Canada

 

STYLISH CENTRAL
From attracting a bevy of movie shoots, to numerous revamped and updated venues,
Winnipeg is gaining a reputation as an up-and-coming destination.
By Toby Saltzman

"Shall We Dance" may seem an unlikely moniker for a corporate event. But because the movie so named was recently filmed in Winnipeg starring Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, it could be a theme to lure attendees to a city that's gaining attention as one of North America's hottest film sites. And why not? The city - with its photogenic legislature and historic quadrant known as the banking Exchange District - lies smack in the centre of Canada, a convenient middle turf for people from all corners of the nation to meet. It's also convenient for groups to navigate and boasts a hotel and convention centre scene that can handle huge groups with stylish service and cuisine.

CUTTING-EDGE CUISINE
Indeed, with a spirited ethnic population of 675,000, Winnipeg's culinary options in Asian influence alone allow corporate event planners to design unique menus, choosing from Thai, Mongolian, Vietnamese and Sri Lankan dishes. That's not to mention French, Italian, Ukrainian, Canadian aboriginal and regional delights, as well as cutting-edge North American cuisine.

"What really makes Winnipeg exciting now," says Chris Brown, Tourism Winnipeg's manager of advertising and promotion, "is that our host of new and revived venues - also attractive to the film industry - set the stage for stunning events."

The recently refurbished Millennium Centre (formerly the CIBC bank, built in the early 1900s in what is now called The Exchange District), with its three-story, stained-glass dome and swaths of granite and marble, suits grand functions, lavish launches and political announcements. Planners book it for gala dinners (for up to 200) and receptions (for up to 400), often importing gourmet restaurant cuisine from Winnipeg's star restaurants such as Amici's, Fusion Grill or 529 Wellington.

The Manitoba Museum intrigues guests at opening receptions by accentuating Manitoba's rich history and culture. The Nonsuch Gallery, where the 1667 ship used by Hudson Bay traders to carry furs, inspires events (for up to 120) themed around the fur trade.

Orchestrating a rousing French voyageur theme, a staple in the Winnipeg event scene, excites guests more than ever since historic Fort Gibraltar was enhanced with the La Maison Du Bourgeois, a new wooden traditional French fort. A boon for planners tight on time, the venue packages turnkey events, complete with live French music and costumed interpreters to create an open-air, living museum (accessible to 2000) and seated dinner in the Maison (for up to 300).

Don Finkbeiner, owner and manager of Winnipeg-based destination management company, Heartland International Travel and Tours, used it with roaring success for a July 2003 medical association meeting composed of doctors and their families. "With canoeing on the Red River, games such as tug-of-war and hatchet-throwing, candle-making and costumed characters, we gave Winnipeg a historical reference," he says.

As an alternative and inspiring step into the past, Finkbeiner transported guests to Lower Fort Garry, 40 minutes away. Formerly the Hudson's Bay Company's main distribution hub for western Canada, the elegant dining room is "a wonderful setting for the Sheraton Winnipeg [or any other caterer] to cater a first-class historical Canadiana meal," he says.

VENUES ABOUND
Memorable for sports jocks of all ages, the Blue & Gold Room at the Winnipeg Arena (the venerable private club for Winnipeg Blue Bombers' seasons ticket holders) oozes celebrity football ambience. Corporate VIPs and delegates alike can attend a reception or dinner (for 300) in the hallowed space clad with memorabilia from the Bombers' storied history.

Music aficionados call Winnipeg the rock'n'roll capital of Canada because of the popular musicians born here. For ground-breaking and networking events, planners enlist bands to rev up the fun as Salisbury house, a down-home burger joint. Or they stage a "Winnipeg social" complete with deli foods, local beers from Fort Garry Brewing and local folk singers and songwriters Ted Longbottom and James Keelaghan. To add some horsepower to a nostalgic beat, guests can be escorted to the social in vintage cars. For an added rush, planners can map out a treasure hunt to the city's rock'n'roll shrines - the Burton Cummings home and the Burton Cummings Theatre - ultimately dazzling up to 1,700 guests with Blue Rodeo or Burton Cummings himself.

For foot-stomping western flair, Finkbeiner sends groups on the restored vintage diesel from Prairie Dog Central Railway to the Hitchin' Post, a ranch-style facility (for up to 4000), a 10-minute ride from Winnipeg. "International groups love the country band, the line dancing and hearty roast beef and potatoes banquet. The train takes them back in time and down in speed after hectic meetings," he says.

WORLDS AWAY
Set on the banks of converging rivers, Winnipeg is a city where planners can evoke a rural setting literally minutes from any downtown hotel. Right in the city, the award-winning Fort Whyte Centre is an urban naturalist's dream: the only place within city limits that boasts a herd of buffalo. Seasonal activities include fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, skating, tobogganing and bison buggy rentals. During September, guests in the large interpretive centre where events are held view an amazing sight as flocks of geese, migrating south, blacken the sky before descending to land on the pond.

For atmospheric brainstorming or teambuilding, St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre is a riverside retreat on Winnipeg's outskirts bordered by the ruins of a former Trappist Monastery. With 10 guest rooms, a reception hall (for 125) and eight break-out rooms (for up to 35 each) it is a lovely spot for a day trip.

A spectacular rural experience awaits just 25 kilometres north of Winnipeg at the enchanting Oak Hammock Marsh wetlands: one of the top three places in the world to see the fall migrations of birds, with 500,000 birds representing more than 200 species. The facility offers canoeing and hiking on 30 kilometres of nature trails as well as an interpretive centre, 120-seat multimedia theatre and indoor dining facilities.

Pat Carrigan, event contracting manager for Winnipeg-based Investor's Group Financial Services Inc., says Oak Hammock Marsh is "a lovely dinner setting for small groups who may not have any nature experience."

For planners seeking to step right out of the box, Celes Davar, owner of Earth Rhythms Inc., specializes in custom events. These often feature aboriginal elders, storytellers and guides. Recent summer teambuilding events for 26 delegates of an agricultural farm services company included wilderness survival activities: fire starting; traversing an obstacle course; navigating with a hand-held global positioning device; and tracking elk with radio telemetry receivers.

DEBUNKING A CHILLY RAP
Forget the "Winterpeg" moniker. Winnipeg's warm hospitality and eagerness to impress is legendary. Just ask Heidi Wilker. While organizing the July 2003 assembly of 1,500 international delegates of the Lutheran World Federation, the president and chief executive officer of Blessed Events, a Brampton, Ontario-based company focused primarily on the religious and non-profit sector, credited the choice of Winnipeg to "an attractive bid" and a collaborative effort from the whole city. "The city formed Team Winnipeg to help us," says Wilker. "It involved people from the corporate, hotel and tourism sectors dreaming up ideas for us: an opening gala at the Winnipeg Convention Centre with local entertainment and a fabulous Manitoba buffet; outdoor festivities with aboriginal entertainers at The Forks; and a dine-around."

To boost attendance to the 10-day event, Destination Winnipeg organized the hotel reservations and rallied groups of local volunteers to help with various aspects of hospitality such as security, transportation and people with language skills.

Klaus Lahr, general manager of the 160,000 sq.-ft. Winnipeg Convention Centre says attracting business year-round is all about "cultivating relationships." Citing frequent usage by Great West Life, the Investors Group and Bristol Aerospace (all head-quartered in Winnipeg), and the week-long events for the 2002 "Daughters of the Nile" gathering for 4000 Shriners, Lahr says forging trust is key. "When the function is over, we're happy if the client is happy and the meeting planner looks good."

"Winnipeg works," says Ivan Berkowitz, director of development for the Winnipeg-based International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences, who has organized more than 100 trade shows and events at Winnipeg's convention centre. "It earned the right to host our May 2004 national meeting. At the 2001 World Congress of the International Society for Heart Research, with 2000 people from 72 countries, we earned a global reputation for putting on a great meeting."

In terms of hotel properties, Carrigan expresses "the utmost confidence" in top Winnipeg hotels such as the Delta, Fairmont, Sheraton, Radisson and Fort Garry. Mary Beth Kupferschmidt concurs. As coordinator of conventions for Mary Kay Cosmetics Ltd., she used The Fort Garry Winnipeg Hotel to film a Mary Kay corporate movie (starring Shirley MacLean, no less), and to host a training session and luncheon for 200 sales people. "The romantically beautiful hotel fit our image," she says.

With so much to choose from, planners shouldn't limit themselves to one venue or hotel, says Carrigan. For conferences, try the historic Pantages Theatre, the modern Centennial Concert Hall or the theatre in the Winnipeg Art Gallery. For gala events, the roof of the Winnipeg Art Gallery sparkles under starry skies. And the Winnipeg Legislature, though significant historically and politically, suits a gala event worthy of the question: Shall we dance?

WINNIPEG'S REVAMPED HOTEL SCENE
In a city where winter weather can put a chill on outdoor diversions, planners can relax knowing there's a recreation reward for delegates ensconced at the city's top five, meetings-oriented hotels. Each has an indoor swimming pool, gym and hip bars (all recently updated), conducive to unwinding. Over the last two years, extensive renovations and refurbishments to public spaces and guest rooms, and cutting-edge technological staging, communications facilities and business facilities in all the top five hotels in the city have updated the meeting hotel scene.

Notably, the city's only CAA/AAA Four Diamond Hotel, the 350-room The Fairmont Hotel Winnipeg (with 22,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space) just revamped its lobby, reception area and award-winning Velvet Glove Restaurant.

Positive improvements are also visible at the 271-room Sheraton Winnipeg Hotel (20,000 sq. ft. exhibit space); connected to the Winnipeg Convention Centre, the 392-room Delta Hotel Winnipeg (18,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space); the 272-room Radisson Hotel Winnipeg Downtown (12,630 sq. ft. of exhibit space); and the historic 240-room Fort Garry Winnipeg Hotel (20,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space). Adding to the city's dozens of capable, meetings-friendly hotels are three new hotels: the Clarion Hotel and Suites, the Hampton Inn and Suites and the Canada Inns.

 

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