The best of Alberta from those who know it best
If you’re unsure about whether or not to hold an event in Alberta, talk to an Albertan. Within minutes of hearing a local assert the virtues of the province, you’ll no doubt be ready to book your meeting-room space on the spot.
This isn’t because locals are hubristic or egotistical; it’s because they recognize that Alberta is one of North America’s most scenic, friendly, laidback regions, and genuinely want others to experience what they love.
One such impassioned native is Judy Love Rondeau, who coordinates travel media relations for Travel Alberta, the province’s CVB. Having grown up in Edmonton, she claims, “I’m a proud Albertan and I can honestly say that our province is filled with experiences that take your breath away, and we hope you will take away memories that last a lifetime.”
This passion indicates that the region is something special, and ensures that when your group comes to town, it will be welcomed with genuine hospitality and warmth. Albertans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Public art in Calgary
Alberta’s capitol of Edmonton, located in the center of the province, is home to more than 1 million residents who clearly revel in the city’s natural-metropolitan mix. Edmonton announces this fusion in its skyline, which includes a turn-of-the-century castle and shimmering-glass highrises set against the natural bounty of the North Saskatchewan River valley, the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America.
Ken Fiske, vice president of tourism and special events for the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, who has been living in the city for 20 years, is one of many locals who enjoys “the quality and pristine beauty of our river valley.” Fiske is also a fan of the city’s vibrant festival scene, which encompasses some 30 offerings a year, celebrating everything from dragon-boat racing to the city’s local heritage. His personal favorite? The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, a theater extravaganza that features nearly 1,500 performances and about 40 street performers who entertain the crowds between shows. Fiske points out that groups can capitalize on the city’s festival scene by partaking in the CVB’s Festival City in a Box program, which provides a menu of suggestions on how to integrate festival themes into keynote addresses, breakout sessions, team building, entertainment, décor, catering and receptions.
Major Meeting Venues
Two massive event venues are available at opposite ends of Edmonton. About a 10-minute drive from downtown, the Edmonton Exposition & Conference Centre more than doubled its size a couple years ago, positioning it as Canada’s largest convention center west of Toronto. It hosts 2,500 events a year in its 522,000 sq. ft. of contiguous meeting and exhibit space.
In the heart of downtown, the Shaw Conference Centre defies the stereotype of design-challenged convention centers with its myriad aesthetic surprises, including an incline elevator and glass atrium. It provides 23 meeting rooms and 82,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space. The center is also an environmental trendsetter; it’s aiming for LEED certification in the next few months, a rare feat for an existing building.
The center is conveniently connected to the Four-Diamond Westin Edmonton, with 416 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and is located just blocks away from the 199-room Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, a chateau-style property built in 1915. Among more than 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, a top option here is an outdoor area with a gazebo where attendees can take advantage of the city’s famously sunny weather. Like its sister Fairmont hotels, the property also offers the Eco-Meet program, which helps planners minimize waste and practice sustainability.
If there are shoppers in your group, plan an outing to their nirvana: the massive West Edmonton Mall. The largest shopping mall in North America, it includes more than 5 million sq. ft. of shops, restaurants and attractions, including a dining area modeled after New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, movie theaters, an ice rink and an amusement park. Shopaholic groups that need more than a day to get in their credit-card kicks can stay at the glitzy Fantasyland Hotel, a property with 235 standard and executive rooms and 120 fantasy-themed rooms, including Arabian, African and (yes) Igloo.
For a taste of Edmonton’s cultural side, the Art Gallery of Alberta is a must. The expansive venue reopened in January 2010 following an $88 million renovation and redesign, and now features a dramatic design by acclaimed architect Randall Stout, including steel ribbon on its façade that follows the curve of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River. The distinct design is carried over inside, where more than 6,000 pieces of art are housed under a ceiling that swoops and curves in symmetry with the exterior. Meeting spaces include an outdoor terrace and Zinc, a trendy on-site restaurant with a blue-lit bar, lofty wine rack and windows overlooking Sir Winston Churchill Square, the city’s cultural heart and a popular spot for festivals and live music.
For a journey into Edmonton’s past, bring your group to Fort Edmonton Park. Canada’s largest living history museum, the venue features four different areas representing the 1795–1870 fur-trading period, 1885, 1905 and 1920. Authentic touches include a livery stable, trading post, saloon, old-fashioned post office and one of the first mosques in Western Canada, and the park staff is adamantly committed to historical accuracy—cars built after 1920 are even refused entry. Meeting facility options include an air hangar that can accommodate up to 600 and a Roaring ’20s-era theater that opened in July, which can host up to 250. The whole park can also be rented for a step-back-in-time event.
Bluebell meeting room at The Rimrock Resort Hotel, Banff
About a four-hour drive or stunning train ride (see sidebar on pg. 128) from Edmonton, you’ll find Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and an idyllic locale for breathe-and-reboot meetings. Here, you’ll discover gorges, hot springs and icefields, as well as lakes so clear, the projection of peaks and sky match the vividness of the real thing. The beauty of the park is coupled with a downtown lined with mom-and-pop shops and locals as friendly as they come.
Channin Liedtke, regional sales manager for The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, who moved from elsewhere in Canada to Jasper two years ago, says there’s a synergy between what locals and out-of-towners love about the region. “From a local perspective and from a tourist perspective, this is the most authentic heavily visited tourist destination I have ever [known],” he says. “Those who live in Jasper typically work in the tourism and hospitality industry and most certainly value tourists, but they also value keeping it a livable, authentic town. Visitors to Jasper value that too.”
Liedtke recommends cliff-jumping into the crystal-clear waters of Horseshoe Lake, skiing down the Marmot Basin (often uncrowded, he says) or canoeing along Lac Beauvert and Maligne Lake. “There’s nothing quite like canoeing toward some Canadian Geese on the lake and watching the group take off together as you get close,” he says. “The water is so still, and there are few places anyone can go that are as quiet and peaceful.”
Major Meeting Venues
For nearly a century, the 446-room Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which offers 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, has served as the area’s premier resort. One of the original grand hotels built along the Canadian Pacific Railway, it differs from its brand neighbors in Banff and Lake Louise in that its scope comes in the form of sprawl rather than a towering façade. The original builders clearly understood what guests want when surrounded by such majestic natural beauty: a warm, unfussy lodge that puts the scenery at the forefront. In addition to lovely indoor spaces, attendees can gather at a private area beside Trefoil Lake with a stone barbeque, lakeside fire pit and outdoor bar.
Planners can also choose from among four Mountain Park Lodges resorts, each of which touts comfortable elegance at a reasonable price point. One of the most meetings-friendly is the Chateau Jasper, a four Green Key-rated hotel that offers 119 guest rooms, function spaces that can accommodate up to 180 and an award-winning restaurant. The hotel also works with the local Jasper Park Stables to arrange group trail rides.
20th Floor Specialty Suite at The Westin Edmonton
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park and undoubtedly one of its most picturesque. Spread among more than 2,500 square miles, it features a dense and varied array of terrains, from glaciers and ice fields to swatches of coniferous forest and the imposing peaks of the Canadian Rockies. The park is also home to the bustling mountain town of Banff and iconic Lake Louise.
Alicia Chelsom, manager of PR for the Fairmont properties in Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff, has lived in the area for four years and recommends taking in the renowned scenery via helicopter or horseback.
Major Meeting Venues
The Fairmont Banff Springs is a grand property modeled after a Scottish Baronial Castle that still manages to look small against the backdrop of its Banff National Park surroundings. Attendees could easily spend hours meandering through the castle, finding a wine bar, European-style spa with an indoor Hungarian mineral pool and Bavarian cottage-style restaurant. The meeting space at the property easily lives up to the majesty of the rest of the hotel; among 76,000 sq. ft. of space, options include Mt. Stephen Hall, a space awash in gold tones with an imposing oak-beam ceiling and cathedral window with stained-glass crests.
A more modern option, also fit for execs and VIPs, is the The Rimrock Resort Hotel. Built into the side of Sulphur Mountain, it offers its own park views, and touts 346 guest rooms, two restaurants—including the Five-Diamond Eden—and a full-service spa where attendees can unwind with signature massages or body treatments including a coffee wrap. The property features a dedicated 18,000-square-foot convention facility.
For a touch of inspiration in the wilderness, book a meeting at The Banff Centre. Primarily used as a space for artists to hone their craft—alumni include Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall and Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack—it also serves as a conference facility with 72,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 400 guest rooms. Walking through the halls between meetings, your attendees may hear the sound of a saxophone or catch a glimpse of dancers practicing pirouettes, igniting the kind of inspired thinking that takes business to the next level.
No experience in Banff, or any part of Alberta, would be complete without a foray into the area’s famed cowboy culture. Brewster’s MountView Barbecue, just 10 minutes from downtown Banff, is a top spot to revel in this laidback scene, and offers a nice complement to the town’s luxurious, white-gloves side. Here, five-course dining in elegant attire gives way to finger-lickin’ BBQ beef brought out on a pitchfork, which up to 1,000 attendees can enjoy in jeans while drinking from a bucket of beer. After the meal, guests can line dance or do the two-step under the stars, visible through a giant hole in the top of the so-called “donut tent.”
A meeting in Banff also wouldn’t be complete without a venture to Lake Louise, a glacial lake in the national park with a turquoise color so bright and dazzling, out-of-towners have been known to ask—in all earnestness—if the bottom of the lake floor is painted (in actuality, the distinct tone is the result of glacial sedimentation).
Just feet from the lake, The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise traces back to 1890 and features an aesthetic reminiscent of a Swiss chateau. The property offers 36,000 sq. ft. of elegant meeting space and all the amenities you’d expect of the top-notch brand, including a first-rate spa and multiple dining options. But its greatest distinction is undoubtedly its lakeside setting and the views and exploration possibilities that provides.
Also near the lake is the Lake Louise Railway Station & Restaurant, a preserved artifact from the early 1900s when trains represented the pinnacle of travel. Up to 42 people can step back into that elegant era inside the Delamere Dining Car, which features original woodwork.
Lake Louise also has its own barbecue spot—Brewster Cowboy’s Barbecue & Dance Barn. The venue is a stone’s throw from the Fairmont, and works with the hotel to provide a low-key off-site that complements the high-end hotel experience.
Canmore & Kananaskis
Canmore and Kananaskis are located just 16 miles outside of Banff-Lake Louise, and the two provide the perfect opportunity to enjoy dramatic landscapes. The developing area is one of the most up-and-coming spots in Alberta.
Rusty Noble, area director for Canmore’s Bellstar Hotels & Resorts, a collection that includes the event-friendly Solara Resort & Spa, Mystic Springs and Blackstone Mountain Lodge, has lived in the area six months, and recommends the area’s great outdoors. His top picks? Hiking, walking or running along the region’s 40-plus miles of preserved trails (“There is always a chance of spotting the local wildlife, including elk and deer, and the wildflowers along the trail can be spectacular”) or going for a swim at Quarry Lake (“It may be busy, but the lake is not glacier fed so the water temperature is a bit more reasonable”).
Major Meeting Venues
Canmore’s latest entry into the meetings scene is Solara Resort & Spa, a sophisticated hotel that had its soft opening last fall and has been debuting new amenities throughout the year. The sleek property touts an inventory of 214 suites with space to spare—the largest tops out at a VIP-ready 1,700 sq. ft. Suites also feature a private balcony or terrace and a slate fireplace to sit beside while taking in sweeping mountain views (a particularly striking sight is the Three Sisters Mountain, a local icon comprised of three adjacent peaks). Up to 200 attendees can be accommodated in spaces including a 96-seat theater. The property also partners with Clean the World, which collects and recycles hotel soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion.
Golf groups, meanwhile, will enjoy a stay at Silvertip Resort, which comes with a scenic 18-hole course designed by acclaimed golf architect Les Furber. The resort offers 11,000 sq. ft. of function space, including a 3,300-square-foot pavilion.
In nearby Kananaskis, a top choice is Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, which offers 412 guest rooms, 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, a full-service spa and a steakhouse.
Calgary, about an hour-and-a-half drive southeast of Banff, is Alberta’s largest city and has quickly become one of Canada’s most lucrative business hubs. Yet appealingly, it’s a big city that favors saunter over swagger. Jenna McLeod, marketing & sales coordinator for Meetings & Conventions Calgary, has lived in the city 25 years—“a couple years shy of being born here,” she notes—and says the main reason she’s stuck around is the metropolis’ genuine friendliness. “For a city of over 1 million people, we are known for being welcoming,” she says. “At the airport alone, there are over 200 white-hat volunteers ready to direct visitors.”
For an authentic twist, McLeod recommends heading to Calgary’s beach. Yes, that’s right, the beach: While the city is landlocked, Calgarians love to lounge by the Elbow or Bow rivers before taking a leisurely float down the water (“no rapids, very relaxing,” McLeod says); groups can get in on the fun by renting rafts. Another tip is to tee up in the summer, when lengthy daylight hours ensure “you can be out on the golf course until almost 10 p.m.”
Major Meeting Venues
The city’s claim to fame on a global scale is its annual hosting of the Calgary Stampede, a cowboy tradition that draws about a million people each July to enjoy a rodeo, chuckwagon races, livestock shows, A-list concerts and an amusement park with rides and fried grub. (Insider’s tip: Try the mini-donuts.) The event is a popular choice for company functions, with elegant private suites available for mingling cowboy style. Once stampede-goers hang up their hats, the grounds become available for group events, with options including the 265,000-square-foot BMO Centre.
Another massive local venue is the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, which offers 36 meeting rooms and 130,000 sq. ft. of function space in two buildings—enough to accommodate up to 4,000 attendees.
Conveniently, the center connects indoors to three Four-Star hotels: the Hyatt Regency Calgary, with 355 guest rooms and 33,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Marriott Calgary Downtown, with 374 rooms and 17,270 sq. ft.; and The Fairmont Palliser, with 405 rooms and 21,000 sq. ft. While the hotels offer equal accessibility, each provides its own distinct touches, including 500 pieces of original Western Canadian art at the Hyatt Regency, the largest guest rooms in downtown at the Marriott and Calgary’s largest ballroom at The Fairmont.
Also close to the convention center is The Westin Calgary, a stylish property with an indoor rooftop pool and TVs embedded into the mirrors of guest bathrooms. Last year, the hotel wrapped up a $35 million renovation to its lobby, 525 guest rooms and 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and debuted two new restaurants and a lounge. The property operates its meeting spaces on wind power.
Just outside the downtown core, the Calgary Zoo feels light years away from city life thanks to its collection of about 1,000 animals. It also offers a host of function spaces, including the Safari Lodge, which can accommodate up to 425 in the park’s African-themed area. Plus, the property is rife with team-building options, from behind-the-scenes programs with lions, tigers and bears to the Zoo-mazing Race, which presents animal-themed challenges that demand a race through the park.
Your group can also utilize Canada Olympic Park, a vestige from Calgary’s stint as host city of the 1988 Winter Olympics, which offers a variety of activities, including bocce ball and ziplining (daredevil attendees can get their thrills zipping 340 feet down from the Ski Jump Tower). The park also offers a variety of function space, including an athletic and ice complex and an outdoor tent.
In the southern part of Alberta, about four hours south of Calgary, Lethbridge touts small-town charm and a youthful vibe thanks to the presence of University of Lethbridge students. Natalie Lindgren, coordinator, convention & event development for Choose Lethbridge, who grew up in the area, recommends an assortment of distinctive local attractions, including the Remington Carriage Museum, home to North America’s largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles; and Lethbridge High Level Bridge, the world’s longest and highest steel trestle bridge.
The area caters to the meetings market with the Coast Lethbridge Hotel & Conference Centre, which offers 105 guest rooms and 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Lethbridge Lodge Hotel and Conference Centre, with 190 rooms and 21,000 sq. ft.
Non-hotel options include the new Tecconnect: An Alberta Centre for New Commerce, which debuted earlier this year and can accommodate 25 boardroom-style or 100 lecture-style, and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, which overlooks Galt Gardens—a popular urban park—and can host up to 300 for a reception.
- The Edmonton International Airport (YEG), located about 20 miles outside downtown Edmonton, offers service to more than 50 cities across Canada, the U.S. and abroad via several major airlines. The airport will debut an airport terminal expansion in the fall of 2012.
- The Calgary International Airport (YYC), about 11 miles from downtown Calgary, is Canada’s fourth-busiest airport in passenger traffic. It is the headquarters for WestJet and a hub for Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz. Airlines offer service to and from most major North American destinations.
- The Lethbridge County Airport (YQL), just over 4 miles from downtown Lethbridge, offers regional service to and from Edmonton and Calgary.