Canadian winter incentives tale that is open all seasons

Canadian winter incentives tale that is open all seasons

Simon George reports from Destination Canada’s inaugural winter incentive programme and finds an incentive strategy in structural and seasonal alignment

Destination Canada, in December, hosted the first winter programme of its flagship B2B event, Incentive Canada. The event, hosted in both Vancouver and Whistler showcased Canada’s incentive/meetings offering to international organisers. The five-day programme (4-8 December) brought together 15 partners from Destination Canada and 20 incentive buyers from the US, UK and Europe for a series of intensive B2B meetings at the Fairmont Hotel in Whistler, and allowed them to discover, first hand, what makes Canada such a vibrant, exciting winter destination for meetings.

Never a dull moment

The action-packed programme enabled attendees to embark on a series of exciting adventures and to experience winter in British Columbia at its most scenic. A short drive from Vancouver gave everybody the opportunity to cross the Capilano suspension bridge and explore the rainforest at its eco park adorned with Christmas lights. For the skiers among the group, no-one was going to pass up the opportunity of finding out why Whistler-Blackcomb is regarded as a world-class skiing resort. Nor would anybody turn down the chance to hop on a snowmobile and explore the backcountry in the Callaghan valley or venture deep into the forest on snowshoes, courtesy of adventure company Canadian Wilderness Adventures.

Alternatively, relaxing and re-energising in a Scandinavian spa when it’s snowing outside would prove pure indulgence, as would sampling delicious local cuisine, learning about indigenous culture (Squamish people) in the Whistler region and, for those still with some energy left, enjoying the local après ski scene.

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, there is sense of optimism that life may be flowing somewhere closer to normal in the coming year, although Covid has had a major effect on Canada’s events industry. Consult Destination Canada’s 2020 annual report and it is impossible to overlook the sobering statistic that in 2020, nearly all events (almost 3,500) in Canada were cancelled due to the pandemic, as well as some planned as far out as 2024.

That Destination Canada was able to stage its inaugural winter incentive programme, which was put together in a mere 11 weeks, having been forced to cancel its 2020 planned programme, suggests light at the end of the tunnel for physical events.

Among both buyers and suppliers at the event there was a palpable sense of excitement at being able to meet face to face again to do business, to get away from Zoom calls – a sense of optimism mixed with relief that Chantal Sturk-Nadeau, executive director, Business Events, Destination Canada, encapsulated in her opening message to the programme: “Canada is open for business, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome our partners back and shine a global spotlight on the incredible opportunities and experiences that Canada has to offer year round.”

She told CMW: “At the end of the day, everybody wants to reconnect with people. And that’s what incentives, team-building, business events are all about. It’s professional learning – about people, about your profession and hopefully rewarding some of those that have been doing a lot of work in the past 24 months with experiences that are unique, that are outdoors and that feel safe in a welcoming environment.”

Having interviewed Destination Canada’s previous CEO David Goldstein in July 2017 and July 2018, CMW was keen to find out if the pandemic had changed the organisation’s strategic direction. Whistler provided the location for the perfect opportunity for a catch-up.

No fundamental change in strategy…

On a structural level, the strategy of alignment at provincial, city and industry level to attract MICE business to Canada – ‘a Team Canada’ approach – has been continued since Marsha Walden took over from Goldstein as president and CEO in August 2020. So, too, has North Star 22, an agreement between 10 provinces, three territories and eight of Canada’s major cities, been continued, both on the leisure and business side. Destination Canada’s targeted sector approach, which was introduced five years ago, is also still very much in place – Sturk-Nadeau reiterating the overarching strategy of going after six key sectors for business events and conferences, namely the foundation sectors (natural resources, agribusiness and advanced manufacturing) as well as the more shiny sectors like life sciences, technology and finance/insurance.

“Within those six sectors, we have a roadmap of Canada,” Sturk-Nadeau says. “We know which destinations are strong in every sector and where they lead, where they have an ecosystem that is based on the four pillars (i.e. that they have the academics, the commerce – whether they are mature businesses or brand new start-ups – that they have government funding and that they have research centres).”

… but a more fluid, focused approach

Within the incentives strategy, there does appears, inevitably perhaps given Covid, to be a more fluid approach in terms of contingency and safety planning, and a more focused, tailored and perhaps more nuanced strategy in terms of targeting potential clients: As Sturk-Nadeau explains: “We have been able to identify 90 international agencies that have the majority of their clients sitting in the six sectors that I mentioned. Instead of just trying to say that we are going after everybody, we’re going to talk to the key person – the owner of that agency with 140 offices around the world.”

Sturk-Nadeau acknowledges that the government has made significant additional funding available for Destination Canada over the next two years, which it intends to allocate to winter business events and to support those cities and partners that have already invested heavily in international business. The funding is reportedly large enough to effectively double the organisation’s overall budget.

The increase in government funding has helped the Business Events team to fully integrate into Destination Canada, be more competitive in the market place, do more and take on more staff (now 18 in total, having had to make lay-offs during the pandemic). Five years ago it was a separate division called Business Events Canada, but over the last three years the team has been integrated into the organisation whose joint rationale is obviously to help promote as a brand the destination of Canada – be it leisure, trade or business events.

Fox Harbr summer programme

In 2022 Destination Canada will be running both a summer incentives programme at the luxury five-star resort of Fox Harbr in Nova Scotia, as well as a winter programme whose location has yet to be decided. The dual incentives programme will become a regular annual event. As Sturk-Nadeau emphasises: “Canada is a four-season destination; we’ve got vibrant cities with interesting cultural and culinary experiences, alongside the wilderness luxury resorts and experiences.”

Incentive Canada Winter 2021 programme (Vancouver, Whistler)

Destination Canada’s first winter incentive programme showcased the full breadth of the country’s incentive/meetings offering for international organisers. From regional tourist boards (Travel Manitoba) to city tourist associations (Québec City,  St John’s), to hotel chains (Fairmont), to ski resorts (Whistler, Mont Tremblant), to luxury resorts (Fox Harbr) and Arctic adventures (Arctic Kingdom), there was no shortage of exciting product to tempt.

Tourism Whistler’s conference sales manager, Marianne Corak, flagged the year-round attractions of the resort – its cultural appeal, its accessibility,  and ultimately its ability to blend luxury and adventure. Nor has the resort been standing still during the pandemic – it has been opening restaurants, refurbishing its convention centre at a cost of CAD$3.5m and extending the gondola ride on Blackcomb mountain.

“Whistler is a year-round mountain resort – it’s not just a ski resort,” says Corak, who adds: “We’re known for the winter, but we actually get a lot more groups in the summer because there’s so much to do for people who want to get out in the open air.”

Ben Oakley, from UK-based event organiser Make Happen, says that, in terms of an events destination, Whistler, “ticks all the boxes”. “We saw, in a great way, the variety that Whistler offers. So, if you can’t go skiing, there are lots of other activities to do. The food and service were amazing, the hotel was really, really good, so it is definitely a destination that we are going to look at pushing in the New Year.,” he says.

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