The conventional wisdom of most local meeting planners say they welcome the Vancouver convention centre’s expansion because it increases the options in a market that’s especially short of meeting space in spring and fall.
Comments in a study of off-site venues produced by Tourism Vancouver this past February were clear. The city’s lack of off-site venues was described variously as falling short of world-class status, “lacking in quantity, quality and diversity for groups over 250,” and, in the words of one veteran event planner with 14 years’ experience, “one of our greatest challenges in selling Vancouver.” It seems Vancouver does not have what its competitors Montreal, Toronto, San Diego and Seattle have to offer, and meeting planners and tourism officials alike agree that the need for more venues is vital to Vancouver’s development as a destination for conventions. “When conventions come to town, people don’t want to spend their entire week in one building, no matter how glorious it is. They want to get out of the building,” explains David Clark, president of BC Event Management Inc. in North Vancouver. Clark has organized events for everyone from Canadian Auto Workers union members to Queen Elizabeth II cruisers, and he notes that there’s a general shortage of facilities. The shortage is even more acute at the upper end of the spectrum – say, for groups of 2,000 people or more. Clark has organized banquets at BC Place Stadium in the past, but a stadium is not always appropriate. The situation to date: Most local meeting planners say they welcome the convention centre’s expansion because it increases the options in a market that’s especially short of meeting space in spring and fall, when venues such as BC Place enjoy steady bookings. By midsummer the expanded convention centre had landed 29 bookings above and beyond what the original convention centre could have accommodated, for a total of 54 conventions through 2011. Not bad, but observers say 80 to 90 future bookings are needed through 2015 for the centre to meet growing demands for its success. Rising construction costs – the latest figure is $883 million, well above initial estimates of $495 million – have only raised political and economic demands for the centre’s success. The upshot? We need more off-site venues.
The loss of Storyeum in Gastown has only accentuated the shortage. Newer venues such as the Rocky Mountaineer rail station on the False Creek Flats and planned developments at Grouse Mountain, the Vancouver Aquarium, the UBC Museum of Anthropology and other attractions are relatively small compared to what’s needed. Richard Yore, director of meeting and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, admits that the city has lost business for lack of appropriate venues. There just aren’t enough of them, he says, “or we don’t have venues that are large enough, or [they] are too expensive.” There is one glimmer of hope. The major sporting venues being built for the 2010 Olympics Winter Games promise to introduce much-needed event space to the market. “Vancouver is quite shy of venues for larger-scale programs, and the size of a number of these facilities will really assist us as we look to attract future business to Vancouver,” says Jonathan Buchwald, president of Vancouver planning firm Prime Strategies Inc. “The development of Olympic venues is really going to be beneficial for the event and conference industry.” The most obvious example is the Richmond Oval, a 356,000-square-foot ice rink being built at a cost of $178 million. It will host speed-skating events during the Olympics and will be used for community-sports and fitness programming afterward. It is touted in city documents as a potential venue for major sporting events, exhibitions and conventions. “It’s a nice, big clear-span building. That’s the one I really have on my radar screen,” Clark says, noting that it will be ideal for banquets feeding upwards of 2,500. “That’s exactly what we need. I don’t have a booking there yet, but I’m starting to put it in proposals to potential conventions.” There’s also the Thunderbird Winter Sports Centre at UBC, which is undergoing a $47-million expansion to serve as a venue for ice hockey and ice sledge hockey in 2010. UBC hopes the 5,200-seat centre will attract trade shows, concerts and other events when it’s not being used for sporting events. “It provides a venue for shows where they don’t have to black out half of GM Place because it’s too big,” says Joe Redmond, former VP for UBC Properties Trust, who continues to provide consulting services for the arena project. Undercutting anticipation of the business opportunities to be had is a lack of certainty about the actual availability of the venues after the Olympics. While operators tout the value of the projects as community legacies, the marketing of those legacies is stymied because no one, it seems, is sure what portion of the facilities will be available post-2010. “The decision of what they’re going to be using these venues for later on, in some cases, is up in the air, or it’s just in [the] development stage right now,” Yore says. The Richmond Oval is a case in point. “They’re talking about using it as a community centre,” Yore says. “[But] there’s a certain unknown quantity about what you can do in the Richmond Oval. What will the food and beverage catering facilities be?”
Definitive answers aren’t yet available, says Gerry De Cicco, the Richmond Oval’s sports business manager. He is drafting a strategy for the facility post-2010 and identifying potential users. A full-blown marketing campaign has yet to be rolled out. De Cicco calls for patience. A number of special events will showcase the building when it opens next year. De Cicco says they will demonstrate the building’s potential, generating interest in using the facility as a venue. While interest among event planners is already strong, De Cicco has received no formal inquiries yet for its use for non-sporting events after 2010. The marketing plans for UBC’s Winter Sports Centre are in an equally embryonic stage. UBC Athletics will be responsible for taking bookings, but staff did not return a call for comment on marketing plans. “I suspect at some point people will be made aware that this venue is available,” Redmond says, adding that he isn’t aware of any efforts to work with Tourism Vancouver to book events. “I don’t think they’ve even thought of it at this point. It’s just too far away [from 2010],” he says. A higher profile will be essential for venues to attract interest. Many event organizers want to see facilities before they book activities, Yore says, especially if the venues were designed to host activities other than conventions and cocktail parties. Meeting planners, he says, are hesitant to book in sporting venues. “It’s also further down in the booking cycle,” he adds. “[Organizers] first decide on the city, book the convention centre, and then you later book the hotels and start looking at social venues as well.” And so the discussion returns to the convention centre, and the promise the expansion holds of greater convention business for Vancouver. After all, the off-site venues aren’t needed if there’s no convention business, but then, there’s no convention business without exciting off-site venues; one can’t survive without the other. It’s a point Yore says lost business has made painfully clear. While he doesn’t want to see more opportunities slip by, he knows Vancouver has to get its game face on. “[Planners] have said we’ll wait till after 2010 when these venues are built, and then we’ll consider you again. Does that mean we’ll win it? Who knows.”