Proximity to the United States is an obvious selling point when it comes to U.S. planners holding meetings, conventions, and incentives in Canada, but it's certainly not the only one. Among the other factors that continue to draw groups are safety, good price for the value, top-notch convention and hotel facilities, and, of course, the particular charms of each of the destinations.
“We're ‘international-domestic,’” says Kevin Whitfield, vice president of marketing and sales for Road West Destination Management Co., based in Banff, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia. “Canada is right there next to the United States, but we have different money, entry requirements, and slightly different ways of doing things. We're familiar, but also new and different and exciting.”
“We're very similar,” agrees Jean-Paul de Lavison, president of JPdL Destination Management, which has five offices throughout eastern Canada. “In many ways, we all grow up the same and live with many commonalities, but there are also many opportunities here in Canada for American groups to experience things that are different.”
To top it off, the value of the American dollar compared to the Canadian dollar (at press time $1 American was equivalent to $1.13 Canadian), while not as strong as in years past, continues to ensure that groups get good value for their money. “A group can get a good meal in Montréal for about half of what the same meal would cost in New York,” says de Lavison. While not everything is such a good bargain, it all adds up.
Getting There and Getting Around: There are numerous direct flights from cities in the United States to the major hubs, such as Vancouver International Airport; Toronto's Pearson International Airport, the largest in the country; and Montréal-Dorval, the gateway to Québec, on many carriers, including Air Canada, the nation's flagship carrier. Other cities with direct flights from the U.S. include Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta; Winnipeg and Ottawa, Ontario; Québec City; St. John's, Newfoundland; Moncton, New Brunswick; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Americans sometimes have unrealistic views of distances to and within Canada. For example, from Washington D.C., to Montréal is only a one-hour flight. But from Montréal to Vancouver is a five-hour flight. Here's a sampling of common pairings:
New York to Toronto (1 to 2 hours), New York to Montréal (1 hour), New York to Vancouver (7 to 8 hours)
Chicago to Toronto (1 to 2 hours), Chicago to Montréal (1 to 2 hours), Chicago to Vancouver (5 to 6 hours)
Los Angeles to Toronto (5 hours), Los Angeles to Montréal (6 to 7 hours), Los Angeles to Vancouver (2 to 3 hours)
Exit and Entry Requirements: At present, U.S. citizens can enter Canada with either a passport or other proof of identity. Visas are not required for U.S. citizens. Starting December 31, 2006, all U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. from Canada via air or sea will need to present a valid U.S. passport or other secure travel document to re-enter the U.S. For return across a land border, the same rule will go into effect December 31, 2007 (visit www.travel.state.gov/ for more details).
Language: Both English and French are official languages of Canada. In most places, English is the predominant language, except in the province of Québec (see “A Touch of Europe,” page 56).
Time Zones and Weather: Canada has six time zones that are comparable to ours, with most of the east coast being three hours ahead of the west coast. Specifically, moving east to west, Newfoundland Standard is GMT minus 3.5 hours, Atlantic Standard is GMT minus 4 hours, Eastern Standard is GMT minus 5 hours, Central Standard is GMT minus 6 hours, Mountain Standard is GMT minus 7 hours, and Pacific Standard is GMT minus 8 hours. For most of Canada, daylight-saving time is in effect from the first Sunday in April until the last Sunday in October, although most of Saskatchewan and a handful of cities don't observe it.
As in the United States, climate varies widely, with the southern part of Canada on the same latitude as northern California and the northern parts extending deep into the Arctic.
Money Matters: Canadian currency is called dollars and cents, the same as in the United States. For most of the past decade, the U.S. dollar has been very strong compared to the Canadian dollar, giving American visitors a most favorable exchange value for their money. While the dollar is no longer as strong and the exchange rate is more variable these days, there is still value to be had. The exchange rate tends to fluctuate more now than in the past, so with a payment due in 90 days, for example, you might find a 5 percent fluctuation during that time. The norm is forto be in Canadian dollars, with a U.S. estimate of the equivalent. Another possibility, though not a common strategy, is to buy futures, which lock in the exchange rate.
Major credit cards are accepted at most places and ATMs are widely available. Tipping customs are similar to in the United States for doormen, bellhops, taxis, and restaurant servers (15 percent to 20 percent).
Taxes: Meetings, conventions, and incentives with attendance of at least 75 percent non-Canadian residents can claim a 100 percent rebate of the 7 percent goods and services tax (GST) on almost all goods and services related to the event, such as chartered group transportation, meeting room rentals, advertising or promotional materials, pillow gifts, facilitator and speaker fees, most audiovisual services, on-site photography, and more. For food and beverage, you can get a rebate of up to 50 percent of the taxes.
Most provinces have their own Provincial Sales Tax (PST); in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, the provincial and federal taxes are grouped together and called a “Harmonized Sales Tax” (HST).
In addition, U.S. attendees can fill out a Tax Refund Application for Visitors to receive a rebate of GST on certain goods and hotel accommodations. In Québec and Manitoba, provincial taxes can also be rebated.
Visit www.cra-arc.gc.ca/visitors, the Canada Revenue Agency Web site, for more information about tax rebates.
Doing Business: Americans will find no great surprises in doing business with Canadians, who tend to operate similarly to Americans. Response time, formality, contracts, etc. are similar. In addition, there are numerous companies that operate on both sides of the border (Fairmont Hotels, for example) and their standards are the same across the board. A rental fee may be applied for a meeting room, but it's often negotiable, depending on the size of the room block, food and beverage needs, equipment needs, and so on.
Shipping and Customs: Although Canada is just next door, planners should be aware that shipping might take considerably longer than anticipated as items go through customs. Fabrics, such as backpacks or bags, can be particularly challenging, especially those that are made off-shore, even if just a portion (say a zipper or belt) was made overseas. Check with a customs broker for details, but ideally schedule two to three weeks for items to go through customs. In addition, be aware that the time might be even greater if you're returning items to the United States. For example, if you ship 100 jackets to Canada, give away 80 and want to return 20 of them to the United States, it could be more than three to four weeks before you receive them.
Also consider purchasing supplies, gifts, printed materials, etc., once in Canada. In addition to the savings on shipping, duty, and a possible customs broker, the favorable exchange rate could make for significant savings.
Groups should contact the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency to register an event three months in advance, which will then assign a conventions coordinator to work with the planner to expedite shipments passing through customs. A customs broker might be advisable as well.
Communications: On the whole Canada is high-tech and wired for the same communications needs as in the United States, with the same electric current of 110 volts, 60 Hz. U.S. cellphones will work in most parts of Canada, with no conversions or problems, although user fees can add up. As in the USA, mountainous and outlying areas may have more spotty cellphone coverage.
Keep in Mind: It's common in Canada to write the day, then month, then year (e.g., 2/4/07 would mean April 2, 2007, rather than the U.S. typical meaning of February 4, 2007). Canada uses the metric system, but many venues and entities that deal with international groups also include information in feet and inches, miles, and Fahrenheit temperatures. Canadian restrictions about smoking in public are similar to ours, and many cities have banned smoking entirely in public spaces, restaurants, and bars.
Regional Differences: Just as there might be subtle differences between doing business in New York versus doing business in Los Angeles, there are some underlying differences among the regions in Canada. On the whole, as here, doing business tends to be more formal in the larger cities and more casual in the resort areas, such as Banff, Lake Louise, and Whistler.
National Holidays: Many of the national holidays are the same as in the U.S., including Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Good Friday. Some differences include Victoria Day (third Monday in May), Canada Day (July 1), and Thanksgiving (second Monday in October).
There are nearly 20 full-scale convention centers in Canada. Total function space for some of the largest are:
Metro Toronto Convention Centre: 564,000 square feet, 64 meeting rooms
Montréal Convention Centre: 334,500 square feet, 59 meeting rooms
Québec City Convention Centre: 228,000 square feet, 33 meeting rooms
Winnipeg Convention Centre: 160,000 square feet, 26 meeting rooms
Calgary TELUS Convention Centre: 132,000 square feet, 6 meeting rooms
Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre: A can$565 million expansion will more than triple the size of the center and bring total square footage to 492,000 when completed in 2008.
For More Information: The Canadian Tourism Commission is a fount of knowledge for American planners, with offices throughout the country and individuals who specialize in conventions, meetings, and incentives.
The CTC's Web site, www.canadameetings.com, is especially well organized and user-friendly, allowing planners to search for convention centers and hotels by stats; find the right CTC contact depending on the group's geographic origin and type of group; and follow links to CVBs and planners guides for destinations throughout the country. Additional information includes overviews of popular group destinations, tips on planning meetings and incentives, rules about GST rebates, travel distances, an interactive time zone map, promotional materials, and more.
Following are some of the CVBs for major meeting destinations.
(866) 511-1200; www.travelalberta.com
Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau
Calgary Convention & Visitors Bureau
Tourism British Columbia
(800) 663-6000; www.hellobc.com
Québec City and Area Tourism and Convention Bureau
The West Coast tends to attract a mix of groups — outdoor adventure and activities draw groups to Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, and Kananskis, Alberta; and Whistler, British Columbia. Calgary, Alberta, ropes them in with its cowboy culture. And Vancouver provides an easy mix of relaxed city charm and recreation.
Kevin Whitfield, vice president of marketing and sales for Road West Destination Management Co., says that a particular highlight for groups around Whistler and Banff is “heli-excursions,” where a group is transported into the mountains via helicopter for a hike, picnic, or other excursion.
In Vancouver, sailing regattas on English Bay are popular, while for the more adventuresome, the mountains allow for an Amazing Race kind of scavenger hunt, combining land and sea, to experience the West Coast.
Combining the mountain experience with a city base is also fun. In Calgary, groups are only one hour from the Canadian Rockies, making for an easy day trip, but they also have the chance to experience the Old West with the Calgary Stampede and special events. Vancouver is a modern, easygoing city with a wealth of Native heritage that groups can tap into. They can experience a sweat lodge ceremony on a First Nations Tour, which includes learning about the totems, visiting a replica of a Haida village, and a tour or special event at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. For a more modern but still old-fashioned event, the Burnaby Village Museum features a 1920s ice cream parlor, carousel pavilion, grassy meadow, and more. The city is priming for its role as host of the Olympic Games in 2010 and has easy access to both the mountain charms of Whistler and the British-flavored gardens and teahouses of Victoria.
For groups that want to experience several aspects of the West, Rocky Mountaineer and Via-rail train excursions provide both short hops and longer excursions in Old World splendor.
There was a time when Eastern Canada was considered a prime destination in the summer, but not so in the winter. But times have changed. “Our prime seasons have been extended,” says Jean-Paul de Lavison, of JPdL Destination Management Co. “We're finding that our prime season starts as early as April and goes through November now. Plus, we're also seeing groups that come during the heart of the winter.”
Value is one obvious appeal for groups that visit during the colder months, while proximity to ski resorts such as Mont Tremblant, about 90 minutes from Montréal, is another. One of de Lavison's favorite winter treats is the one-of-a-kind Ice Hotel. “Groups can actually stay there, but even if they choose not to stay overnight, it's still an incredible place to visit just for cocktails.” Just outside of Québec City, the hotel is constructed anew each year and stands from January to April. It can sleep up to 440 in a variety of accommodations. Special events can be held in the Absolut Ice Bar, Grand Hall or Ballroom, complemented by ice sculpture or ice carving workshops, dogsledding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and more.
De Lavison also notes that often groups split a program into two destinations: a couple of days in Montréal then Québec City, or Toronto/Montréal, Québec/Tremblant, etc. “There's so much to do that we're seeing more groups take advantage of the different experiences in each destination.”
In Toronto, for example, Canada's largest city features top-notch theater productions, world-class shopping districts like Yorkville and Queen Street West, and wineries, along with special events venues like the Hockey Hall of Fame where groups of up to 1,000 can celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
In Québec, both Montréal and Québec City provide an international feel close to home. Montréal combines a French flair with modern style and is known for its award-winning cuisine, dynamic arts, and hopping nightlife. Groups visiting the city can tap into festivals that take place throughout the year, from jazz to film. They can also hold special events at sites like the mountaintop Chalet Mont Royal or the historic Windsor rail station. The exchange rate allows groups to enjoy top-quality meals and events at significantly less than they would cost across the border in the United States.
Québec City, too, retains its European sensibilities and charm. The only fortified city north of Mexico, Québec City also holds festivals year-round, including its famous winter carnival. Groups love to explore the winding old streets, trendy boutiques, and intimate cafés of Old Québec, the first city in North America to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Complementing the city's charm are numerous nearby sites for year-round outdoor activities from skiing to canoeing.
Assistance for this article was provided by the following: Kevin Whitfield, vice president of marketing and sales, Road West Destination Management Co., (403) 762-5925, email@example.com; and Jean-Paul de Lavison, president, JPdL Destination Management Co., (514) 287-9898, firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Touch of Europe
the province of Québec, including Montréal and Québec City, is probably the one area of Canada most different from the United States. French is the official language of the province, although English is widely spoken, particularly in the business community. Montréal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, and the most bilingual in North America.
Because French is so commonly spoken there, planners should be aware of business implications, both subtle and more pronounced. For example, stringent French-language requirements might require that certain documents be in English and French. Learning at least a few common phrases in French will go a long way toward engendering goodwill.