$500-million BMO Centre is not going to turn Calgary into a top-tier convention city

Richard White says a study should have been done to determine Calgary’s potential as a major convention, trade show and event centre and how best to utilize existing and expanded facilities before megabucks were given for expansion of the BMO Centre.

'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'

A rendering shows the proposed expansion to the BMO Centre in Calgary. (Calgary Stampede)

Is there a need for the downtown Calgary Telus Convention Centre and the expanded BMO Centre and new arena (a.k.a. event centre) at Stampede Park?

That is the question I have been asking ever since the Calgary Stampede and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced their ambitious plans in April 2018 for a mega makeover of the Stampede grounds and Victoria Park into a culture and event district.

Why is it only now some city councillors are asking this question?

It would have been prudent to have addressed this issue before the city approved the $500-million expansion of the BMO Centre (province and federal governments are contributing $166.6M each). Not after!

Calgary's former chief planner, in a recent Globe & Mail column (July 11, 2019), thinks convention centres are money pits and North America is saturated with them.

Rollin Stanley equates the proposed expansion of the BMO Centre to "another suburban big box in a world of changing trends and demand."

An independent needs assessment study should have been conducted to determine Calgary's potential as a major convention, trade show and event centre and how best to utilize existing and expanded facilities before megabucks were given for the expansion of the BMO Centre.

Unfortunately, the 2018 Ernst & Young report "Economic Impact Assessment of the Rivers District Revitalization In Calgary" did not address what impact new event facilities at Stampede Park will have on the existing Calgary Telus Convention Centre.

Would they make it redundant?

Clark Grue, the CEO and president of the Telus Convention Centre, thinks Calgary could become the second busiest convention city in Canada by 2028 (Calgary Herald, June 8, 2019).

While I applaud him for having an ambitious vision, I think all visions must be linked to reality.

Sure, we will get the odd World Petroleum Show and Rotarian Convention, but to be a Tier 1 city (like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) you need to attract major events every year. This is only going to happen if all of the key stakeholders work together.

And maybe not even then.

The 2018 Ernst & Young report did not address what impact new event facilities at Stampede Park would have on the existing Calgary Telus Convention Centre. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Grue and city staff want to create a "Downtown Convention District" as part of a new downtown plan. I can't think of a more boring name.

Grue's idea is to bundle the Calgary Telus Convention Centre, Arts Commons and Glenbow, as well as the Palliser, Marriot and Hyatt hotels, to market their collective 300,000 square feet of meeting space in a co-ordinated manner.

Yes, this is a good idea, but they should have been doing this for the past 20 years.

Ironically, a similar initiative took place in the late 1990s, also as part of a new downtown plan. It was called the "Olympic Plaza Arts District" and it included the same players.

The idea was to co-ordinate the marketing of all the events and festivals taking place around Olympic Plaza, including conventions. While it is easy to say "we will work together," it is much harder to do.

There was some joint marketing in the late '90s, but it quickly fell apart.

In reality, Calgary will struggle to become a major convention city like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

In the early '90s the Calgary Downtown Association and others commissioned Chicago's Stein & Co. consultants to conduct an independent study of the future of Calgary as a convention and trade show centre.

Their analysis showed Calgary has the potential to be a mid-size convention (2,000 delegates) city given its limited appeal to convention and trade show planners.

Their rationale was:

1) Calgary is a winter city, which is not attractive during the prime convention season from October to April.

2) Calgary has limited direct flights to major North American cities and they are longer flights.

3) Many Canadian conventions have a set rotation, that is, one year in the East, next Central Canada, then the Prairies, then the West Coast. Calgary, unlike Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, has to split its Canadian conventions with Edmonton and Winnipeg.

The Stein & Co. report also addressed the question, "do we need both a downtown convention centre and Stampede trade show facilities?"

A conceptual image shows a proposed redevelopment for the Victoria Park neighbourhood that would see the addition of an opera house, a new arena, hotels and a potential new CTrain station. (CMLC)

The study concluded convention centres need to be downtown, where there are hotels, restaurants, shops and other attractions, as conventions attract mostly out-of-town visitors who want to experience the local culture.

Trade shows (things like car shows, home and garden shows, bridal shows, etc.) attract mostly locals who come for the day and don't need hotels and other amenities.

As a result, both the Convention Centre and the then-Roundup Centre were expanded 20 years ago.

As part of the agreement to expand both facilities, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Calgary's Visitor and Convention Bureau (now Tourism Calgary), Convention Centre, Calgary Economic Development and Stampede Board to work together in promoting Calgary as a convention and trade show destination.

Again, while there was some co-ordination, after a few years it dissipated.

In 2009, the Convention Centre board announced plans for a $300-million makeover. Around the same time, the Calgary Stampede announced plans to expand the BMO Centre as part of its Stampede Trail concept. The battle to see who would get the city's support has been on and off for the past 10 years.

The Calgary Stampede, in partnership with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), has now won the support of city council and is busy developing what they call Calgary's Cultural & Entertainment District.

This is confusing. While the Stampede is part of Calgary's culture, when visitors think of culture, it is usually in terms of theatre, galleries, museums, concert halls and historic districts. That is not Stampede Park — not yet, anyway!

In planning terms, the Stampede Park is a SHED — sports, hospitality, entertainment district — as it is home to hockey and lacrosse games, as well as entertainment events like ice shows, circus performances, concerts and festivals (Calgary Expo), as well as major trade shows.

To be an attractive convention site, Stampede Park needs a couple of major hotels and a main street like Stephen Avenue.

The Stampede has been trying to attract a hotel and create a high street for almost 20 years — unfortunately without success. Let's hope CMLC can do the same magic with Stampede Park as it has with East Village.

Ironically, the area around the Calgary Telus Convention Centre is our cultural and entertainment district. It has several theatres, a major concert hall, a major museum/art gallery, Stephen Avenue restaurants, The Bay, Holt Renfrew and The Core for shoppers, as well as all the festivals at Olympic Plaza.

It is the ideal place for conventions to take place and showcase Calgary's unique culture and history.

To be an attractive convention site, Stampede Park needs a couple of major hotels and a main street like Stephen Avenue. (Dave Dormer/CBC)

So how do we get out of this mess?

One way to avoid competition between the convention centre and the BMO Centre is to combine them under one governance structure, with one board, one CEO, and one marketing and sales group. Without a merger or takeover, the competition to fill their facilities will be destructive, costly and embarrassing.

Another possibility would be to find another use for the convention centre. Could it perhaps become home to an expanded Glenbow Museum, which opened in 1976 and is overdue for a mega makeover and expansion?

What if the Calgary Telus Convention Centre was managed and operated by the Calgary Stampede? Would this be an attractive business model to the Stampede? Has anybody asked?

By getting out of the convention businesses, the City of Calgary would save money (it provides a $1.8-million annual grant to the convention centre; the Stampede receives no annual grant from the city) and remove a layer of duplication.

If Calgary is going to compete with Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver for major conventions, trade shows and events, we can't be developing two visions, two brands and two marketing plans.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When it comes to managing and marketing Calgary as a major events centre, we have been doing the same thing for the past 20 years.


Richard White

Author Everyday Tourist blog

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.


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