Convention centre faces lacklustre bookings: hotel exec

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Bruce Constantineau

The $800-million-plus Vancouver convention centre expansion will become “the biggest empty ballroom in town” unless it is able to attract more business opportunities soon, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts regional vice-president Phil Barnes warned on Wednesday.

The amount of business booked for the new centre after the 2010 Olympics simply isn’t good enough, he said in an interview after Tourism Vancouver’s annual general meeting.

“What we have on the books for conventions is absolutely critical, and nobody seems to be focused on that,” Barnes said. “That convention centre will be the biggest empty ballroom in town in the years ahead, unless somebody wakes up and does something about it now.”

The convention centre project — originally priced at $495 million — will triple the amount of meeting space at the Canada Place facility when it opens in early 2009. It will be used as the international broadcast centre for the 2010 Olympic Games.

Outgoing Tourism Vancouver chairman Jim Storie told the meeting the new convention centre currently has projected occupancy rates of just 38 per cent for 2011, 28 per cent in 2012, and three per cent in 2013.

He said officials need to book 80 to 90 new future conventions by the end of 2009 to ensure respectable occupancy levels for the 2010-to-2015 period.

Barnes, who soon leaves Vancouver to take up a new Fairmont Hotels posting in Dubai, said he’s extremely concerned about the situation.

“If I was staying here, I would be scared silly,” he said. “I see a huge black cloud on the horizon in terms of future convention bookings, but we have a window now to do something about it.”

Barnes said Tourism Vancouver should have the sole responsibility for booking conventions into the centre — something that’s currently shared between Tourism Vancouver and the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre.

“Give them targets and hold them accountable, because I don’t know who’s accountable for it today,” he said.

Tourism Vancouver president Rick Antonson said his organization needs more funding to do a better job of selling Vancouver as a convention destination.

“We need to knock on more doors,” he said. “There are hundreds of associations and corporate events that need to know about Vancouver, but we can’t deliver bids to them because we don’t have the resources.”

Antonson said Tourism Vancouver could use another convention salesperson in Chicago, one or two more in Washington, D.C., one in Texas, and another in Europe.

Tourism Vancouver currently operates with a $12-million annual budget, compared with $28 million in Montreal, and $30 million in Toronto.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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