Conventional wisdom

Recently opened, expanding and new-build conference facilities are attracting, or poised to attract, increased group business to their destination cities.

By Don Douloff

It’s hard to remember a time when there was so much Canadian convention centre activity, with new facilities opened and expansions and a new-build underway.

All of this activity is welcome news for hoteliers, since these bigger and better conference centres are either attracting more group business or poised to do so.

Case in point: Charlottetown

Charlottetown, where a new convention centre opened in August 2013, is a case in point.

Indeed, the new conference facility “has positively affected business for future years,” Betty Anne Morrison, director of sales and marketing at the Delta Prince Edward and the adjacent Prince Edward Island Convention Centre (PEICC), told CLN.

P.E.I Convention Centre

P.E.I Convention Centre

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Delta Prince Edward manages, markets, sells and operates the PEICC, which features 50,000 square feet of usable space.

Next year is looking strong, says Morrison. Twelve city-wides have been booked for 2014 — up from a norm of four per year — and half of those would not have been possible without the new convention facility, she says. “The increased square footage adjoined to the Delta Prince Edward has elevated P.E.I. to a tier-three destination.”

Key to the PEICC’s attractiveness to groups is its ability to “host as many as 1,500 delegates under one roof, which gives the destination access to a whole new set of customers we’ve never been able to accommodate in the past,” says Michael Matthews, executive director of Meetings & Conventions Prince Edward Island. The PEICC, he says, has several larger groups on the books for 2015 and 2016, and a large 2017 group.

To help meet that need, Delta Prince Edward has room to expand, since PEICC was designed to allow for the addition of more than 80 guestrooms. Joining the city’s hotel lineup in 2012 was the Holman Grand, an 80-room boutique property and Charlottetown’s first new hotel build in 20 years.

Fredericton facility boosts meetings business

Also seeing increased group business is Fredericton, where a new convention facility, offering 36,000 square feet of meeting space, launched in January 2011.

Since the Fredericton Conference Centre (FCC) opened, it has hosted “larger, more regional and national events,” according to Walther Lauffer, vice-president and general manager of the Crowne Plaza Fredericton and interim chair of the Fredericton Hotel Association.

Fredericton Convention Centre

Fredericton Convention Centre

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In 2012, the FCC hosted approximately 30,000 delegates, an increase of 21 per cent over 2011 and an increase of 28 per cent of new events to the city, according to Lauffer. In 2013, 10 national conventions have been booked; six nationals are confirmed for 2014, with four in both 2015 and 2016—“business that [Fredericton] would not have been able to attract without that facility,” he notes.

Boosting guestroom capacity will be a Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton, expected to open in 2015, he says.

OCC means capital gains

In the nation’s capital, “hotel business has increased” since the Ottawa Convention Centre (

Ottawa Convention Centre

OCC) opened in April 2011, Dick Brown, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, told CLN.

Featuring 192,000 square feet of useable space, the OCC, says Brown, has “enhanced the city’s ability to attract major events,” citing the 2012 NHL All Star Game and the 2012 Liberal Convention, among others.

Ottawa Convention Centre

Events hosted by the facility in its first two years generated an estimated total of almost 97,000 room-nights, an OCC spokesperson told CLN. For the next five years, the OCC has booked 61 conventions, with more likely, says the spokesperson.

Accommodating those inbound groups shouldn’t be a problem. Three Ottawa hotels opened in 2011/2012, including the 395-room Courtyard by Marriott East, launched in 2012. Ground has been broken on two more properties, including a 200-room Residence Inn by Marriott Wakely, and another six have been announced.

Nova Centre underway

In addition to the convention facilities opened in recent years, construction continues on a new-build and an expansion.

Nova Centre, Halifax

Nova Centre, Halifax

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The new-build, the 1-million-square foot, $500-million Nova Centre, in Halifax, will feature a convention centre (120,000 square feet of rentable space), hotel and residences, office tower, retail, parking and public plaza, and is slated to open in 2016. Six conference centre events, including four for the launch year and each bringing 500 to 1,500 attendees, are confirmed.

“The Nova Centre is a significant economic development project that will further position Halifax as a leading destination,” says Phyllis Stephenson, general manager of the Best Western PLUS Chocolate Lake Hotel and president of the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia.

Additional convention space will arrive via a two-hotel complex slated to open in downtown Halifax in April 2014. The development will include a 135-room Homewood Suites and a 181-room Hampton Inn, joined by a shared conference centre offering 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

Booming St. John’s to double convention centre size

In booming St. John’s, NL construction continues on a $60-million convention-centre expansion that will double capacity to 47,000 square feet of divisible function and meeting space, and create a direct link to the Delta St. John’s.

When the expanded St. John’s Convention Centre (SJCC) opens in 2016, it will bring 100,000 square feet of function and exhibit space under one roof: joining the SJCC’s 47,000 square feet will be 20,000 square feet (Delta St. John’s) and 33,000 square feet (Mile One Centre, linked to the convention facility via pedway).

St. John's Convention Centre

St. John's Convention Centre

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“We needed the convention centre expansion in order to grow convention business and it helps to attract investment in new hotels,” says Rhonda Hutton, director of marketing at Destination St. John’s. Meetings and conventions, along with business and leisure travel, have driven strong growth, even during the 2008/2009 recession, when hotel business increased by 2 to 5 per cent per year, she says.

Conventions have been booked for 2016 and beyond, with 2016 bookings pacing ahead of typical years, says Krista Cameron, director of sales for Destination St. John’s.

“The announcement of the [convention centre expansion] was a key criterion in the strategic decision-making for most of the developers of each of the respective new hotels either under construction now or due to start within the next couple of years,” says Greg Fleming, general manager of the Ramada St. John’s and president of the Hotel/Motel Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.  

Upcoming openings include a Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton, launching in November 2013, and an 89-room boutique property owned by the Steele Group expected to debut in May 2014. Five building applications are at various stages of approval by the city, but no announcements have been made as to when construction will begin.

Enticing group business

Convention centres aren’t the only Canadian venues going the extra mile to boost group business. Hotels are entering the market or sprucing themselves up and getting creative in trying to catch the eye of meeting and event planners.

Rugged but luxe retreat

Cinema ar Fogo Island Inn

Cinema ar Fogo Island Inn

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Brand new to the scene is Fogo Island Inn. Opened May 15, the high-end property, located on an island off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, features 29 rooms and amenities such as a 42-seat cinema opened in partnership with the National Film Board, and rooftop sauna and hot tubs.

Capitalizing on its rugged North Atlantic locale and natural bounty, the property offers unique group-focused programs ideal for small conferences and corporate retreats. For example, a two-day September weekend event featured Great Big Sea musician Alan Doyle, who, along with the hotel’s executive chef, Murray McDonald, led an expedition foraging for wild mushrooms and berries. Saturday night’s gourmet supper was followed by an unplugged performance of music and stories by Doyle. Other programs highlight cuisine, wooden-rowboat racing and storm-watching.

Group-ready areas include a 1,300-square-foot contemporary art gallery; 1,400-square-foot meeting space; and rooftop options offering 380 square feet of covered space and 570 square feet of uncovered cocktail/function space.

While the Inn’s room rates — $500 to $3,000 per night — may seem high, they include full board: a daybreak tray with coffee, croissants, yogurt or fruit; breakfast, dinner (lunch), afternoon tea, supper and snacks. Gratuities are included gate-to-gate.

Occupancy has been very strong, according to Melanie Coates, the hotel’s director of marketing and business development.

Reopened Ritz

Reopened in May 2012 following a $200-million renovation, the Ritz-Carlton Montreal is rolling out the red carpet for groups with promotional perks that include one complimentary room per 40 rooms paid (or one per 25, during low season); one upgrade to a suite per 40 rooms paid (or one per 25, in low season); two complimentary VIP amenities per 40 rooms paid (or two per 25, in low season); complimentary Wi-Fi in guestrooms and meeting rooms; and complimentary access to the pool and fitness centre.

Catering to groups are the hotel’s 12,000 square feet of flexible meeting space equipped with LCD screens and projectors.

Moreover, the renovation installed the city’s most advanced HACCP-certified banquet kitchen capable of feeding 1,000 people at a time.

Opus is bolder, brighter

On the West Coast, OPUS Vancouver boutique hotel, in April, 2013, unveiled its new look that revamped all 96 guestrooms in a bolder, brighter mode.

Opus meeting room

Opus meeting room

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On the meetings side, the hotel’s conference space, renovated in 2010, accommodates 70, theatre-style and 22, boardroom-style. Meeting rooms are wired with high-speed Internet access,
LCD projection screen and video-conferencing.

Until March 31, 2014, groups of six or more pay $199 per-room per-night and receive perks that include complimentary Internet access, welcome beverage upon arrival and complimentary iPad for each guest to use on- and off-property.

In fact, iPads, equipped with complimentary Internet access on- and off-property, are provided in every guestroom, with Samsung phones offered in over one-third of guestrooms.

“Our group business has increased in 2013 and we are ahead of booking pace for 2014,” says general manager Nicholas Gandossi.