by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
4th city in North America
Toronto has recently overtaken Chicago to become the fourth largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. Yet when you mosey down Queen Street West or gaze at Lake Ontario from your eleventh floor room at the Westin Harbour Castle or drink craft beer in the bar of the Gladstone Hotel you don’t get that big city feel at all. Despite the massive constructions in steel and glass and a metropolitian head count 3 times greater than the entire population of Slovenia, Toronto has decidedly human dimensions.
There’s a small town friendliness around the streets and a pace of life that’s less frenetic, less intense than London or Paris or New York City. Toronto has been called “New York run by the Swiss” and that’s not an inappropriate comparison. It’s got the height, scale and excitement of New York City but the politeness, respectfulness and order of Geneva. Having a solid Swiss Dad and Sex and the City Mom may be an unlikely route to happy families but Toronto is an extraordinarily happy child, safe, secure and self-confident enough to colour merrily both inside and outside the lines.
My buddy Julie Holmen and her awesome colleagues at Tourism Toronto, Gillian Kilpatrick and Michele Simpson, recommended some visits and activities to me to provide an insight into Toronto’s personality as a destination, with particular reference to its appeal for meetings and events planners. The city’s infrastructure, from a meetings, conferences and incentive travel perspective, has been improving exponentially particularly at the luxury end of the market. Over the past 3 years alone Trump, Shangri La, Ritz Carlton and a flagship Four Seasons have all come on stream, bringing the corporate elite in their wake. When added to the pre-existent Starwood properties – the Sheraton Centre and the Westin Harbour Castle – and a strong supporting cast of 4 star stock, the guest room count around the city reaches an impressive 40,000 – sufficient to convince the Pan-Am Games to choose Toronto as Host City for the 2015 edition of the CAD $1.4 billion event involving over 7000 atheletes.
Looking beyond the glass and steel
But planners today are increasingly challenged to look beyond mere infrastructure, and to build something of the uniqueness of the destination into the meeting experience. From a long list of very worthy possibilities here’s a day’s worth of activities you could potentially do to experience the endearing, enduring uniqueness of this extraordinary city:
Having taken your pre-dawn power walk along the lakeshore, visit Tim Horton’s for a Dark Roast with a buttered cinnamon raison bagel. You’ll stand in line behind construction workers in hard hats with lunch boxes the size of suitcases. They’ll be talking ice hockey and might look a bit rough but these guys know where the good coffee is as day dawns in the city. Return to your room at the wonderful Westin Harbour Castle and do your e mails as daylight gradually takes hold and the harbour magically materializes magically before your eyes
Walk to the St Lawrence Market and wander around its vast interiors allowing your senses come alive to the colours, textures, sounds and smells of a living, breathing market for fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meats.
Go to Paddington’s on the second floor and order a Peameal Sandwich – multiple layers of thinly sliced Canadian bacon with honey mustard on a fresh Kaiser roll. Bold but very delicious!
Head for the Hug Tree on Queen Street and meet Sam Carter-Shamai, your guide from TourGuys. Take a fascinating walk on the wild side, down edgy alleyways and side streets, into parking lots and past back entrances in search of some extraordinary street art by such underground luminaries as Elicsr and Uber. This, according to Sam, is “uncommodified culture … an expression of the creative capital that’s packed in a densely populated urban space”. Visual communication in our cities, Sam contends, is dominated by commercial messages so graffiti competes in the visual space with advertising. Graffiti is pure and non-commercial, however, an organic, unfettered expression of the life and times of the city, adding real vibrancy, colour and character to the urban landscape.
Pitch up at Montecito, a new Tuscan-inspired restaurant under the ownership of Toronto-born, Hollywood movie director Ivan Reitman. The prandial highlight for me is Gillian’s kale salad: infused with olive oil and laced with parmigiano, it towers like an intense green Everest on the plate. It’s deliciously crisp and generously abundant and the starter portion easily serves all three of us.
Make your presentation to Site Canada at the St James Cathedral Conference Centre. Part of the extensive footprint of the stately mid nineteenth century eponymous cathedral, the Conference Centre is an award winning renovation of the original cathedral community hall which dates from 1909. With capacity for up to 400 delegates, the centre is hugely deserving of our support for the quality of its aesthetic standards along with its CSR mandate – all profits from the facility fund initiatives for the needy and the homeless.
Head to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and check out Toronto-native Frank Gehry’s signiature architectural flourishes that embellish this stunning gallery dating from 1900. Pay close attention to the striking, award winning work of student Paige Lindsay, an extraordinary fusion of literature and photography. Note the extensive public spaces available for hire as event space
Walk over to Queen Street West, the world’s second hippest neighourhoods according to Vogue magazine. Enjoy the incredible diversity of pop up patissieres, cool bars, garmet accessory stores, independent galleries and indie designer stores. Have a hand crafted burger at P&L. It’s fast food but not as we know it, Captain.
Take a cab to The Gladstone Hotel – more than just a place to eat and sleep: it’s a veritable hotbed for culture. This, and the similarly styled, The Drake, represent hospitality re-defined and illustrate how hotels can be custodians of culture, living centres where contemporary fine art, artisan food and drink and music can be displayed, curated and performed in a vibrant, edgy community environment.
Retire for the night to the magnificently appointed, ultra elegant Le Germain Hotel on Maple Leaf Square in the South Core Financial district. Reminiscent of LA Live, the mixed use development around a central civic square includes retail, commercial and the Air Canada arena but the hotel is the true design triumph. Conceived by the Germain family in collaboration with architectural firm Lemay Michaud, Le Germain Maple Leaf Square is all light-filled, airy simplicity off-set with light oak and painted concrete. Up-close black & white photography of sports stars by Matthew Plexman provides a striking focal point above the Frette linen dressed beds. The hotel is zealously CSR and sustainability focused too both from a construction and operational perspective.
Pádraic Gilligan and his business partner Patrick Delaney own and operate SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy offering experience and expertise to destination, hotels and other enterprises in the MICE industry
In addition to the great folks at Tourism Toronto, Pádraic would also like to thank his former MCI colleague Pam Graham for her input, gracious support and superlative culinary skills during his all too short time in Toronto.
There will be a further post on the 5 things he learned at the Site Canada Education Conference.