Why Vancouver Loves Geeks

Vancouver tech conferences | BCBusiness

And by ‘geeks,’ we mean the influential, moneyed new masters of industry whose presence even at small events is a really big deal for the host cities

As anyone who has seen downtown sidewalks choked with visitors wearing delegate badges can guess, conferences are big business for Vancouver. In 2011, the blockbuster three-day SIGGRAPH graphics and visual effects conference broke the record for largest in Vancouver history with 15,872 attendees, each of whom is estimated to have spent approximately $260 per day. The biggest event so far in 2013 was the 12,200-strong Pacific Dental Conference, and the Vancouver Convention Centre is nearly booked solid for the rest of the year.

Vancouver’s Most Lucrative Conferences

We crunched the numbers to calculate the direct visitor spending (DVS) by out-of-town attendees. Tourism Vancouver claims that actual economic impact is double the amount of direct spending

Despite these massive numbers and delegates, what got B.C.’s conferences, conventions and meetings industry glowing like a crushing teenager concerns a comparatively small event. February’s announcement that the TED conference was relocating to Vancouver from Long Beach was widely viewed as a coup for Vancouver, despite the event bringing with it only 1,200 delegates. The excitement that followed the TED announcement, however, was not born of anticipation for the money attendees would spend in the city. It was about how Vancouver might be affected in more important ways.

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is famous for its TED Talks, the highly choreographed and expertly produced lectures given at the conference that have been online video sensations for the better part of a decade. These 18-minute performances by Nobel Prize winners, heads of state, a parade of technology innovators and a host of other thought leaders offering “ideas worth spreading” have collectively been viewed online more than a billion times. TED is hailed as the Olympics of ideas and for some its relocation will mean as much for Vancouver’s brand internationally as that other Olympics did.

The move was the result of a 30-minute meeting in December between TED curator Chris Anderson, Canadian Tourism Commission [CTC] senior vice-president of marketing Greg Klassen, Tourism Vancouver CEO Rick Antonson, and Katherine McCartney, TED’s Vancouver director of operations and a longtime friend of Antonson’s. Tourism Vancouver had been courting the conference for many years, but this was the first time Anderson had come to the table ready to negotiate. The deal involves an unspecified cash contribution made over two years from a consortium composed of the CTC, Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Convention Centre and the Vancouver Hotel Destination Association. Klassen says the money is intended to cover the cost of building a new space within the Convention Centre that meets Anderson’s exacting standards.

TED’s small size begs the question: why go to such lengths to attract an event that’s a bit more than 10 per cent the expected size of the annual AAO-HNSF and OTO EXPO meeting? Because very few people who are not head-and-neck doctors will care about what happens at that annual meeting. The ideas expressed on stage at TED, however, will be packaged in compelling YouTube videos that will be viewed by millions of people around the world. As its tagline suggests, TED’s content is meant to spread, and when it does, it will carry with it the image of Vancouver as a place where innovative thinking happens. Translation: Coming to Vancouver makes you smarter. So come and visit. Now.

The deal Antonson and Klassen negotiated, which guarantees that TED will be in Vancouver for two years and leaves open the possibility of the conference staying until 2020 reflects the value the CTC and Tourism Vancouver see TED bringing to the city. “It’s a big investment,” says Dave Gazley, Tourism Vancouver’s vice-president for meeting and convention sales, “but we definitely feel it’s worth it.” The consortium established a co-branding agreement that lets the tourism organizations market Vancouver and Canada as TED hosts. Klassen sees this opportunity as a big marketing advantage in the competitive game of luring lucrative conferences. “TED is a well-understood, well-known international brand and we own it for the next couple of years,” he says.

According to Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach California Convention and Visitors Bureau, the TED brand is the real prize. Long Beach, TED’s second home (after the original Monterey location), still basks in the event’s international intelligentsia glow. “It’s almost like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval that TED felt highly enough about us to give us that privilege for five years,” he says. Goodling thinks the TED brand was particularly advantageous when bidding for other conferences. “Other meeting planners, when they heard about the TED conference, if they knew about it, they respected it.”

TED is the leading brand in a growing class of events that blend technology and science innovation with entertainment and culture, mostly for public consumption, rather than just the privileged eyes and ears of badge-wearers. TED attendees hear exactly the same talks in exchange for their $7,500 tickets that the public gets for free online. (What they’re really paying for isn’t the content, but access to each other—writing in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller described TED’s attendee list as “something a Harvard development officer might hallucinate after huffing too much envelope glue.”) The event is outward looking, and therefore, the theory goes, engages its host city as more than just a venue. Speaking to reporters after the announcement of TED’s move, Anderson, who’s known to harbour a personal affinity for Vancouver, said “there are so many ways in which the values of this city connect, beautifully, right into the bloodstream of people at TED.”

The South by Southwest festival in Austin is another such extroverted event mixing culture with technology innovation. As famous for its parties as for its formal sessions, SXSW is one of the best examples of this deep engagement between a host city and a big event. Debbie Landa, whose August GROW conference for technology and new media entrepreneurs is in its fourth year, is trying to learn from Austin. “The fact that locals are getting more involved and they want to step up, that’s what made [SXSW] as big as it is,” she says. Parties are part of the plan: “What we’re doing this year, which I can’t wait for, is a bunch of the guys… are going to rally all of the bars in Gastown.”

She’s also planned an “adventure day” where locals lead groups of energetic visitors on excursions like kiteboarding and mountain biking. Landa believes this approach benefits Vancouver more than GROW’s 1,200 attendees would otherwise.

These conferences that emphasize big ideas over big business won’t put as many ‘heads in beds’ as the traditional, more introverted events. Conferences such as the Mineral Exploration Roundup Conference, with its roughly 8,000 delegates, for instance, are still Vancouver’s “bread and butter,” according to Klassen. But TED and GROW have an economic footprint much larger than the combined spending of their relatively few attendees.

Vancouver’s 2011 growth plan states that “the future of innovation in the global economy will rely on talented human capital.” And Vancouver’s image in the world is a factor in recruiting competitiveness. Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite, the rapidly growing Vancouver-based social media management company, sees recruiting top talent as a big challenge for his business, and thinks these conferences can help. “They do put eyeballs on the city and help build a brand that is compelling and convincing enough to attract talent from further abroad to relocate.”

The value of a mining or dentistry conference to Vancouver is easy to measure and significant. These traditional events account for most of the more than 10,000 people employed in Vancouver’s convention industry. The value of a local app developer meeting a Sand Hill Road venture capitalist in a Gastown bar during GROW or a viral TED Talk that begins with the speaker waxing poetic on Vancouver’s natural setting is harder to quantify. But big ideas are a growing part of Vancouver’s economy, so it’s no wonder that those tasked with making the city more conducive to international business welcome the next group of 1,200 extroverted thinkers with open arms.