From bountiful Banff to cowboy Calgary, Alberta is a mélange of cultural and geographic appeal
When comedian Robin Williams quipped that Canada is “like a loft apartment over a really great party,” he drolly summarized America’s attitude toward its northern neighbor over the last half century.
U.S. teenagers living near the border would often drive up into the misunderstood country to exploit the American dollar against the weaker (and funnier) Canadian Loonie and poke fun at the locals’ accents.
Today, however, Canadians are doing all the laughing. The exchange rate is now nearly equivalent. And gas prices have risen to the point where the country’s massive oil reserves—costly to extract due to its sandy base—is now well worth the expense. Canada’s reserves are second only to Saudia Arabia, and the province of Alberta, where most of these oil sands are located, is raking in the dough.
Alberta is not looking to just take the money and run, however—it’s making a serious investment in its future, with meetings in mind. Building on a history of gorgeous natural settings like Banff, and the culturally rich and unique cities of Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta is rapidly adding a wealth of top-notch resorts and hotels and an array of truly inimitable meeting venues.
Banff and Lake Louise
Postcards of Banff and Lake Louise bring to mind those fantastical Thomas Kinkade landscape paintings—fairytale animals prancing about, exhilarating geography and brilliant beams of light from Heaven illuminating everything below.
The surprise, however, comes after arriving at these two neighboring mountain settings in person and realizing that there is no Kinkade idealism, no Photoshop manipulation going on behind the scenes—this is all very real. Banff and Lake Louise are the pride and joy of Canada, let alone Alberta, and they are two of the most inspiring and stunning destinations a meeting planner could desire.
The town of Banff came into being in 1886, shortly after the Canadian Pacific Railway made the area—80 miles west of Calgary in the Canadian Rockies—accessible to the adventurous public. Today, Banff National Park (banffnationalpark.com) is the oldest national park in Canada, and to this day retains its small size and, thus, its timeless charm.
Banff/Lake Louise is all about the great outdoors and the myriad ways to experience it. Lake Louise hosts the largest ski area in Canada, while Banff National Park, at 2,500 square miles, offers endless hiking trails. Fishing, boating and horseback riding abound. There’s also excellent golf, with views distracting enough to add a few strokes to your game. With all the many choices, the hardest part is narrowing it down. One of the best aids for decision-making is the website for Banff Lake Louise Tourism (banfflakelouise.com). The site is a valuable portal to all things outdoors, as well as a guide to area restaurants, spas and other helpful ways to plan your group’s experience. In addition, the many specialists at Travel Alberta (travelalberta.com/meetings) are experts at meeting planning throughout the province.
Conferences and meetings take on new levels at the world-renowned Banff Centre (banffcentre.ca), with an unparalleled variety and quality of meeting space. Not only is it a world-class conference facility—with 60 different meeting spaces and 400 guest rooms—but it also shines as a hub of creative activity, with a constant lineup of educational classes, leadership development courses, art workshops and live performances.
Just a few miles up, on Sulpher Mountain, the 346-room Rimrock Resort Hotel (rimrockresort.com) has commanding views of the town below and surrounding mountain peaks. Opt for one of 25 Grandview rooms and rise every morning with awe-inspiring Cascade Mountain and Bow Valley directly outside your window.
Or let the same stunning views inspire your meeting—the hotel offers 18,000 sq. ft. of newly renovated meeting space with top-of-the-line A/V equipment and a conference services department to handle any requests.
Should your group require fortress-like solitude, try renting your own island. Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (crmr.com) operates three secluded lodges scattered around the Banff/Lake Louise area. Its Emerald Lake Lodge, a gorgeous 85-guest room facility with several small meeting rooms, sits on a little island in Emerald Lake that’s accessed by a wooden foot bridge. The entire island, including all rooms and facilities, is available for buyout.
Though the term “cowboy town” tends to evoke places like Wyoming and Texas, you need to experience Calgary before claiming any authority on the subject. Calgary, the largest city in Alberta, has the split personality of being a rustic, friendly saloon town as well as a sophisticated meeting destination with several premium venues and luxurious hotels.
“Calgary still has its traditional western hospitality, its cowboy spirit,” says Paul Newmark, senior manager of destination marketing for Tourism Calgary (tourismcalgary.com). “Here, deals are sealed with a handshake.”
There are plenty of ways to absorb cowboy culture in Calgary, from line dancing to riding mechanical bulls to simply hanging out in the city’s saloon-style bars. In fact, even many of the major hotels have bars with a strong cowboy flair, so be sure to pack your boots. You should also be sure to taste Calgary’s culture—many excellent restaurants take pride in featuring regional dishes. “It’s Rocky Mountain Cuisine,” explains Newmark. “Really tasty game meat, like buffalo and venison. Quite a number of fine-dining restaurants here take this to new levels.”
Fortunately, the fun of playing cowboy (or cowgirl) in Calgary does not extend to the city’s accommodations. Instead of crawling into a fireside tent, kick off your boots at the Hyatt Regency Calgary (calgary.hyatt.com), with 355 guest rooms and 33,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. And, with 17 different treatment options to choose from, the hotel’s Stillwater Spa will do much more than remove that fine layer of dust from your skin.
With indoor connections to three four-star hotels, the centrally located TELUS Convention Center (calgary-convention.com) makes an ideal meeting venue, particularly when the weather refuses to cooperate. The facility features 132,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, 27 breakout rooms and excellent staff and services to ensure your meetings run nice and smoothly.
Other top meeting venues include the MacEwan Conference & Event Centre at the University of Calgary (macewancentre.com), with 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 1,200 guest rooms, and the Metropolitan Conference Centre (metcentre.com), with six meeting rooms totaling almost 10,000 sq. ft.
Nowhere can the cowboy spirit be felt more viscerally than at the Calgary Stampede (calgarystampede.com), a spectacular 10-day summer festival that is the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and much, much more. Even if you can’t join the more than one million visitors at this city-wide event, the Stampede grounds offer an excellent range of unique and urbane facilities, with more than 450,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in an assortment of sizes and design schemes.
Aside from surviving bucking bulls and winning chuck wagon races, Calgarians are also very keen on modern sports. As host of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, Calgary has excellent multipurpose athletic facilities at Canada Olympic Park (canadaolympicpark.ca), and adventurous groups can hold their breath for a minute as they careen down the bobsled or luge run at close to 100 miles an hour. For a truly unique and heart-stopping experience, clip into a zipline that runs the course of the 90-meter ski jump, reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour over 35 seconds. If you require more control over your inertia, the park also has plenty of activities that are a bit more interactive and less scream-inducing, like mountain biking and indoor rock climbing. The park has many different options for group packages.
If Calgary could be considered Canada’s Houston, then Edmonton is its Austin. The capital of Alberta, this northern city takes pride in being a cultural mecca, particularly when it comes to festivals. With more than 20 major festivals a year and a host of smaller events, it is difficult to visit this city without finding yourself pulled into the middle of one. “We really surprise people with how much music we have,” says Glen Duncan, senior sales manager at Edmonton Tourism (edmonton.com). “People can really immerse themselves in the arts here.”
Another interesting side to Edmonton that continually thrills meeting attendees is that, way up on the 53rd latitude, brilliant summer daylight graces the city from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., providing a wide berth for outdoor recreation and outdoor festivals. In fact, tell any golfer that they can be within an hour of 80 golf courses and have six hours of playing time after work hours, and it almost becomes an incentive meeting.
The primary meeting destination in Edmonton is the Shaw Conference Centre (shawconferencecentre.com), with 23 meeting rooms and an 80,000-square-foot hall divisible into three separate spaces. Altogether it has 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the new Hall D, with 270-degree views of the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Accommodations are a snap, with more than 1,200 hotel rooms within walking distance.
Another popular venue is Northlands (northlands.com). Home of the NHL Edmonton Oilers (the New York Yankees of Canadian Hockey), the Northlands’ Rexall Place has seating for more than 18,000. Also on the property are 13 meeting rooms of up to 77,000 sq. ft., several “meeting saloons,” a horse-racing track and 500 slot machines. For accommodation needs, a key resource is Edmonton Downtown Hotels (edmontondowntownhotels.com), which provides detailed information on 13 major hotels.
Any visitor to Edmonton who draws even the slightest glee from shopping should not miss a shot at the city’s shrine to the God of Commerce—the colossal West Edmonton Mall (westedmall.com). There are a lot of world records here: the world’s largest amusement park, the world’s largest indoor wave pool, the world’s largest indoor lake, the world’s largest indoor triple-loop roller coaster. There’s more: Exotic creatures at Sea Life Caverns, an NHL-sized ice rink and a Chinatown will help distort your sense of place. You can even sleep at the mall—at the Fantasyland Hotel (fantasylandhotel.com), with decorative room themes like Hollywood, Arabian and Igloo.
With more than 800 stores and covering 48 city blocks, the West Edmonton Mall is more like its own indoor city. Contact the mall for a spectrum of meetings ideas and team activities.
Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar, Banff
A la carte local cuisine
- Alberta’s two international airports are in Calgary and Edmonton. The Calgary International Airport (calgaryairport.com) is only 20 minutes from the city center; Calgary’s Light Rail Transit (calgarytransit.com) easily brings you into town. The Edmonton International Airport (edmontonairports.com) has a shuttle service to downtown and surrounding areas. Banff and Lake Louise are 80 and 115 miles west of Calgary, respectively. Scheduled and chartered airport shuttles are available throughout the day, as well as rental cars.
- Participate in one of hundreds of truly unique classes and workshops available at the Banff Centre. Many group and leadership classes are available.
- Join the more than 1 million attendees during the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day summer festival that is, among many things, the largest outdoor rodeo in the world.
- Lose yourself in the indoor city that is the West Edmonton Mall. With more than 800 stores, it covers 48 city blocks.
- Golf at 10 p.m. on one of Edmonton’s 80 golf courses. Summer daylight here spans from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.