmed.
“Montreal is very competitive and I think that the value that it provides to meeting planners is definitely a major advantage over competing cities,” says Ouimet. “Montreal also provides the flare of a European city, which you can’t find anywhere else on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.”
— David Pye is a Montreal-based freelance writer.