The Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre Finds Its Feet

Where do 6,000 math nerds go for a group think, or 10,000 insurance brokers? The Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre is attracting new – and larger – audiences to boost its revenues.

Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre | BCBusiness
The VCEC’s annual revenue pales in comparison to its expansion costs, but its real success should be measured by the net revenue it brings to the province.

Where do 6,000 math nerds go for a group think, or 10,000 insurance brokers? The Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre is attracting new – and larger – audiences to boost its revenues.

I know I’m in the right place when I spot the crowd outside, all lanyards and tote bags, coffees and cigarettes and the kind of animated conversation that only a break in the sun after hours sitting inside can spark. Not that my destination is hard to find. Its massive glass face and freshly trimmed rooftop grassland have reshaped the Vancouver harbour. The giant newcomer has even annexed parts of iconic Canada Place, now known as the East Building of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre (VCEC), a meeting space behemoth sprawled over half a million square feet at the foot of Burrard Street. Now nearly three years since it opened, its management says the VCEC has been a game-changer for Vancouver’s convention business.

“We’re doing really well at winning international congresses,” Claire Smith tells me on a walk through the VCEC. Smith is the centre’s vice-president of sales and marketing, a friendly brunette who talks with her hands and today is dressed in a black pinstriped jacket, black skirt and black leather boots.

“We’re looking for international societies that maybe only get together once every four years. We’re looking at U.S. associations that meet annually and are looking to become international and Canada is a baby step for them. We’re bidding on corporate meetings.”

We pass hundreds of delegates scattered into small pods in the centre’s capacious hallways; they’re with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada’s largest union, in town for its 25th national convention. At five days and some 2,500 visitors, it’s an impressive gathering, but small potatoes now that Vancouver is playing on the world stage, explains Smith.

Last August’s meeting of the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques was the largest conference ever held in Vancouver, attracting nearly 16,000 graphic designers from 74 countries. An earlier meeting of insurance managers brought 9,800 delegates and an association of international educators brought another 8,700. 

For Smith, the year’s most memorable group was a July congress of mathematicians, some 5,700 strong, whose delegates abandoned the assigned conference room to sit cross-legged in the hallways with their backs to each other while collaborating on problems with laptops and tablets. Smith says it’s an example of how the conference market has had to adapt to social media and web 2.0 technologies – some speakers have even ditched the traditional monologue for a more interactive approach complete with screens displaying live Twitter feeds. 

“2011 was a record-breaking convention year for us,” she says. “We hosted 29 city-wide conventions.” And business is growing, she adds. Prior to the expansion, the VCEC hosted an average of 13 so-called city-wides – meetings of more than 1,000 out-of-town delegates – a year.

Critics remain unimpressed by the bottom line, pointing out that total revenue of $43 million for the 2011 fiscal year, while nearly double the $22.2 million of the previous year, pales against the cost of the expansion, which VCEC admits exceeded $883 million. In addition, the centre ran a $1.9- million operational deficit last fiscal year. The centre claims to be working to minimize its reliance on provincial subsidies, but provides no timeline. 

A convention centre’s success can’t be measured by its balance sheet, according to Rod Cameron, director of internal development for the Brussels-based International Association of Congress Centres, an industry group of 174 convention centres in 54 countries. “That’s not all that important,” Cameron tells me. “What matters is the net revenue into the province as a result of having that facility there.” 

Cameron says convention centres are not designed as stand-alone profit engines, but rather as civic amenities meant to fuel economic development. To that end, Cameron calls the VCEC’s impact immeasurable.

“It’s pretty naive to ignore a chunk of the return on investment that arrives through a different channel,” he says. “Centres are economic generators. That’s why they’re built. Governments know they’re going to get their money [back] anyway; they’re just going to get it through tax revenues.” 

The VCEC estimates the average delegate spends $1,015 per visit. Total spin-off benefits are a bit of a grey area, subject to various methods of calculation, but VCEC owner and operator B.C. Pavilion Corp. calculates the centre’s total economic benefit was $716 million in the 2011 fiscal year.

Convention business across Canada has been resilient at a time when the industry as a whole is struggling. “In countries where the corporate side took a big hit – and the U.S. would be right at the top of that list – they had a couple of really tough years,” Cameron notes. “In the case of Canada, centres had a much more diversified set of business [partners].”

Cameron adds that Vancouver is particularly well-positioned, thanks to its long-term strategy (some 15 years running) of cultivating the international congress market. That sector is traditionally stable, says Cameron – international conferences are the beating hearts of many medical, pharmaceutical and scientific associations – and the VCEC uses those meetings to bridge gaps in corporate business.

Back at the VCEC, Smith keeps mum when asked about details of future bookings, but says she’s bidding on international groups as far out as 2020. And now that the expansion has tripled capacity, the VCEC is chasing – fingers crossed – groups as large as 30,000 delegates.