Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Vancouver’s winning combination draws meetings despite oversupply of space

Bruce Constantineau

44 conventions have already signed on to use the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion, shown in an artist’s rendering.

U.S. cities from Hickory, N.C., to Fort Wayne, Ind., are falling all over themselves in a “type of arms race” to build new convention facilities even though attendance at major trade shows has dropped in recent years, according to a study from U.S. think tank The Brookings Institution.

News about too many convention centres chasing a static market comes as the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre prepares to more than triple its convention space by opening a $565-million expansion project by the summer of 2008.

The Brookings study noted the convention space available for the top 200 U.S. trade shows has increased by 40 per cent since 1990 but attendance at those conventions has declined, even in major destinations such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans. Total attendance currently languishes at 1993 levels.

“With events and attendance sagging in even the hottest destination spots, few centres are even able to cover basic operating costs and local economic impacts have fallen far short of expectations,” the study said.

It also states that with the possible exception of a handful of major cities, the grand promises of convention centre investment are unlikely to be realized, “the strategy doomed to failure.”

But VCEC general manager Barbara Maple said Vancouver won’t face the same problems that have hurt some U.S. cities that built new convention centres for the wrong reasons.

“Some facilities were built in smaller communities that expected more national and international business but didn’t get it because they didn’t have enough hotel capacity or airline capacity (to complement their convention centre),” she said. “That’s not a problem here.”

Maple noted Vancouver routinely turns away 30 to 50 convention events a year because the current facility already operates at full capacity and is too small for some events. She expects the expanded centre will attract a lot of new business from large groups that couldn’t consider Vancouver in the past.

Maple noted 44 conventions already have been booked for the new convention centre between 2008 and 2016.

She said a lot of U.S. convention centres focus entirely on the U.S. market but Vancouver has a more diversified client base, split almost evenly among Canadian, U.S. and international customers.

While new convention centre expansions are being planned in places such as Peoria, Ill., and Des Moines, Iowa, Maple said Vancouver enjoys a competitive advantage in having a strong global brand with a certain cachet.

“Our clients see us as being a great international city but there’s still lots of work to be done in that area,” she said. “We rate very highly as a leisure destination but we need to improve our reputation as a meetings and convention destination. We have fallen behind in that area but the expansion will put us back on the map.”

Maple said convention clients are tough negotiators because they know a lot of facilities are after their business. But she said nothing is given away for free to attract new convention business to Vancouver.

“Savvy clients know there isn’t anything for free. If you’re not paying for something at the front end, then you’re paying for it somewhere else.”

Tourism Vancouver meeting and convention sales vice-president Dave Gazley said winning the 2010 Olympic bid validated Vancouver as a true international destination, making it easier to sell the city to prospective convention clients.

He said groups that held conventions in Vancouver last year reported that attendance at the events was, on average, 12 per cent higher than their 2003 conventions because Vancouver is a popular city.

“We’re a little shy about it sometimes but we have an incredible destination that people want to visit and expansion of the convention centre just opens up so many more doors for us,” Gazley said.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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