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.
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.