Photo: Toronto skyline © Toronto Tourism
Toronto is a dynamic, young, diverse and unapologetically modern city that benefitted from a boom in the technology and financial sectors. It’s also a prime choice for group events, thanks in part to its location between New York City, Chicago and Montréal. More than half of the Canadian and U.S. populations can reach Toronto by air in 90 minutes or less.
This city of 2.8 million offers plenty of diversions, including live theater and music, a variety of museums, professional sports teams, spas galore, colorful ethnic neighborhoods (including five Chinatowns) and excellent shopping.
The hot spot for shoppers is Toronto Eaton Centre, centrally located downtown and in the midst of a $300 million redevelopment and expansion. During the colder months, the PATH serves as a welcome alternative route to get around; the 18-mile network of underground passageways connects many Toronto office and public buildings where one can shop, eat, catch a subway or just navigate without having to battle the elements.
The Toronto restaurant scene exploded in the last decade, and many of the restaurants allow group buyouts. Individual travelers will rejoice in the city’s diverse ethnic makeup, which means they won’t have to look far for a taste of home.
For groups meeting in Toronto, the city’s lodging stock offers everything from basic business hotels to a wide range of boutiques and an abundance of 5-star hotels, thanks to a growth spurt at the high end in the last five years. High-level meetings and incentive groups can opt for their own brand of luxury, from the traditional feel of The Ritz-Carlton and the intimate contemporary elegance of Four Seasons to the see-and-be-seen vibe of the Shangri-La. The rash of development at the top of the market raised the bar for all the competition, so many of the existing mid-market hotels upgraded their rooms and public spaces to stay in the game.
One of the most recent additions to the hotel scene is the Delta, which opened about a year ago. Now the flagship of the Canada-based chain, it features sleek, modern design and Canadian touches, from art throughout to a bar serving craft cocktails made with Canadian whiskey. Located in the South Core, or SoCo district, between Front Street and Toronto’s Harbourfront, the narrow tower stands near the financial and entertainment districts and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Many of the Delta’s 567 guestrooms afford breathtaking views of the city and lakefront.
Groups that include a number of attendees with families in tow might consider the Chelsea Hotel, offering many kid-friendly touches. The second floor of the hotel houses separate zones for younger children and teenagers, a family pool with an indoor slide, movie nights and more. The hotel offers reasonable babysitting services as well as excursions to Toronto’s islands, for guests who want a day at the beach. A number of suites include kitchenettes.
Typically, citywide conventions in Toronto run in the range of 4,000–6,000 hotel rooms. Larger groups have a wide variety of sites available downtown, including dozens of theaters; the massive Enercare Centre and Allstream Centre complex with more than 1 million square feet of exhibit space, 20 meeting rooms and a huge ballroom; and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The latter, following a $25 million overhaul in 2012, can handle multiple smaller groups as well as larger conventions and enjoys a centralized location. Some 13,000 hotel rooms sit within a 10-minute walk of the facility, which is also connected to the PATH system.
Despite the contemporary feel of Toronto, some relics of the city’s past remain. Visitors looking for a respite from glass and steel step back in time in The Distillery Historic District, a lively pedestrian-only enclave in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. More than 70 cultural, hospitality and retail businesses populate the restored Victorian-era buildings that once housed the massive Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery. A number of the galleries, performance venues and restaurants accommodate groups for dinners, receptions and more.
A standout, and one of the district’s newest additions, is Cluny Bistro, a modern French restaurant. The 11,000-square-foot space, charmingly furnished and divided into more intimate rooms, includes a large wrap-around patio, providing excellent people-watching action. A large private dining space can be divided into two more-intimate rooms.
Two of Toronto’s premier museums, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Royal Ontario Museum, offer strikingly different venues for group events. The dramatic AGO, with an expansion designed by Frank Gehry, presents paintings and sculpture in a coolly modern environment, while ROM pulls together a mixed bag under one roof, with exhibits focusing on textiles, ancient cultures, Canada, biodiversity, world art and more spread over multiple levels in a more traditional style.
The two newest additions to Toronto’s museum scene — the Aga Khan Museum and the waterfront Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada — sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Aga Khan Museum, located on the outskirts of Toronto, features a striking and calm contemporary space dedicated to presenting an overview of the artistic, intellectual and scientific contributions of Muslim civilizations to world heritage. Spaces available for receptions, presentations and dinners include a 350-seat auditorium; a room inspired by a Persian salon; a stone-tiled, glass-enclosed courtyard; garden and patio areas; and a comfortable Patrons’ Lounge.
The aquarium, on the other hand, is a busy maze of colorful galleries and stunning displays devoted to aquatic life. In addition to renting the facilities, groups can arrange for behind-the-scenes tours and custom dive shows as part of a signature event.
A welcome recent addition for travelers is the Union Pearson Express, which makes the transfer between Toronto Pearson International Airport and Union Station downtown painless and affordable. The $24 trip takes 25 minutes, and trains operate every 15 minutes from early morning until late night. Group rates are available. A taxi, by contrast, takes about 45–60 minutes and runs about $45.