James Lancaster talks face-to-face, tax-payer dollar, and economic development with Clark Grue, CEO at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre….JL We’ve just met in a bar. Describe your job and what gets you out of bed in the morning.
GC I love working with people. The more diverse and interesting the better. In my job, I get to meet so many great people who are passionate about something. Their profession, their hobby, their community, religion or ethnicity. Running a Convention Centre allows me to interact with so many different people every day. I can’t say that it is always inspiring but, most days it is!
JL With social media there has, arguably, never been less imperative to meet face to face, yet, worldwide, new convention centres are signed off every week. What’s going on?
GC I disagree. As much as social media connects us and develops community, it is a hollow human interaction. We can certainly exchange information and data over social media or the internet but we don’t truly connect with someone until we have met in person, had a drink or a meal together and created a connection. It is the human interaction that builds trust between people and therefore inspires delegates to engage with each other over the long-term. Cities that understand how important it is to create experiences that not only bring people together but create unique interactions that cement relationships are getting it right. If they interpret this as a need for a new convention centre, they are getting in right, IMO. If it is just about a new shiny building, cities are taking a huge risk.
JL They can cost the taxpayer millions of dollars to build and maintain - and yet, in my experience, centres often don’t feel very ‘connected’ to the cities they represent. Why is that?
GC It is a strange juxtaposition. Convention centres are usually established and mandated to connect with their community and invite the world to their city. At the same time, they are expected to be self-sustaining. This creates a challenge for Management to try to stay connected to their community all the while being a profitable entity. They float between the community demands of a Not for Profit organization and the fiscal responsibility of a for profit corporation. I believe this creates a challenge at best and conflict at worst for convention centre management. Our community engagement helps us to balance this important dichotomy.
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Calgary Telus Convention Centre[/caption]
JLMore destinations are setting up public awareness programmes when, say, a large medical conference is in town. This would seem a good way to bring centres closer to the people?
GC Absolutely. Our Calgary Champion Program has been critical to our success in attracting conventions and connecting delegates to opportunities in our city. Our Champions not only help us elevate Calgary in the minds of the Convention Planners, they connect the incoming delegates to the right business, academic and thought leaders in our city. This grows our connection with our community and builds long lasting value into the delegate experience.
JL Should cities – or indeed centres - care what type of events they host?
GC Yes. The events that convention centres host become part of the brand experience of the centre and the city fabric. So, it is important to care about the events we host. At the CTCC, we support many diverse cultural, religious and interest groups as the gather to celebrate, learn and grow. This allow us to be catalysts for thought leadership and a progressive society.
JL What do you think the role of a convention centre should be in terms of city development?
GC This is a great question for every city to ask themselves. I believe it is different for every city. It depends on the makeup of your business, academic, medical and professional community. As well as the culture of your community. Do they embrace hosting visitors? Are they annoyed by them? Getting the balance right is strategic and critical. In Calgary, I believe our TELUS Convention Centre should activate our downtown core by being an active hub of connectivity and interaction. The exchange of ideas, opportunities and experiences not only creates opportunities for our city to develop around us, it becomes more interesting to our convention delegates when they visit Calgary. Then we are achieving this goal of being a connection hub, the city can develop around us to facilitate the activity of the centre. If convention centres are publicly owned, by nature they need to contribute the good of the community. For instance, we support events that are benevolent however we can while staying within our parameters of being fiscally responsible. I think our role is to play this supportive role for the community. We have many remarkable organizations in our city that lead the way in supporting the social infrastructure of our city and country. They are the experts. We fuel their success by working closely with them. So, yes; we should perform a wide benevolent role in our society. Through the experts who do it well.
JL You have always played an active role in the wider meetings industry. What frustrations do you have with the industry right now – and, conversely, what are you most happy about?
GC The invisible nature of our industry. Too often we are tucked into the Tourism Industry as a sub-set of the larger visitor industry. It is not that we aren’t proud to be in the most exciting industry on the planet, but this perspective relegates us to a less relevant player than we rightfully are. I am excited to see the evolution of groups like Meeting Mean Business in the US and Canada which are elevating the importance of our industry as an economic engine for not only tourism but for business investment attraction, trade development and academic advances. It is this intellectual capital transference that truly impacts the cities we represent. Conventions drive economic development and tourism. Not the other way around.
AMI editor James
Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international
association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation
for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk,
read, listen to music, and drink beer.