As Calgary emerges from one of the worst economic downturns it has ever seen, several points may be observed: Calgarians are steadfastly resilient; the energy sector has been, is and will continue to be the economic engine of the city; and – notwithstanding the previous point – the economy could do with a healthy dose of more diversification.
Clark Grue, president and CEO of the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (CTCC), agrees wholeheartedly with each of these observations and in them, sees opportunity. Since assuming his job on November 1, 2016, Grue has been tasked with re-imagining the role of the 44-year-old CTCC, which, until the oil-price plummet of 2015, was a given.
“The CTCC did very, very well in the good times,” Grue explains of the city-owned, not-for-profit downtown organization which last year held approximately 300 events – a significant drop from a few years ago. “Our local businesses would fill it up. But then the downturn hit and our business was hurt dramatically.”
Last year, the Calgary market accounted for roughly 56 per cent of the CTCC’s business. “The CTCC is often used as a community hub by Calgarians,” he acknowledges. “We’ll have things like graduations, weddings and other events that are very much part of the core of the city, which is an important role for us to play.”
The Canadian market (outside the city) meanwhile has typically accounted for 32 per cent while the international market brings in 12 per cent of the CTCC’s business. In the face of a drop in local business, Grue’s plan is to grow that international number.
“Part of our mandate is to bring visitors – convention-goers and delegates – to the city,” he continues, “because of the economic impact that those individuals bring. When they fly in, use taxis, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, all those things are powerful economic drivers. So we’ve put more of a focus on the external and bringing the international folks here.”
It’s a job well suited for Grue, whose resumé includes local and international business development at the British trade office in Alberta, at Calgary Economic Development and as a founder and partner at Rainmaker Global Business Development for 10 years. He is also vice chair of Meetings Mean Business Canada, vice chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Canada, and sits on a task force for Canada for the B7, the business component of the G20.
In addition to the direct economic impact – including on the CTCC’s own 130 employees who range from the executive to event services to housekeeping and maintenance – Grue highlights the indirect and induced economic impact of conventions. “A convention centre bringing groups of people to your city to interact with Calgarians can be an incredibly powerful economic engine. Intellectual capital gets shared and jobs get created – the restaurant next door can now hire somebody because they’ve got convention activity every week for a month. The local engineering firm gains more work from interactions with out-of-town engineering companies. The impact is wide spread.”
When times were good in Calgary, the convention opportunity – successfully pursued by other Canadian cities like Vancouver – was overlooked. Now, Grue urges, is the perfect time to seize the moment. “People like Calgary; they want to come here, but we’ve been expensive and we’ve been full. Now, with hotel vacancies up and rates down, Calgary can compete on the global market.”
And a massive market it is: in the U.S. alone, the conventions and meetings industry reached $845 billion in 2016. “It’s an enormous industry that nobody really sees,” Grue declares.
In the past, the CTCC’s international focus has been on that lucrative U.S. market, which does fetch some of the organization’s largest contracts. “But the challenge there is going after American convention planners who don’t always like to go outside the States,” Grue explains. “Only 37 per cent of Americans have passports – there’s a large number who just don’t travel outside the U.S.”
Grue’s vision therefore has the CTCC going beyond the U.S. to Europe, China and Mexico. “Europe specifically has a large number of groups that meet and move around the world in that 500- to 1,500-person range,” he explains. “That’s a sweet-spot group for us. It fits our city not only from the point of view of convention space but also hotel space. Our target has really shifted to that European market.”
The Chinese market is a brand-new market and an opportunity to build upon the growth in Chinese tourism. “We need to get ahead of that market and start to pitch Calgary as a place to bring what they would call a meeting of an executive group or a state-owned enterprise,” Grue opines. “It could be 1,000 to 10,000 people.”
Mexico, and the opportunities presented with NAFTA, is another market Grue has set his sights on.
To help bring his vision to life, Grue has restructured the CTCC at the top. He created two new, unique vice-president positions, including VP of acceleration. Adam Joyce was hired on for the role.
“Adam isn’t from the convention centre business; he’s a startup guy and has been in that space for a long time,” Grue offers. “I wanted somebody who was an entrepreneur, who really understood what it meant to grow a new business, because that’s what we’re doing.”
Growing the business, he adds, will require more space, both in terms of the CTCC and surrounding hotel rooms.
Indeed, the 122,000-square-foot CTCC – made up of 47,000 square feet of exhibit space, five pre-function areas and 36 meeting rooms – does have its limitations. According to Grue, it is technically undersized for Calgary and would ideally be double in size, though it does comfortably accommodate conventions in the 1,500- to 2,000-person range. “That’s a very nice size for us,” he says. “We have 1,200 hotel rooms connected to us which is the top in Canada. We have an advantage there.”
But while its size may be on the smaller side, Grue doesn’t prescribe additional space as the only answer. “We talk about our ‘convention district,’” he explains of the north and south sides of Stephen Avenue between Centre and First Streets southeast. “We have the Marriott, the first convention centre building and the Glenbow Museum, and across the street is our newer building and the Hyatt. When you put all the space together on those two blocks, we’re not far off that ideal size.”
Grue and his team are examining ways to activate existing space differently. “How do we create experiential space that is more interesting and more saleable to a convention organizer?”
Because experience, Grue reiterates, is what conventions are all about. “Convention planners are looking for safe environments, ease of walkability and amenities that can easily be accessed on a one-hour break – they’re looking for things that will create an appealing experience for delegates.”
To this end, Grue hired Kurby Court as the new VP of experience. “I needed somebody who could really understand how to create an experience for our customers and for a delegate who comes to Calgary,” Grue explains, “from the minute they think about coming here to the minute they go home.”
For Grue, Court and the team, this means creating experiential space wherever they can within the current confines of the CTCC. New rooms and elements such as furnishings, lighting and colours are being used to create a spatial sensation that allows people to think and interact differently. “It’s no longer about one massive room with a bunch of chairs and a speaker at the front,” Grue maintains.
It also means taking better advantage of the “convention district” by integrating the spaces and services of surrounding businesses into CTCC offerings. For example, a reception at the Glenbow Museum or a spa day at the Hyatt are elements that can add to a delegate’s experience.
Conventions are changing in other ways too, both in terms of the growing number of events and the types of groups desiring to meet. “Technology and the new format of how people like to meet often means smaller and more specific groups,” says Grue. “For example, it’s no longer just back doctors, it’s vertebrae-five back doctors. There’s a lot more of these specializations, and those are a pretty good size for us too.”
The larger, more traditional conventions remain strong targets of course. In fact, the greatest proportion of conventions worldwide are in the medical industry, the STEM disciplines and business professionals.
Before Grue pitches the CTCC to prospective clients though, he must first pitch his city. “It starts with a Calgary sell,” the fourth-generation Albertan reveals. “We work very closely with the Stampede, Calgary Economic Development, Tourism Calgary and other groups to sell Calgary first.”
Notwithstanding the CTCC’s new direction, it is considered one of the best in its class, having held countless galas, weddings, high-profile speaking events, AGMs and conventions. Last year, it hosted the International Live Events Awards Gala and every summer hosts Otafest – a 9,000-person anime festival that attracts delegates from around the world.
It has several repeat customers, including the Calgary Chamber, the Society of Petroleum Engineers (Calgary) and the CFA Society Calgary which holds its annual dinner of approximately 1,400 professionals at the CTCC every year. “The service is second to none,” raves Jade Marage, communications and events manager for the CFA Society Calgary. “They are extremely professional; some of the best in the city. And the location is very convenient for my members since they don’t like to leave the downtown core.”
To Grue, it’s an opportunity all of Calgary should encourage. “Conventions are not designed to be contained inside a convention centre; they’re actually meant to ripple out into the city. Delegates always go out and pour money into our economy.”
Already a favourite locally, the CTCC’s courtship of the international market has good prospects. Grue’s plan to leverage Calgary’s strengths to drive major economic growth, in the heart of the city, is both opportunistic and visionary. It has the potential to place Calgary – once again – on the world map.