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Meet me at The Queen

While today, air travel is king, let’s not forget there was a full century before the modern era when the rails ruled the land. Specifically, in Canada, the two main domestic railway companies – Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) – strived to keep customers loyal to their respective brands by building palatial hotels at each key junction across the nation. From this audacious competition, we now have such masterpieces as Le Château Frontenac, Banff Springs Hotel and Hotel Vancouver.

During the 1950s, Montreal was the preeminent center of commerce in Canada – with Toronto still more or less a backwoods provincial capital – and CN set out to construct the grandest property in Canada to date in what would come to be known as the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, directly above Central Station (which CN also owned). Opened in 1958, this property is now part of the Fairmont chain and has been wholly refurbished following a 12-month, C$140 million renovation completed in June. It nevertheless offers a glimpse into the bustling decades that were Montreal’s during the post-war era and the turbulent ’60s.

Like most downtown historic properties, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth has seen its fair share of traveling dignitaries and personalities. Besides the seemingly perfunctory royal visits from Queen Elizabeth herself as well as the Dalai Lama, Charles de Gaulle and Fidel Castro, among others, perhaps most notable was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Bed-In for Peace from which sprung the anti-war single, “Give Peace a Chance.”

In the early part of my career – before my hospitality days – I was a regular guest at this hotel, as I was born in Montreal and spent the better part of my youth hustling for a buck before earning my MBA and then moving to Toronto. Two years ago, I inspected the property as part of a province-wide hotel tour. Thus, I was quite familiar with The Queen’s guestrooms and public areas… or so I thought! The recent renovation has given the hotel a complete makeover and, upon arrival for a weekend visit in late August, I was delightfully shocked by the results.

For the thousands of guests and hoteliers who had stayed here, the changes are simply staggering. The room count has been reduced from about 1,200 to 950, allowing for a substantial increase in public and meeting space. The food and beverage concept has moved from stuffy and old-fashioned to modern and airy, with all-new venues including a millennial-centric, market-style grab-and-go.

The ping-pong meeting room
The ping-pong meeting room

While the guestroom renovations are impressive, the meeting space is what really caught my attention. The group marketplace in Montreal is extremely competitive, as it is in nearly every other major hub. For meeting planners, it’s no longer just a case of having capacity charts detailing the number of guests you can fit in theatre, rounds, hollow square or classroom seating plans. Rather, decisions often are based upon the overall environment that you provide for delegates. Simply put, stacking chairs and skirting banquet tables in a windowless cavern might have been acceptable in the past, but this is no longer a viable path for keeping the business.

The swing meeting room
The swing meeting room

Ruminating on what spurs modern events over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that creativity is now a critical component for motivating a meeting planner to act in your favor. And evidence for this argument is wholly apparent after staying at The Queen.

"Dr. Strangelove" meeting room (or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Meetings")
“Dr. Strangelove” meeting room (or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Meetings”)

Everyone used to think that the broad availability of video conferencing and other electronic communications vehicles would sound the death knell for the traditional meeting business. Yet this is hardly the case. Meetings today are all about getting people together to socialize, solve problems and think creatively.

The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth has taken to heart this trend by creating a unique campus environment on its third floor. Called CoLab 3, the 14,000-square-foot area comprises 13 rooms, all designed to stimulate original thought. These are no ordinary breakout rooms either, with the names and layouts of each space inspired from the digital world.

Classroom style
Classroom style
Pool meeting room
Pool meeting room

What you would automatically expect is still here – erasable whiteboards, multimedia displays, touchscreens and video walls – but there is also the allure of the avant-garde. The Swing Room is equipped with, obviously, a pair of playground swings. The Ping Room has a ping-pong table as a meeting table with carpeting of pseudo-artificial turf. There is even a room that looks like the war room straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.” Surrounding these rooms are informal work areas with more play as well as spaces for catered activities.

The essence of this revitalization is one of heightening the interactivity of a given group setting. Nowadays, business can easily be done via email or over the phone, so a venue must bring something extra to the table. If you happen to be in Montreal or are planning a renovation of your own meeting rooms, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth’s third floor is a must visit to learn for yourself how to modernize a business space.

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