More midsize cities like Calgary are promoting their local industry expertise to attract conferences in high-priority sectors, supported by the surging growth of advanced industries outside the world's gateway cities.
This post is original content produced by the SkiftX team for our Skift Cities platform launching in March 2018.
Calgary is representative of how midsize cities are evolving in the meetings industry by engaging leaders in their priority sectors more intentionally. The end goal is to deliver heightened networking, programming, and business opportunities at conferences that benefit both visiting and local organizations working in advanced and creative industries.
Calgary has the highest volume of technology startups in the country per capita, and one in seven Canadian corporate headquarters is located in the city. The primary sectors are energy, clean tech, agribusiness, manufacturing, and financial services, among others. Furthermore, a growing stable of events like the Beakerhead Festival — a mashup of programming celebrating the convergence of science, media, tech and innovation — is helping reshape the Calgary destination brand as a hub of intellectual, research and creative expertise.
During the last few years, Meetings + Conventions Calgary has strived to connect local industry and academia more aggressively with outside meeting planners working in related sectors. The strategy helps visiting organizations reach a broader network of potential speakers, exhibitors, sponsors and research groups, and it supports local economic development by delivering potential investors and business partners to companies throughout the region.
A separate entity from the Visit Calgary tourism board, Meetings + Conventions Calgary is affiliated with the Calgary Hotel Association and Telus Convention Centre, and it collaborates closely with the larger BMO Centre convention facility, which is about to undergo a $500 million expansion.
“Meetings + Conventions Calgary was created around the idea of ‘One destination, two great venues’ to focus more on Calgary as a meetings destination, and drive some of the specific sales activities in our important industry sectors,” says Dave Sclanders, executive director of Meetings + Conventions Calgary.
“We also roll up to Business Events Canada, which has industry verticals that they’re active in as well. We’ve sort of branched off in the last two years, I would say, more into the verticals, like agriculture and clean tech. It takes a while to dive deep into them, so we’re taking them one at a time.”
Carolyn Watson, manager of marketing and communication at Meetings + Conventions Calgary, adds, “We also work really closely with Calgary Economic Development, so we’ve aligned with their sectors to cross promote each other’s areas of interest. Oil and gas, technology and agriculture are the leading sectors in Calgary, so we collaborate with the economic development team to better engage organizations and meeting planners in those industries.”
Meetings + Conventions Calgary is somewhat unique in North America because it’s one of the first to highlight the region’s industry sectors and intellectual capital on its website. This is more common in Europe, where cities have promoted their local knowledge base more prominently as a primary value proposition for planners.
“Planners seem to be hungry for more content and case studies about anything they can learn from previous events that have gone off really well here, especially which have a legacy of their association’s knowledge development in a city,” says Watson. “That content will definitely start to show up more and more on our website. We do have a lot of the economic sector information on our site right now, and we will be working to drill that down into niche markets that connect with Calgary and those sectors.”
Skift spoke with Sclanders about how the city leverages its sector expertise, and collaborates with local industry and academic ambassadors, to attract more conferences and build on the legacy impacts of important business events.
Skift: How are your priority sectors expanding and evolving in Calgary?
Dave Sclanders: We were put on the map really because of our oil and gas sector, and we all know where fossil fuels have gone in the last four to six years. But one of the things that happened as they peaked, the fossil fuel industry had to start to focus on the environment, and they had to focus on technology. The financial sectors are really important too because energy is highly capitalized. So we attracted to Calgary a lot of strong leaders and workforces surrounding those disciplines. And then as the oil price started to plummet, we became an incubator for those sectors to step aside from oil-only, and start to figure out other ways that they could make themselves relevant in the world.
That created some really interesting cross-industry collaboration between our sectors, especially in industries like agriculture, renewables, and clean tech. Agra is big because the world is changing, so things like soil conservation and genetic manipulation are very important. Water is not available in some places anymore, so how do we genetically manipulate various seeds to deal with global warming? We’ve become leaders in new technologies related to that, resulting in the agra supercluster being created here. It consists of about 10 corporate leaders from across Canada who bring together the right mix of industry and academia to steer the future of the industry.
Skift: How is your ambassador program evolving to connect outside meeting planners with local leaders in your priority sectors more effectively?
Sclanders: We created our Calgary Champions ambassador program in 2013. We now have 83 Champions in the public, private and academic sectors, and they’re as diverse as our economy with expertise in everything from agriculture to social work.
We had the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect here, for example. Dr. Jackie Sieppert, the dean of our university social work program, participated as the chair for that conference, and he was the lead individual of the campaign to attract it. We have a doctor at our children’s hospital, who is a leader in pediatric nephrology, who competed for the International Pediatric Nephrology Conference to bring it here. We have the International Winter Roads Conference coming in 2022, and our ambassadors were instrumental in winning that bid. So that’s how we have extended our industry out into the community.
Skift: The shift today with ambassadors is that, while they’ve always been used as a lure to attract conferences, they’re now becoming more involved in content development and programming. Is that the case in Calgary?
Sclanders: That’s exactly how we sell it. When we went to the dean of social work at the university for the Prevention of Child Abuse conference, we said, “If we’re able to successfully get this conference, and you’re the chair of the organizing committee, you will have, at least, 20 to 30 percent of content that you can specifically speak to.”
Skift: We see how some convention bureaus in Europe and Australia, among others, have developed more customer-facing content on their meetings websites that showcase their ambassadors and sector expertise. Have you discussed internally building out more of that type of content?
Sclanders: Yes, I think we have to walk the talk. We’re not as good as we want to be. We want to get better at it. We certainly want to get better at it on a social media perspective, while respecting the fact that some of these conferences don’t always want to be on social media. Where this is sort of evolving for us, we felt it was important to really celebrate our Champions. We’re not quite as good as some of our colleagues in Australia, with some of the things they do for their ambassador programs, but we are really trying to celebrate the Champions.
So, for example, we have a wall in our convention center where we list the Champions who have hosted conferences there. We also have an annual dinner for them because they love to get together to network. One of the things we do is we ask them all to stand up and talk about the conference that they’re either working on or have hosted. And it’s crazy interesting for us to see how the different industries, the different disciplines, and the different academic sectors are all coming together to bring business to Calgary.
Skift: Do you feel that more meeting planners, and maybe the meetings industry in general, are becoming more interested in learning and embracing how a city’s sector expertise can enhance their programs?
Sclanders: I think that the North American planning community, and PCMA and MPI, with all respect to them, are just trying to get their heads around this now. The European community really understands this, they get this, and the planning community has embraced it. But overall, this is still really early days for the planning community here to understand. You will see in Canada, right from Vancouver through to Montreal, every major city now has an ambassador program. I’m not sure that’s quite the same in the U.S. yet, but as all this continues to evolve, I think you will see more and more planners being engaged.
Skift: The annual theme this year for the IMEX Group is “Legacy.” Are you and your partners having that conversation more with planners about the long-term impacts of conferences for both the visiting and host communities?
Sclanders: Yes, it’s interesting. We’re actually on our second social work conference behind the first one we had, for next year, and everyone involved is very interested in the opportunities to build on the legacy of intellectual capital developed during and after these events. So, it really becomes a case of how do we work together with individual organizations better, so that their legacy and intellectual capital continues to evolve based on the conventions we host.
Again, speaking with our dean of social work at the university, he told me, “I hire professors based on the fact that every two or three years, they will be participating as active participants in an international conference.” So now, when he’s hiring people, he tells them, “We’re going to be hosting international conferences this year, and you’re going to be big part of it.” He’s also doing that to make his faculty at the University of Calgary more appealing for a young professor to come and work, than say, a university in Toronto or Vancouver.
Also, in Canada, we have a really large aboriginal community, our First Nation community, and they have social issues as well. And so, our community associations, like our advocacy center for mental health and abuse, and some of the social centers that are privately run as well, are eager to participate in conferences coming here that are related to their work. There’s not going to be an opportunity for all those practitioners to be able to go to Dublin or Phoenix to attend a similar conference. But they’ll be able to come downtown to attend a conference and build on the intellectual capital developed here.
Everyone is now much more focused on the legacy benefits of conferences in Calgary, and how we can nurture and develop that. These benefits don’t necessarily have a dollar amount that you can immediately attach to them, but they definitely have a significant social impact on your community.
Skift: How else do you define legacy, and encourage your partners to continue thinking about the long-term impacts of conferences in terms of the knowledge share?
Sclanders: This is really an individual situation for each conference, based on the legacy that they want to leave behind. In some cases, the legacy is more of a two-tiered registration structure. For example, developing countries often can’t afford registrations and airfares to attend conferences, so part of the legacy development is on the front-end to encourage developing countries to participate. The event organizers will give some people discounted accessibility and accommodations, for instance. We look for part of our room blocks to be perhaps in dorms at the University of Calgary, so they’re not in a typical hotel, but they’re in an environment that helps them afford to come here.
Some legacy is done in conjunction with the conference, and some legacy work is developed before and after. At the International Winter Roads Conference, for example, which we’re hosting in 2022, they have a snow plow competition for the snow plow operators in each city that attends. World Roads is in Gdansk, Poland this month, so we’re sending one of our snow plow operators to participate in this and learn about new technologies from other cities. I guess it’s like a rodeo of snow plows.
So those are just some ways we can develop more expertise from conferences that will benefit our city. Legacy comes in many different forms. It doesn’t always mean that there’s a plaque or a dollar amount left at the end. Sometimes it’s about how you restructure your conference to allow a broader audience from that discipline to attend. The intellectual capital is really the legacy piece. The learnings that are left in the city are way more impactful than a lot of people appreciate.
The above content was produced by the SkiftX team for the upcoming Skift Cities platform, defining how cities are connecting visitors and locals to co-create the future of urban industry and livability.
Tags: meetings and events, skift cities
Photo credit: The Beakerhead Festival in Calgary celebrates a mashup of science, innovation and creativity.