The meetings and convention industry is a formidable economic engine in Canada, generating $33 billion a year in direct spending and employing more than 229,000 people. That accounts for $19 billion of the country’s GDP, a figure on par with agriculture, forestry, fishing, and the arts and entertainment industry.
It is also a highly-competitive market in which cities from all over the world and the various convention spaces within those cities are vying for the role of host. Calgary’s various venues host well over a thousand events a year, from automotive trade shows to anime conventions to professional conferences. Visiting delegates fan out into the city enjoying the best attractions and creating significant economic impact from direct and indirect spending.
International delegates bring the greatest investment potential – they spend more money, tend to take their families along on the trip and stay longer, making them a highly sought-after market. According to the Conference Board of Canada’s 2012 report, an international delegate spends a little more than $3,000 per person per convention whereas a domestic attendee spends about $1,000.
Securing an international group to host its event is a long play with a lot of hustle and foresight. These groups are approached all the time and in this relationship-driven industry, city promoters can work for many years massaging a connection. The Society of Petroleum Engineers, for example, is holding its conference of 8,000 delegates at the BMO Centre in September 2019, a contract that was inked four years ago.
To stay competitive, Calgary Telus Convention Centre (CTCC) president and CEO Clark Grue realized how essential it is to have an individual headquartered in Europe engaging with its meeting planners and spreading the Calgary gospel. Grue is very much in tune with that market, having run the British government’s U.K. trade office based out of Calgary while also establishing companies in new international markets as co-founder of Rainmaker Global Business Development.
Admittedly late to the game – Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax already had representatives in London – the CTCC brought on international business development manager Sue Wilkes to operate there beginning in August 2018. Since many professional associations in Europe meet annually around the world with an attendance of 500 to 2,000, Wilkes proactively chases that market which is the ideal number of attendees for the CTCC, due to the hotel capacity downtown.
Cat caught mouse. The CTCC features a diverse lineup of international clients for 2019. At the beginning of August comes the International Society of Biomechanics with 1,200 delegates from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. At August’s end, it hosts Spirit Now, the 25th annual Pentecostal World Conference with 2,300 delegates from South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. “These gatherings truly bring the whole world to our city,” says Grue.
While the CTCC and BMO Centre compete against each other to a degree, their sales teams work collaboratively for the benefit of Calgary. They will throw each other leads if an event is better suited for the other venue. The CTCC is purpose-built for conferences and conventions with its 4,000 theatre-style seating capacity, plus three attached hotels and shopping and restaurants on Stephen Avenue. The BMO Centre, the city’s largest venue with 250,000 square feet of blank canvas space, tends to attract more of the trade and consumer shows. Ultimately, a win for one is a win for Calgary.
And in the instance when a venue is running a deficiency in the right space and the only way it can win a piece of business is to partner with another venue, often the CTCC and BMO Centre will work in tandem on a number of events. The international organization will hold its plenary sessions and education tracks at the CTCC and the entertainment packages such as dinner, dancing, private rodeos and concerts will take place at the Big Four Roadhouse on Stampede Park, or vice versa.
Intellectual capital is the lure. In the business events industry, ambassador programs are trending across the country in which convention bureaus are partnering with local thought leaders. “Promoting our local people who are influencers within their own disciplines helps us get our foot in the door,” says Greg Newton, director of business development at the Calgary Stampede.
So the BMO Centre calls upon the city’s ambassadors to align with predominant sectors in Canada and specific to Calgary, such as international finance, agriculture, agriscience, and the energy and scientific disciplines. In turn, the international organizations are linked in with a targeted local network of speakers, research groups and exhibitors. The strategy proved successful – in June 2019, the world’s largest energy exhibition and conference, the Global Petroleum Show, will showcase the latest in exploration, production and technology at the BMO Centre with more than 100 speakers and 51,000 attendees.
And because the acquisition of data is so much more accessible and quicker due to the myriad devices that people carry, the nature of convening today is greatly different than it was 10 years ago. Conventions are less about the space and the presentation of information and more about creating an overall experience for the attendees. “A successful convention is about how your community embraces the convention goer,” Grue says. And the CTCC’s neighbours do just that, by holding hospitality events for components of a convention, say a reception at the Glenbow Museum or a keynote address at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
The natural beauty of Calgary and its environs is an obvious pitch; it is also promoted as a young, dynamic city. “We talk about the energetic, young thinkers and the entrepreneurial people who are looking for their opportunity in life. It’s a place where stuff gets done,” says Grue.
Beer making included! Indeed, the growing craft brewing scene in Alberta is one of the incentives drawing the 600 delegates from the Master Brewers Association of the Americas to the CTCC for their convention from October 31 to November 2, 2019. “The brewing industry is a global market and so it’s important that we look at different locations for our conferences,” says Tressa Patrias, director of meeting planning and logistics, Master Brewers. “By bringing our conference to Calgary, we hope to reach a broader audience and showcase what Alberta has to offer.”
Patrias says once its Canadian members began promoting Canada as the conference destination, the proposal received support from key groups. The Government of Alberta, the City of Calgary, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor & Cannabis Commission, the Alberta Small Brewers Association, and Beer Canada rallied together to organize the logistics and create the financial package. Established in 1887, Master Brewers is a leader in advancing the interest in brew and malt production and technical personnel.
“Our exhibit floor for this national conference is almost sold out and we are putting together a number of networking opportunities that will help attendees exchange knowledge and grow in their profession,” says Patrias.
Safety may not be a sexy pitch but now more than ever it’s becoming a necessary and highly-desirable condition. Concerned about the geopolitical unrest in Korea, the IEEE – the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology – decided to relocate its engineering conference from South Korea to Calgary in April 2018. It was a huge coup for Calgary, and fortunately not a coup d’état, to host the 2,500 engineers at both the BMO Centre and CTCC.
Meetings and conventions is an exciting and highly-competitive industry, but in June 2019 when the CTCC hosts 1,200 delegates from the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society, it will be the only event that will put people to sleep.