Ottawa Tourism held a special event for invited UK-based buyers at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, at the end of June. CMW’s Iain Stirling was there and took the opportunity to talk to Nina Kressler, president and CEO of the Shaw Centre, Ottawa, and to Colin Morrison, GM Embassy Hotel & Suites in Ottawa and chair of Ottawa Tourism:
Are things back to normal now for conferencing in your destination?
NK: We have gone from zero to 100. It was devastating two years ago. Now, our booking calendar is full and we are struggling to find space for groups as it stands. 2023-24 looks very healthy but soft beyond that because event planners are conscious about signing contracts too far in the future. The demand has gone up exponentially.
We had worked with most of our cancellations, moving them into ‘postponements’, so much of what we are seeing now are postponements,. Nevertheless, international enquiries are up.
It must also be said that the provincial government helped us with a lot of funding to help get through the pandemic, although it is fair to say that some tertiary players in the supply chain have gone by the wayside.
CM: We are having tremendous success for general tourism business but we are still somewhat challenged by the corporate transient type of business. That is governed by the fact that our main employers have not fully come back to work yet.
We expect more people to come back to doing business with government and it is worth noting there are no Covid restrictions other than wearing masks at airports and when flying in by plane.
Many people see Canada as a safe destination.
Most challenging issues?
NK: The supply chain. Event planners are steering the discussion over many issues, in particular special demands over food and sustainability issues.
CM: I echo that but would add the labour issue, too. Getting well trained and available crew is challenging now. There is a lot of competition for every position we have.
Have you been investing in hybrid facilities?
NK: We haven’t really seen a demand for that. But we do have a partner with their own studios if there is a request. Hybrid turned out to be far too expensive because effectively you have to run two programmes.
People have had enough of Zoom and Teams and want to be back in person. We’re in the people business.
Having said that, there is a 360-degree virtual our of the city now available that started in the Shaw Centre.
What else are you promoting about the destination?
CM: There are few national capitals where within 20 minutes of downtown core you can be in wilderness. Ottawa is, of course, a G7 capital but it is a very much an outdoor capital with a small town friendliness.
Our river becomes the largest skating rink in the world in winter. There are also plenty of opportunities for other outdoor activities.
And incentive opportunities?
CM: The opportunities are unique and endless. Being situated between Montreal (two hours away) and Toronto, and on borders of English and French speaking areas, we have rich flavours and cultures. There is so much to see and do and we are generally bi-lingual.
Then there are the First Nations that have great representation in Ottawa. That is part of the fabric of who we are and provides a greater perspective to what Canada is.
Incentives can be a dining experience or something much broader depending on the group.
What’s new at the Shaw Centre?
NK: Our venue won the AIPC top convention centre accolade. One of the reasons is that our staff are fully empowered.
Generally, people have different opinions on what the temperature setting should be at a venue. Here we have branded shawls for those wanting the temperature up. A simple solution and, as most event planners are female, so we have ballet slippers for those fed up of wearing heels all night!
It’s all about attention to detail and we allow our clients and delegates to keep the shawls and slippers. All banquet captains carry inventory and we find that such attention to small details makes a big a difference.
We collect natural rainwater for our washrooms. One of the fun things is we ask event planners to leave anything they like with us. We then send off bags of stuff to Africa and areas in need.
CM: Hotel Association of Canada has a green key tag standard.
What of recent investment in the city?
CM: There is a large piece of land to the west of the Downtown core that is to be developed. Part of it will be a new library – currently under construction. A new ice hockey stadium is also planned. That could also be used for groups and concerts. A number of new hotels are also planned for the Downtown core and there will be a revitalisation of the original market area. More pedestrian friendly zones will be designed too.
What are the strong sectors for attracting meetings to Ottawa?
NK: We work with Invest Ottawa and the life sciences and IT sector are very important for us. Young researchers coming to stay in Ottawa and put down roots. They are also sectors that champion international bids.
CM: We have tech start-ups a plenty and Invest Ottawa is a powerful incubator. Because there is a tremendous amount of high tech, the incubator can latch on to that momentum.
We had 5G long ago because of the autonomous vehicle research and sector specific messages are key for campaigning for events on the world stage.
We are a city of one million people, but if you look at the number of hospitals and the tech base, it is punching way above that level.
It is a friendly city, too, and we do a good job of taking that feeling and applying it to business. It is a G7 city but also warmth of a small town.
Is Ottawa more resilient now?
CM: On the world stage Canada is held in high esteem because we are cautious about how we do things. The government stepped up during the pandemic and we will benefit from that at the end. And here we have the government in our back yard, being a capital city.
There is no big wall between the politicians and the populace. The pedestal is not high. We also now have a minister of tourism which we haven’t had for years. That means we have a voice and we are doing everything we can to feed that fire.
NK: We did a lot of advocating for our industry in recent times. One in ten work in tourism here, so the impact of the pandemic on our industry on economy was seen clearly.
What are you looking to come out of your Gleneagles event?
CM: We are here to form friendships, not to do a hard sell. It takes a long time for relationships to form. We do hope down the road it will end up being good for Ottawa. We’d like event planners to come and visit Ottawa. It’s all about long term thinking.
The ACWW association visited our Gleneagles-1 event a few years back and now has a conference booked in in 2026.
This is third ‘mission’ to the UK in this format. Without risk there is no reward and there is reward!