Expanding the Shaw Conference Centre (again)

The Shaw Conference Centre is once again in the news. City Council’s Executive Committee will receive a report tomorrow that suggests the facility needs to be expanded. That recommendation should not be a surprise. On July 22, 2009, City Council passed this motion:

That Edmonton Economic Development Corporation prepare for Council’s approval a long-term (30 – 40 year) development plan to address the needs of the convention market in Edmonton.

If you ask EEDC what should happen with the convention market, of course they’re going to focus on the facility that they operate.

Shaw Conference Centre

The Edmonton Journal’s editorial board published a piece on the issue today. Here’s the key paragraph, in my opinion:

But there are plenty of reasons for caution. Taxpayers have just spent $150 million to expand Northlands’ rival convention and trade show facility, the new Expo Centre. Is there really an economic case to be made for two competing super-facilities, each publicly funded, run by two competing civic agencies?

Competition is a generally a good thing, but increasingly I find myself wondering why we have both Northlands and EEDC. Two organizations, both largely funded by taxpayers. If they weren’t competing, would things have turned out differently? Would the above recommendation have been different? Would we still have gone ahead with the Edmonton Expo Centre when we did? The success of that facility, which is still being paid off, has been questioned by many. Though as the City’s Chief Economist told me, that skepticism might be a little unfair. “It was developed and then we ran into a sour economy. You need to give them a full business cycle.”

Here’s what the current breakdown of rentable convention space looks like in Edmonton, according to the report:

There’s no denying that the amount of space at the Shaw Conference Centre (SCC) is significantly less than at the Expo Centre. But that alone is not reason enough to expand the facility. Here are the most up-to-date statistics on SCC usage, provided to me by EEDC:

  • In an average year, SCC receives 330,230 visitors (based on the last five years). A visitor is a person who has attended a function at SCC.
  • The split in visitors is roughly 70% regional versus 30% non-regional.
  • There are 20 to 25 days per year where SCC has no or the least number of bookings.
  • Using 2006 as a typical year and defining 75% occupancy as full, SCC was fully booked 115 days out of the year.

Compared to a few other Canadian conference venues, SCC’s visitor stats stack up quite nicely:

I’m not sure exactly which facilities they were comparing with, but clearly SCC is being used. EEDC says that over the last two and half years, it has turned away approximately 40 conventions and trade shows for future years. And apparently none of those have decided to go with the Expo Centre instead, which should have had the necessary space, presumably because they wanted to be downtown.

If we’re going to add more convention space, I think downtown is the place to do it. But I agree with the Journal’s position, “it’s also important that we not simply assume that if we build it, they will come.” So I guess I am left with a few key questions:

  • Why was the Hall D expansion so limited? If we got the forecasting wrong then, are we going to get it right this time? Are we really looking ahead 30 years?
  • Is expanding SCC really the best way to add more convention space downtown?
  • Despite the lip service paid to cooperation in the report, can Northlands and EEDC really work together to grow Edmonton’s convention market?

The next steps outlined in the report include finalizing the business case for the expansion. According to EEDC’s own backgrounder, the earliest an expansion would be completed is at least seven years from now.

Aside #1: Think back to 2004 and consider all of the technology that didn’t exist. Will large conventions as we think of them today still happen in 2018?

Aside #2: The report contains what might just be my least favorite phrase ever: “Festival City in a Box”.

Aside #3: It turns out I have an Edmonton Journal article on my desk from September 12, 1963 (I’ll explain later). Apparently we held just 42 conventions in 1962, far behind Toronto’s 657, Calgary’s 172, or even Regina’s 57. Even Moncton had more conventions than we did at 48. Our conventions in 1962 attracted 17,932 visitors who spent a total of $1,869,000, or $104 per person.

11 thoughts on “Expanding the Shaw Conference Centre (again)

  1. “If we’re going to add more convention space, I think downtown is the place to do it. But I agree with the Journal’s position, “it’s also important that we not simply assume that if we build it, they will come.”

    If only the Journal was as sane and rational about a downtown arena and downtown revitalization.

  2. I’m not sure expanding the Shaw is the best idea. For one thing, is there even room to expand it, without destroying more river valley views? It used to be nice to look out over the river when dining at the Hardware Grill. Now, you are stuck looking at the grey rectangle that is Hall D. I doubt that building farther down the hill is a realistic option, so perhaps building something elsewhere downtown—if the need is real—would be a better option.

  3. I sometimes feel as though the City has no cohesive plan that takes everything into account at one time. Let’s expand Northlands. Let’s wreck the river valley view with Hall D. Let’s build a new downtown arena. Let’s forget about Rexall Place. Let’s expand SCC. It seems as though they jump from one person’s pet project onto the next. Where is the overall plan that shows all these facilities working together to make Edmonton great?

  4. One thing that I don’t think is addressed in these SCC vs EEC discussions is that they’re VERY different facilities catering to very different kinds of events.
    I work at both on a monthly basis doing technical production for various events and you can tell where one will be based on the kind of event it is.

    Professional trade shows and conferences (things like the engineers conference, the insurance industry conference, the IT industry conference, etc) take place at the Shaw because there’s an amazing variety of rooms and spaces there as well as it being a more ‘professional’ space (just think of the difference between the lobbies of Shaw and the hallways of EEC!). It’s also downtown so there’s loads of decent food and hotels within walking distance.

    Consumer trade shows and events (womens show, pet expo, rv show, rodeos, etc) happen at the EEC. It’s a much more utilitarian space (although a few of the spaces there are quite nice now, like the Ballroom). It’s not as flexible (for example halls A-H at EEC can’t be split up, where as A-C at the Shaw can be one big hall or three smaller halls). EEC is also in the middle of nowhere from a dining/hotel perspective, even with the LRT.

    They both serve specific needs, and EEC does it very well and the Shaw is barely big enough to do its job. Often we do events at Shaw that use every single inch of space there (just did a huge Christian conference there that was in A, B, C, D and every small room) but that’s just not enough for some events.

    There’s lots of room to expand the Shaw, either further down (so the road goes ‘through’ the centre) or to the East or West, especially if they put the space ‘in’ the ground like they did with A, B, C and the small rooms.

  5. As a downtown resident and hospitality professional, I have a couple of thoughts:

    1. If the downtown arena and entertainment complex is built, it will almost certainly include event space. If we do end up deciding to go ahead with that, wouldn’t it make more sense to incoporate meeting space into that complex, located on what is currently unused land, rather than clutter up more of our river valley edge with it? I can’t see the justification for building both a new complex on the arena site and significantly expanding the Shaw at around the same time, especially if tax money is being requested for both projects.

    2. In my professional opinion, the main barrier to the Expo centre being filled up 100% year-round is the fact, as mentioned, that there are no hotels or dining options anywhere near it. If we are going to put public money into building anything, it should be a full-service hotel and dining complex on the Northlands grounds, preferably connected to the convention halls. Trust me, people would flock to fill that place up.

  6. Hello Mack,

    On behalf of EEDC, thank you for your interest in the expansion of the Shaw Conference Centre. I would like to address some of the points discussed in your blog.

    Shaw Conference Centre and Northlands

    It’s a common misconception that Shaw and Northlands are in competition with each other. While both organizations are active partners in advancing Edmonton as an event destination of choice, they have different mandates and serve different markets.

    The Shaw is mandated to bring new spending into the community by attracting and hosting business-to-business events such as conventions from outside of Edmonton. It does this by targeting national associations and corporate markets. Northlands is committed to supporting Alberta consumers by hosting consumer shows, sports, cultural and entertainment events. Its primary clients are events capitalizing on large exposition halls, extensive parking and sizable truck marshalling capacity.

    Regarding markets, the Shaw chiefly serves conventions. Convention clients often seek downtown locations with walking access to major hotels and amenities. Conventions require diverse services and programming which are generally more complex than those offered at trade show venues. Northlands specializes in consumer shows and sports, cultural and entertainment events, which normally require large, outdoor spaces to accommodate semi-trailers and parking.

    Overlap and competition for short-term local bookings (weddings, social events, etc) does exist between Edmonton’s three types of meetings venues (Shaw, EXPO and hotels); however, this is beneficial for the development and growth of our local meetings market. It drives unique and higher quality products, distinct value propositions, and competitive pricing.

    Northlands is an important, long-standing partner of ours. We have collaborated on bids to host joint meetings and conferences held in both venues, including the 2010 Canadian Country Music Association awards and the upcoming 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship. Northlands has also been a contributor to EEDC-driven programs such as FRESH, and has been a supporter of important community initiatives such as Homeless Connect Edmonton. Both venues routinely refer clients to one another.

    Hall D

    Hall D has been a tremendous addition to the Shaw’s offerings as a venue. It was built at the largest capacity possible for the foundation of the building. Hall D provides the Shaw with multifunctional space and is one of Edmonton’s most attractive convention spaces with breathtaking views of the river valley. The room with a view leaves an incredible impression of Edmonton on its guests.

    Convention Centre Competition

    In the Western Canadian convention market, the Winnipeg Convention Centre and the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre are the Shaw’s major competitors. After tripling in size prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the Vancouver Convention Centre recently established itself as the only Tier 1 facility in the west. The Calgary TELUS Convention Centre is also exploring an expansion; however it is unlikely current building constraints will allow the facility to increase its contiguous space. Without another viable competitor west of Toronto, there is potential for Edmonton to grow and serve an underserved portion of the market and make Edmonton a premier tier 1 destination.

    Convention Trends

    EEDC has been studying future trends with the assistance of three different consulting firms specializing in North America’s convention industry. Research has found that even in the economic downturn of 2009, attendance at conventions remained relatively stable. Businesses see the value in meeting at conventions in order to stay connected with their respective industries. While teleconferencing is a growing option, there remains the desire for industries of different regions to meet face to face in a physical location. Notable changes include an increase in requests for wireless services at conventions and in the amount of requested space for conventions. Convention clients are requesting extra meeting/breakout space compared to the past, and have an increased desire for exhibition space and displays. Convention clients are renting booths out in a trade-show like fashion for additional revenue opportunities.

    The Future

    If unconstrained by our current facility size it is projected that future Edmonton convention demand could nearly double, both the number of delegates attending events in Edmonton and the economic value they contribute. While the value of the Shaw’s convention business for the economy is tremendous – $200 million over the past five years – the region also benefits when delegates from around the world visit Edmonton and raise its global recognition. The 2009 International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) World Congress demonstrated this with all the positive out of market media coverage it created.

    EEDC will continue to attract visitors to the region through award-winning tools and programs such as FRESH and Edmonton Festival City in the Box. FRESH supports conference and meeting planners in creating unique Edmonton experiences that are environmentally, socially and economically responsible. With FRESH, Edmonton stands out on the convention market by offering a green meetings guide, eco report cards and eco-friendly itineraries. Edmonton Festival City in a Box increases Edmonton’s ability to attract meetings and conventions, while investing in the local arts & culture community by hiring local artists to perform at events. This program provides a menu of suggestions to integrate Edmonton’s vibrant festival theme throughout a convention or conference including keynote addresses, breakout sessions, team building, catering, as well as the popular Edmonton Festival City Road Show. Edmonton Festival City in the Box recognizes that the best way to sell a destination is by having people experience it – the festival entertainment creates that Edmonton experience whether in Edmonton or out-of-market.

    The Shaw is Greater Edmonton’s flagship hospitality venue. It provides high standards of customer service, award-winning culinary excellence and is continuously reducing its environmental footprint The Shaw is no doubt a popular meetings venue option having had to turn away over 40 conventions in the past two years and a half years.

    Ron Gilbertson, President & CEO, Edmonton Economic Development Corporation

  7. The concept of expanding convention space does make some sense – but the Libertarian in me wonders, why is it automatic that tax-payer dollars will pay for it? I think if there’s enough of a need, then private money will fill it – and make their own profit when they do.

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