About 3,000 people are standing in a mosh pit of mud along the mountain bike jump during the annual Crankworx contest in Whistler, British Columbia. Bikers come racing down the ski slope before hitting the ramp and backflipping 80 feet in the air. The next day, bikers fly down a slalom course as everyone screams in support. Here’s the good part. Your groups can race down the same course after taking lessons in extreme mountain biking. Well, semi-extreme.Located 90 minutes north of Vancouver via a magnificent coastal highway, Whistler is amped up year-round with an endless array of high-adrenaline activities. The facilities built for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games were sustainably designed for long-term use, both in winter and summer. Actually, the entire village was designed seamlessly within its natural environment.
I’m here for the annual Trailblazers Conference with a post trip in Vancouver. The annual event hosted in revolving cities brings buyers together with: VisitBritain, Tourism Ireland, Monaco Gov’t Tourist Office, MySwitzerland and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is the host venue with planning and logistics provided by Pacific Destination Services. During the conference, we’re enjoying a cup of coffee on the terrace connected to the hotel’s conference space when a bear walks up to join us. You never saw a Swiss director of marketing and a Dublin hotel rep run so fast. The animal loses interest before getting too close but it set the scene for just how much the wilderness plays a role in events here.
“Vancouver/Whistler is definitely not your typical 4-wall meeting,” says Joanne Burns Millar, president of Pacific Destination Services. “Feedback from groups always revolves around how there’s so much fresh air in both destinations…. People tell me pine trees increase IQ so that’s a plus too!”
For split programs, Millar suggests five nights minimum.
“There’s no waste of time in Whistler due to the proximity to everything; the ski hill is 30 seconds away and there are three golf courses within five minutes,” she says. “And since the Olympics, we’ve become a leader in staging events, especially with the Olympic Plaza. It’s really perfect for all sizes from a 30-pax retreat to a 1,500-attendee conference.”
Lunches, dinners and dancing take place on the roof of Fairmont’s conference space with a towering mountain on one side and a seemingly endless, heavily forested valley on the other. Because the 550-room Fairmont is tucked in at the edge of the village, it feels almost reclusive but you’re an 8-minute walk from all of the action. Fairmont also operates its own golf course, which doubles nicely for salmon BBQs. Meeting space is 32,000 sf.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK
All year long, planners can organize fun bobsled and skeleton competitions at Whistler Olympic Park on the same track used in the 2010 Games. For the Bobsled Ride Sport Experience, three participants sit behind a professional driver as you slice down the funnel reaching speeds of 85 mph. The best part is when you’re literally parallel to the ground sideways when the G-forces press you into the turns. Rated “extreme,” it’s a little intense for some people but everyone gets a kick watching the sleds zoom by.
Even more adventurous, the Skeleton Slide Experience begins with a comprehensive orientation session. Once you’re ready, the instructor holds the tiny 1-person sled while you lay belly down, head upfront. Then you’re off, sliding through the six turns at over 60 mph and the world turns into one big blur. Not recommended for people with neck/back problems.
This is somewhat gentler. The Discover Biathalon program in winter includes cross country ski and gun shooting lessons. Participants shoot authentic biathalon rifles while laying on the snow wearing skis, just like the real Olympics. If you want to forego these activities, ask about behind-the-scenes tours.
For small cocktail receptions, try the Ski Jump Judges Tower and the Start House upper deck at the Sliding Centre—both hosting up to 60 pax with killer views overlooking the valley. For groups up to 800, check out the Start House lower deck.
Escape into the wilderness with Whistler Eco-Tours’ Peddle/Paddle Combo Tour. You ride mountain bikes for about 90 minutes through twisting trails to pristine Atla Lake. Posh post-mod homes sit next to old cabins, and the stillness is heavenly.
Two people and a guide per canoe, everyone heads across the serene water together, paddling slowly while in awe of the natural surrounding. The lake drains into a shallow and narrow river with strong rapids, and this is where it gets fun. It’s easy to tip over if you’re not paying attention, and you really don’t want that because this is glacier-fed water and it’s really, really cold.
Near the end of the route we hear a loud scream behind us. Someone fell in, sounds like. But no, a few seconds later the last canoe comes into view with the lead person in a tizzy, waving her arms with wide eyes and a lot of heavy breathing.
“Ohmigod,” she exhales. “A @#%$ bear jumped right in front of us!” The bear, apparently, had leaped off the shore and swam in front of her canoe to get to the other side.
“That happens,” laughs our guide.
We’re told no visitor has ever been harmed by a bear in and around the town. And hikers for decades have wandered off into the wilds to explore the endless miles of marked trails here. In fact, the company offers a 3-hour Bear Awareness Tour.
THE WESTIN RESORT & SPA, WHISTLER
This is a great group hotel because it truly feels like you’re living like a local in your own mountain condo. Just 30 steps to the gondola, The Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler is tucked into the forest with 419 junior- and 1-bedroom suites with fireplaces, Heavenly Bed sofas and full kitchens with marble counters.
“It’s in the woods so it feels private and exclusive, but you’re right next to everything so it’s the best of both worlds,” says Bruce MacMillan, sales manager. “The fireplaces can be used nine months out of the year; it gives you the sense of living in a cabin.”
There’s the modern Avello Spa & Health Club with 18 treatment rooms and an indoor/outdoor pool with views of the mountains. They’re big into groups with educational sessions for stress management, nutrition and feng shui-friendly lifestyles, among others, and they’ll package those with outdoor activities.
For receptions, check out the sunset patio for 200 pax overlooking the driving range. It’s next to the wood and stone Aubergine Restaurant seating 150, serving delicate Pacific wild salmon with prawns and oyster mushrooms.
For VIPs, there are 20 two-bedroom units and four pretty mountain suites. Total meeting space is almost 20,000 sf, and the staff is exceptional too! Love this hotel.
GRANVILLE ISLAND, VANCOUVER
Vancouver is the most underrated city, like, ever. North America’s second densest downtown sits next to the continent’s largest urban green space surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Rocky Mountains. Only makes sense that Greenpeace was born here.
Across a narrow inlet from downtown, Granville Island is filled with restored shipbuilding warehouses. The star attraction is the sprawling Granville Island Public Market filled with every locally produced fruit, veggie, meat, cheese and dark chocolate truffle imaginable. We’re here for a food tour with Julian Bond, program director at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.
“Butter or margarine?” shouts out Bond as we begin.
The crowd hesitates. Sounds like a trick question.
“Butter, definitely, as long as you get some kind of exercise during the week, butter is healthier,” he says. “There is nasty stuff in margarine, like nickel. Eat more butter!”
I like this guy already. For the next hour, Bond teaches us everything you’ll ever want to know about sustainable meat and seafood. Definitely give Bond a shout when you come to town.
You can bring up to 1,200 attendees to Vancouver Aquarium located in Stanley Park—a 1,001-acre downtown urban forest with a jawdropping beautiful 6-mile seawall biking path encircling it. Everyone should rent a bike and make the loop; there’s no bike ride as pretty as this in North America.
The aquarium is undergoing a $60 million expansion to provide more elbow room for rescued beluga whales, Pacific white dolphins and 70,000 other marine animals. The aquarium’s Ocean Wise program certifies menu and food items at 2,700 locations nationwide. Groups can book private dolphin and beluga shows with marine scientists, explore behind the scenes, and enjoy “Breakfast with the Belugas” inside a viewing room for 120 pax.
“Our mission is marine conservation, education and research and our staff lives by that mission,” says Lila Blair, sales manager. “We’re always excited to tell meeting planners our story.”
At Stanley Park’s entrance, the Vancouver Rowing Club is a 126 year-old institution located inside a charming boat house. Rowing is popular here so this is a great way to think local.
“We offer small, highly focused teambuilding challenges and larger group experiences where the goal is relaxation, connecting outside the box, and enjoyment of our unparalleled outdoor setting,” says Anne Sproull, rowing coordinator.
THE WESTIN BAYSHORE VANCOUVER
Bordering Stanley Park, The Westin Bayshore Vancouver sits on Coal Harbour facing the mountains. The Trailblazers crowd gathered here in the 1,600-sf International Suite, overlooking the most enviable piece of real estate in Western Canada.
“If that doesn’t scream ‘Welcome to Vancouver,’ then I don’t know what does,” laughs Barbara Hill, senior sales manager. She points to the private float plane dock where groups up to 900 can fly over for tea in Victoria. There are three boats on property for receptions and year-round whale watching.
“You can actually see whales from the dock May through September,” says Hill. She adds that a new spa was built and the entire 511-room hotel was renovated in 2010 to host the Int’l Olympic Committee during the Winter Games. Function space tops 71,000 sf, including the Seawall Grill just feet from the sea.
YALETOWN, GASTOWN, DOWNTOWN DINING
The historic, hipster Yaletown warehouse and loft district is located on the other side of downtown from the Park. Try the wild smoked salmon club at AGROCAFE, owned by a 27 year-old who puts pictures on the walls of farmers who he buys Fair Trade coffee from in Kenya and Nicaragua.
Also check out Nelson the Seagull in nearby Gastown. Half of the space sells items like “God Hates Bags” handbags made from recycled plastic bottles. The other half is an open kitchen serving 50/60 people at the long farmer’s table. Very hip.
Trailblazers’ final dinner took place at Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar in Yaletown, which caters 450-pax receptions. The largest of four private rooms seats 80 serving group menu items like: Matjes herring sandwich with crème fraiche, apples, red onions; and smoked sockeye salmon terrine with sake-infused whitefish caviar.
The converted brick and beam warehouse is typical of Yaletown, which is great for dinearounds with so many cool restaurants and bars lining the two main streets near all of the downtown hotels.
For you big spenders, visit the newly restored Rosewood Hotel Georgia. At the 1927 Lobby Lounge, (the year the hotel opened), try a Sbagliato Corretto with Tanqueray, Campari, vermouth and prosecco. For dinner, Hawksworth Restaurant features a gorgeous Art Deco room for 63 pax, serving contemporary Canadian cuisine such as pan-roasted Pacific sablefish with maitake mushrooms and chayote.
Nearby, Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House is a legendary power lunch spot and a member of Ocean Wise. With a kind of Boston-style decor, the place seats 50 on the rooftop patio or 60 on the second floor loft. Say hi to Frenchy, the relaxed maitre d’/partner, who sits with me at lunch as we test drive Joe’s famous raw bar.
The Raspberry Point PEI oysters are soft, silky, creamy. They fall apart in your mouth. The Joe’s Gold B.C. oysters are meaty with a earthy finish. The Shigoku. Wow, firm, salty, good with mignonette sauce.
“We used to have a lot of different seafood but now just local things like salmon and halibut,” says Frenchy. “It’s what our clients want.”
The indigenous people of Canada are referred to as “First Nations” and their history is celebrated at the 30,000-sf Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in the heart of Whistler. Designed like an aboriginal “longhouse,” the striking $32 million building is constructed with massive Douglas Fir beams and columns with wraparound glass walls framing the snow-capped mountains.
As is traditional across First Nations culture, the dramatic entrance aligns with the celestial points of the compass. We met here for the final night in town during the 2011 Trailblazers Conference, surrounded by rare artifacts and educational exhibits. Reception capacity is 500 pax.
In Vancouver, the undulating, wildly progressive VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre opened in January to worldwide architectural acclaim. The roof was inspired by the shape of native Canadian orchids, extending from rammed earth walls housing three meeting venues for 100/100/50 pax, reception style. The existing Mid-Century Modern Floral Hall Pavilion hosts 150/20.
The venue was built to actually exceed LEED Platinum certification, the highest standard in existence. The facility achieves both net-zero energy and carbon neutrality. Welcome to the future.