Okay. So Atlantic Canada doesn’t have mega conference venues like the Jacob K. Javitz Centre in New York, where thousands of people can gather for meetings and conferences. It matters not. What we do have in this part of the world is chutzpah, along with location, location, location.
Patricia Donnelly heads the marketing and communication team at the Fredericton Convention Centre. She says, “A lot of it has to do with hospitality. But Maritime hospitality is much more than a word. It’s a feeling. We pride ourselves on providing unforgettable memories and experiences.”
Meeting planners usually alternate their national meetings east-central-west. Donnelly says, “Atlantic Canada has a reputation for being friendly, welcoming, and for hosting fun meetings with great food and entertainment. Groups are never happier than when the meeting is scheduled in the east.”
She loves to encourage people to come east in general, and to Fredericton in particular. Donnelly says, “This city is perfect for a 300-600 person conference. It has all the advantages of a large city, including advanced technology, along with the convenience of a small city.”
Another plus is a unique sales partnership called Rendez Vous Fredericton. Led by Fredericton Tourism, key meeting and accommodation partners make a point of staying informed of each others’ properties. Their motto is: “A call to one of us is a call to all of us.” Members actually pass leads to their competition, when it’s the best option for everyone concerned.
Donnelly points out a perk specific to delegates: “They have exclusivity in our cities; they are noticed by front line staff; they don’t get lost like they do in bigger cities. And relationship-building opportunities amongst the attendees are ripe for the taking.”
Meeting and conference venues in Atlantic Canada are all situated in attractive settings replete with lots of trees, parks, and water. There is precious little noise pollution, no smog, and traffic congestions are rare. With decent venues and a plethora of cultural attractions laced with authentic experiences – it’s easy to see why conference planners love to head east.
Destination Halifax’s Andrea Young describes Halifax as an urban resort. “This is where the boardroom meets the boardwalk. And we’re closer than you think – only 1.45 hours to Boston and New York; 2.25 hours to Chicago; 2.5 hours for Toronto and six hours to London.”
A big bonus from Young’s point of view is the proximity of raw nature that’s just a step away from city centre. “Within 20 minutes, people can be strolling beaches, surfing pristine waters, or go tidal bore rafting on the world’s highest tides.”
Destination Halifax confirms 125 to 150 new group bookings annually. Business is brisk – and growing. The origin of business (as opposed to origin of individual attendees) is 75 per cent domestic, 25 per cent non-domestic.
But not all conferences are held in the provincial capitals. White Point Beach Resort in Liverpool, N.S. is open for business year round. White Point’s marketing manager, Donna Hatt, says, “With the oceanside setting and its inf luences, people take time here to smell the salt air, and listen to the surf. They relax, rejuvenate, and become more productive and efficient. Yet the pace is tide-like — rolling gently in and out.”
Hatt adds that it’s all about reconnecting and giving yourself permission to ‘be’ with your team, play with your team, connect with your team, whether that’s at a roundtable discussion or milling around a campfire on the beach.
Recently, conference planners made a special request. Could they have a casual yet savoury dining experience that would facilitate mingling? Easy peasy request for the White Point team. They produced “Tastes of the UNESCO Biosphere reserve.” Picture this: fresh Atlantic lobster tails grilled on the BBQ, Eel Lake Oysters on the half shell, Mersey Point Solomon Gundy and smoked salmon, Digby Scallops wrapped in dulse, and served with a selection of Annapolis Highland Vineyard Wines. Hatt says, “As the sun set and the surf crashed on shore, delegates sipped, savoured, connected, and enjoyed dinner al fresco.”
Rhonda Hutton nods. To her, it’s all about the experience. She loves to quote Newfoundland’s Department of Tourism’s answer to why some people want to come to the ‘Edge of the Earth.’
“There are hundreds of reasons, but if we could boil it down to just one, it might be this: you might never find another place that makes you feel at the same time … lost and found. It’s the place where things just happen, where the unexpected is the norm and is just slightly off kilter with the rest of the world.”
That might help explain why 50-60 per cent of the delegates who attended one of the 100 conferences in St. John’s last year extended their stay in the province – and brought extra people. Hutton tucks in, “This could be a bucket list syndrome, and we’re fine with that!”
The number of conferences held in St. John’s is expected to soar as soon as the much-anticipated expansion of the St. John’s Convention Centre is completed. “There’s pent-up demand by national and international organizations to hold their conventions here,” she adds. “We just need to be able to increase our capacity.”
When Michael Matthews (executive director, Meetings & Conventions Prince Edward Island, MCPEI) was asked to define in three words what makes Atlantic Canada a dramatically different destination from other places in North America, he replied, “Access. Access. Access! For example, from shaking hands with the Lt. Governor to the Minister of Tourism, or making special arrangements at the Airport – we can make things happen.”
With the recent opening of P.E.I.’s new convention centre on the waterfront, the meetings and convention slice of the tourism pie just got a whole lot sweeter. Already, the East Coast Music Awards (ECMAs) and delegates from the Transportation Association of Canada each are slotted in for 1,000 members in 2014 and 2015 respectively – to mention just a couple of bookings.
Move over, Jacob K. Javitz Centre. Atlantic Canada doesn’t have your size, but she has the goods!