The 2012 Ontario Tourism Summit

I hopped on a Via Rail train at Toronto’s Union Station and spent the next two hours or so lurching across south western Ontario. I arrived in London shortly before 10pm and took a short walk to the Hilton Hotel where I would be spending the next three nights. I dropped my luggage off in my room and then strolled to the bar on the second floor for a nightcap. I sipped on a Manhattan which immediately relaxed my shoulders. I closed my eyes as the whisky forced a smile. The next morning I had to be up early for the first day of the Ontario Tourism Summit. I had the pleasure of acting as a judge for the Ontario Culinary Tourism Awards this year and was thrilled to have the opportunity to mix and mingle with the province’s top tourism experts over the next few days.

The following morning I woke up before the sun had a chance to smile across the city. I grabbed a black coffee. Staring down at the creme in my cup, it was hard to differentiate where my brew ended and the pitch black London morning began. I strolled over to the London Convention Centre where I would be spending the day at the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance Summit.

Rebecca LeHeup, Director of OCTA welcomed Ontario’s top culinary tourism experts into the theatre, starting off the day long conference with a smile and fantastic video showcasing the great work OCTA does throughout the province via collaboration with farmers, producers, chef’s and tourism boards. Rebecca showcased her organizations new logo and website with an approving applause from the audience.

The first speaker to the stage was James Withers, CEO from Scotland Food and Drink. He spent an hour telling the unique story of Scotland’s culinary tourism hurdles and triumph’s as his team continues to champion Scotland’s premium products while educating the world beyond its stereotypes  With wit and humour James made it clear Scot’s  have more to offer than just gleeful golf and the sipping of scotch.

Lindsay White, Senior Restaurant Relations Manager for OpenTable then took the stage to chat about current dinner trends and how stakeholders can take advantage of an evolving, tech-savvy culinary landscape.

Cheryl Grishkewich, OCTA’s Director of Product Development then took the podium to present a piece she called “Crunching the Numbers.” Cheryl’s storytelling was jam packed full of culinary tourism stats many of which reminded me of my fourth year university dissertation research on “Global Culinary Tourism Best Practices,” which I completed at the University of Guelph. The Take-Away featured an emphasis on not just feeding people on the road but allowing them the opportunity to use all five of their senses to explore and become intimate with the Taste of Place.

My favorite talk of the day was presented by Ernest Flach at the Canadian Tourism Commission which featured a panel discussion entitled “Developing Signature Experiences.” All three panelists represented members from the CTC’s Signature Experience Collection – once in a life time travel experiences found in Canada. They show the world what Canada’s tourism brand is all about and offer insights into the experiences that go beyond the stereotypes of maple syrup, mounties and the rocky mountains. Panelists from The CN Tower, Elmhirst Resort and Niagara Heli Tours inspired audiences as they answered questions about their Signature Experiences.

Hungry delegates enjoyed a fantastic Taste of Ontario Locavore lunch showcasing the best of the province’s beer, wine and culinary creations. After a quick bite I attended the Culinary Creativity session hosted by Arlene Stein which featured representatives from Cheesewerks, Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21 and Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company. Speakers spent the next hour chatting about how they have championed creative marketing by hosting unique events which have propelled their businesses forward. I found it particularly interesting that all three gentleman attributed their passion for giving back to the community to their success.

The OCTA Summit ended, like any perfect day should, with a handful of cocktails. The event entitled “The Spirit of Local Smackdown,” was hosted by Andrew Coppolino and featured Christina Kuypers from GwaiLo and Jessie Larsen from Mercer Hall. The room filled with cheer as these two mixologists duked it out on stage creating two unique cocktails showcasing local Ontario spirits and produce. After some serious sipping I bid the room farewell and whisked myself to my room to freshen up.

That evening delegates hopped on a bus bound for Budweiser Gardens where Ontario’s Southwest showcased the finest food and drink from the region around a hockey rink. I spent the evening sampling local wines and a wild and wonderful selection of finger foods from the regions top restaurants and caterers. After stuffing myself to the brim I hopped back on the bus bound for my hotel just in time to watch the final US Presidential debate. I sat perched on my bed watching Obama slam Romney time and time again. I quickly zzz’d to sleep with Romney’s awkward half smile jumping over the same fences as my sheep.

The following morning I woke up at the crack of dawn in preparation for a whirlwind culinary tour. Special thanks to Downtown London and Chris McDonell from Eat Drink Mag for coordinating my restaurant reviews with such short notice. I don’t know how I did it, but ended up managing to review three restaurants  in five hours! It was a wet morning so found myself racing from each restaurant clutching my umbrella. I enjoyed fantastic food at three of London’s top dining establishments:

The Early Bird

The River Room

The Church Key Bistro Pub

I waddled back to my hotel room just before 3pm after having consumed over 25 dishes. I felt like my belly was going to burst. I had a hot shower and then attempted to squeeze into my outfit for the Ontario Tourism Awards Finalist Reception which took place at the Delta London Armouries. The room quickly filled with all of the finalists for this years Ontario Tourism Awards. I took snap shots of the 2012 OCTA finalists:

Ontario Culinary Tourism Leadership Award

Collingwood’s Apple Pie Trail

Guelph’s Taste Real

Prince Edward County’s Taste the County

Ontario Culinary Tourism Experience Award

The Culinary Adventure Company

The CN Tower

From the Farm Cooking School

Next stop the London Convention Centre where ball gowns and tuxedo’s clutched their martini glasses for the Ontario Tourism Awards Reception and Dinner. The evening featured live music, fantastic food and was hosted by the always charming Heather Hiscox from CBC.

My heart was thumping half way through the meal as Rebecca took the stage and the six OCTA finalists were announced. I had this strange sort of elation and excitement coursing through my body for the two winners to be announced. I had been working on the awards now for several months and a collection of memorable experiences noted by fond flavours of Ontario shot through my cerebellum. I eagerly live tweeted as Visit Guelph’s Taste Real took the Leadership Award and The Culinary Adventure Company took best experience. You can check out my visit to Guelph HERE and my review of The Culinary Adventure Company’s famous Canoe and Beach Dining Adventure HERE.

After an action pack few days in London the Summit ended with dancing and drinks until the wee hours of the morning. I enjoyed a gin and tonic while whisking my way around the room dispensing dobbernationLOVES business cards as if I were Trick or Treating. Much like Cinderella booted it from the castle at the stroke of midnight I too rushed back to my room after my final bow a few seconds before the clock tower gonged across the fine city of London. I carefully packed up my glass slippers and set my alarm for 5am. The following morning I would be lurching on the train to Oakville to meet my family. Two hours later I would be zooming off to the YYZ airport for a month long culinary and safari adventure in South Africa! This boy never sleeps!

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