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The Art of Event Planning

Calgary is still a hot draw

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Despite the global price of oil and the domino effects on the market, the Calgary brand is strong! For various business and reputation reasons, Calgary continues to be a solid draw for conventions, conferences, trade shows and other business-related special events.

While major convention and trade show destinations – like Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Vegas and others – mostly focus on key aspects like room nights, spinoff business, restaurants, retail, tourism and revenues for a city’s economy, there are many other factors when it comes to the planning and staging of large, business special events.

It’s a fiercely competitive market and reputation is as vitally important as nitty-gritties like location and per-night room rates. One key aspect is … the competition.

“Canada’s association market is still the most consistent, as they have the requirement to rotate their meetings between the East and the West,” explains Dave Sclanders, executive director of Meetings & Conventions Calgary (MCC).

“As convention centres across Canada continue to expand, and membership in some associations continues to grow, the competition for the Canadian association market gets tougher. In the U.S., the growth and expansion of second-tier cities is constantly changing the landscape. Positioning Calgary’s rightful spot for U.S. business against the larger convention venues in cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver is an ongoing challenge.

“In the last five years or so,” he points out, “Calgary has made serious brand inroads in key U.S. cities with planners and congress decision-makers. We are guaranteed to not get a decent chance at U.S. business if we are not there, aggressively selling Calgary to event planners. And even inside the U.S., the competition for smaller congresses that Calgary can handle, is at risk. Even what the industry calls third-tier cities, like Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, have larger convention centres than Calgary. And their populations are less than 150,000.

“So more and more cities are active in the competition for the meetings and conventions business and no longer are we just competing against tier-one and -two cities. It is very important that Calgary continue to keep our activity in the international and U.S. markets, or we limit ourselves to only Canadian business.”

Sclanders and his MCC team work closely with Travel Alberta and Tourism Calgary to detail and target pitches and proposals for Calgary convention and conference business throughout Alberta, Canada and internationally.

While sometimes stereotyped for Calgary’s legendary two-week July party, the conference and trade show venues and facilities of the Stampede fairgrounds area solid, popular and sought after with convention and event planners from around the world.

“Calgary is a tremendously popular draw for meetings, conferences and trade shows, and we have so much going for us,” raves Greg Newton, manager of sales development at Calgary Stampede, the sprawling, 250,000-square-foot event facility that is booked and busy 50 non-Stampede weeks of the year.

“Most aspects are positives but, we do have some negatives we are trying to resolve. We never understate the location and Calgary’s famous western hospitality. It’s so important. Companies, groups and event planners are looking for cities that offer a unique experience, not just price and deals on room nights. A key aspect of our pitch is that Calgary is so much more than a gateway to the Rockies.

“The big four of the convention and trade show business are: hotel inventory, an attractive destination (a certain uniqueness of the area which draws the attendees), the convenience of the airlift, and the quality of the actual meeting or exhibit venue. The no-tax and the low loonie are also important factors, especially for American events. Of course it has to be the right deal but planners of these major events don’t really chase the dollars so much, and it’s not usually a key part of the bidding.”

He points out that the smooth and efficient management of a convention or trade show is a priority, requiring big blocks of hotel room space, which sometimes tends to be a Calgary negative. “Calgary lacks total meeting space but, most of all, Calgary lacks hotel room inventory. Besides, most of Calgary’s new hotel space is at the airport. The frequent question from event planners is, ‘How many downtown hotel rooms do you have?’ The answer is 4,000. It’s less than Ottawa. And major event planners don’t want to contract with six different hotels.”

Bruce Carew is the Calgary vice president of energy at DMG Events, the company that manages more than 80 large business conference, convention and trade show events in 25 countries each year. DMG is also the organizer of Calgary’s annual Global Petroleum Show (GPS.)

With much extensive North American event management experience, Carew is gung-ho about the Calgary brand as a potent draw. “The big annual Calgary show attracts a mix of key international and regional manufacturers, distributors and service companies providing technologies, equipment and solutions for the oil and gas industry. Despite the global oil price situation, Calgary is still recognized as an industry leader and the heart of the Canadian energy market. It’s also the largest city in Alberta, the third-largest municipality and fifth-largest census metropolitan area (CMA) in Canada and it is home to the highest number of corporate head offices in Canada among the country’s 800 largest corporations.

“But the city urgently needs expanded infrastructure,” he warns. “Especially additional hotel rooms and conference and exhibition space to attract more events. Events like GPS take place on a world stage. The facilities that host these kinds of events must keep up with the needs of its partners and clients.”

Carew is a savvy event management professional and concedes that, this year, the industry price slump and the Calgary economy have impacted the GPS. In 2014, GPS attendance was 66,935. Last year, it was 48,756 and this year it was 44,597.

“The current economic climate has affected local businesses. Exhibitors are staying relevant, keeping pace and capitalizing on the energy industry’s new norm. This year, some exhibitors chose to be just attendees and will return as exhibitors next year.”

Events planners always work years in advance, and Carew and his DMG team are already planning the 2018 details, as Calgary hosts the 50th anniversary of the Global Petroleum Show.

Positivity and planning ahead is what it’s all about for Heather Lundy, acting general manager at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (CTCC.) “The economic downturn has mostly affected the local business segment; a decrease in the number of local meetings, banquets and Christmas parties. They are scaling back or changing their meetings and events formats. But we continue with sales and marketing initiatives in key U.S. and international areas. Our economic impact for 2015 increased 21 per cent due to delegates attending conventions from outside of Canada.

“2017 is looking like a busy and good year,” she says with enthusiasm. “The Calgary City Teachers’ Convention is in February, the 59th annual IEEE-IAS/PCA Cement Industry Technical Conference is all set for May and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in August.”

MCC’s Dave Sclanders also highlights a busy 2017. “The Western Retail Lumber Association is back in January for their third consecutive year. The Canadian Federation of Nurses, the American Petroleum Institute and in May, Tourism Calgary is hosting Rendezvous Canada, the premier international tourism marketplace with buyers from all over North America and the world coming to Calgary.”

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