British Columbia Travel Guide
Behind the scenes of Hollywood North, the CEO of the McLean Group, gives an up-close-and-personal view of Vancouver.
Much of the time, film crews try to make Vancouver’s urban streets, nearby mountains and deep blue waterways look like someplace else. The city’s historic Gastown district often doubles for New York. Rather than film the television show Alcatraz in, well…, producers headed to Vancouver for a facsimile.
But if you want to know more than just the celluloid Vancouver, you’ve got to go behind the scenes. And who better to take you there than a Hollywood North executive.
“Vancouver, for me, is the best base camp in the world,” says Jason McLean, the energetic 37-year-old chief executive of the McLean Group of Companies, which owns one of the largest film production studios in Vancouver. “It’s a beautiful city. It has great depth of culture, and it’s a city that’s still young and unburdened.”
If that sounds like boosterism, don’t be too hard on McLean. He only recently stepped down from his post as chair of Vancouver’s Board of Trade. He also has the street credentials to boast.
McLean grew up in the West Point Grey neighborhood of Vancouver and earned his law degree at the University of British Columbia, just a 15-minute bike ride from his boyhood home. He has a home of his own now, but it’s across the street from the house he grew up in and only a block away from his parent’s home.
McLean’s path to overseeing the family business wasn’t linear, though. During his freewheeling days, he tested himself by mountain climbing, spending five weeks in Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska ascending Mount McKinley. After law school, he did a stint as an advance man for Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and traveled the world, meeting dignitaries such as Pope John Paul II and former President Bill Clinton.
Vancouver’s ease—it’s been called the most livable city in the world—beckoned him home as well as a chance to fill the ranks of the second generation of leadership at McLean Group. The company, which began as a real estate development and investment firm, comprises five entities ranging from Vancouver Film Studios to a production services unit, an aviation firm, a construction company and a telecommunications group.
Since the early 1970s, McLean Group has acquired and participated in the development of 2,100 condominiums and apartments and 200 acres of land valued at nearly $1 billion. Its foray into the film business was by happenstance.
When the company couldn’t get zoning for a condo project on the eastern side of town, it reluctantly rented out its warehouses to visiting f ilm crews. Over time, the family realized it was a valuable business, as movie and television productions flocked to the city—lured by tax incentives, awe-inspiring scenery and, until recently, favorable exchange rates.
Unlike a traditional Hollywood studio, Vancouver Film Studios doesn’t acquire and develop films. Rather, it rents out its 10 cavernous soundstages. Through two other units, it provides production services and aerial filming. McLean Group’s Blackcomb Aviation also shuttles celebrities and production staff back and forth to Los Angeles on its private jets.
The nuts-and-bolts business has its bit of glitz. For the filming of Night at the Museum, crews transformed a soundstage into an exact replica of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Security guards had to keep throngs of swooning women away from the cast of Twilight during filming at the studios. McLean says he’s still surprised by movie magic. A blizzard concocted on one of his soundstages looked so realistic he says it could have happened at Denali.
Don’t expect McLean to be starstruck, though. He agrees that photos hanging on the wall of him glad-handing with celebrities would be cringeworthy. And, in fact, McLean believes Hollywood stars enjoy Vancouver because no one really bothers them when they drop in to town for filming.
“There’s a culture in our family of trying to be modest,” McLean says. Besides, most of the time, he admits, he’s meeting with accountants or lawyers rather than movie stars.
Recently, the city has lost out on film production revenue to its Canadian neighbor Toronto. McLean is doubling down, building two more soundstages. He’s betting that in the end his city, a convenient two-hour flight from Los Angeles, will win out.
From his office in the Gastown district, McLean can see the city environs so frequently captured onscreen. In the distance, the snowcapped peaks of Grouse Mountain tower over the evergreen forests and the blue waters that ripple to Vancouver’s edge. “Like so many great cities, we don’t turn away from our natural environment,” says McLean, referencing how Vancouver’s parks stand shoulder to shoulder with the glass-towered business districts that are interspersed with residential areas.
Foresight seems to be a Vancouver hallmark. Back in 1886, city leaders petitioned the federal government to set aside 1,000 acres of land, which became Stanley Park. More recently, Vancouver has embarked on a program to expand bike paths throughout the city. The move has increased taxes and raised the ire of some residents, but it’s nonetheless forward-looking and inclusive of the outdoors.
Vancouver is so intertwined with its natural surroundings that at night from downtown you can see the lights of ski runs at local mountain resorts 20 minutes away. It’s not uncommon for a Vancouver resident to golf during the day and hit the ski slopes at night.
For McLean, who grew up skiing, hiking, biking and kayaking in and around the city, recommending that visitors get outdoors is almost an imperative. And despite Vancouver’s rainy weather—from November to February it might drizzle daily—the city offers endless reasons to explore.
Jason McLean’s Vancouver Address Book
“The Museum of Anthropology (at 6393 N. W. Marine Dr., on the University of British Columbia campus) takes your breath away,” says McLean. “Everyone should see it.” The museum, housed in a stunning building with mountain and sea views, captures the city’s history as a settlement and trading post. Giant totem poles, carvings, textiles and coins are just some of the 500,000 artifacts from around the world at the museum.
McLean also recommends Granville Island (at the intersection of Anderson Street and W. 2nd Avenue). The island used to be a 37-acre industrial wasteland. It has since been transformed into a vibrant public market, filled with food stalls featuring local cuisine, restaurants, theaters and an artist’s community. From Granville, you can look across False Creek at the Vancouver skyline and its “city of glass” office buildings. Getting there is also half the fun. You can take the rainbow-colored Aquabus from downtown and tour False Creek before disembarking at Granville Island.
At the western tip of Vancouver is Stanley Park (located at the north end of Georgia Street). It’s also the location of the Vancouver Aquarium. The aquarium is one of the leading venues for arctic sea life. There are countless other attractions within the park, ranging from horse-drawn carriage rides to theater events.
If you are willing to travel a short distance out of town, McLean suggests Grouse Mountain (6400 Nancy Greene Way), just 15 minutes away, for skiing during the winter and zip-lining during the summer. You might even see some grizzly bears at the mountain’s wildlife refuge.
Vancouver is a melting pot of cultures from around the world, and the city’s cuisine reflects that diversity. Pacific Northwest seafood may be a show stealer. But McLean enjoys a mix of homey Italian cuisine and sushi.
1382 Hornby St.; 604-669-2422
Located in the Hotel Villa Delia, this charming restaurant serves traditional Italian food.
Blue Water Café & Raw Bar
1095 Hamilton St.; 604-688-8078
As in many Vancouver restaurants, seafood here is from wild and sustainable harvest.
1133 W. Broadway; 604-872-8050
If you have, as McLean says, a “fat wallet,” head to Tojos for sushi and pineapple ginger sorbet.
791 W. Georgia St.; 604-689-9333
McLean is fond of this luxury hotel between the mountains and the ocean, and close to downtown.
Century Plaza Hotel & Spa
1015 Burrard St.; 604-687-0575
The sleek, family-owned hotel offers suites with kitchenettes.
The Sutton Place Hotel
845 Burrard St.; 604-682-5511
You might spot a celebrity or two at this downtown hotel with European decor, but if you want to blend in with the locals, pretend you don’t see them.
Vancouver, British Columbia Travel Tips
Expedite: McLean recommends traveling with a Nexus card, which grants U.S. and Canadian citizens preapproval upon entering the United States or Canada. The $50 card allows for swifter customs clearance. U.S. and Canadian citizens can apply for one online.
Wash: McLean also advises traveling with Woolite and an elastic clothesline. (Yes, he’s washed his own socks while traveling.)
Invest: If you’re a true adventurer, invest in durable equipment. McLean and his wife often travel with their road bikes; they bring along a permanent bike box with lots of padding and wheels.
Accept: If your spouse offers to pack for you, graciously accept, he says.
Kelly Barron is a Money Makeover columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in Smart Money, Entrepreneur and Fortune Small Business.