From attracting a bevy of movie shoots, to numerous revamped and
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
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
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,"
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.
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'
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,"
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
"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,"
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
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.