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Out of thin air

How do you drum up business for a convention centre that is going to be a work-in-progress for years to come?

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The sales team at Trade Centre Limited who are booking conventions for the Halifax Convention Centre include Dawn Baldwin (right), director of sales, Scott Ferguson, president and CEO, and Shari Landry (middle), senior sales manager, Canadian Association Market. Photo: Steve Jess

The sales team at Trade Centre Limited who are booking conventions for the Halifax Convention Centre include Dawn Baldwin (right), director of sales, Scott Ferguson, president and CEO, and Shari Landry (middle), senior sales manager, Canadian Association Market. Photo: Steve Jess

Dawn Baldwin is ready for the site tour. The director of sales with Trade Centre Limited (TCL) is meeting with clients who are interested in booking a convention at the new Halifax Convention Centre, which is now under construction.

It’s a nice day, but the construction noise is a distraction. Today’s Washington, D.C.-based clients often cover their ears to block out the sound of the trucks and drilling that have been a daily part of life here for months. That makes it tricky to hear Baldwin explain what the building will look like when it opens (if it’s on schedule) in 2016. But she helps them visualize with a brochure and floor plan of the final design. Baldwin points out where, in this maze of construction, each room—the ballroom, the meeting rooms—will eventually be.

One of the planners asked the inevitable question: Are they on time with the construction schedule? “We’ll have a good nine months of practice before you show up,” Baldwin replies.

But while it takes imagination, Baldwin’s greatest strength is showing these clients what the city has to offer now. During the tour, they circle the construction zone on Argyle, Sackville, Grafton and Prince streets. The clients take photos of items of interest: local pubs, restaurants and shops.

These planners want details. When they ask about late-night ice-cream joints, a detail that was missing at their last conference, Baldwin points out the newly opened Cherry Berry frozen yogurt shop, just steps from the site. The planners also take a photo of a sign that hangs above the door of The Stubborn Goat’s entrance, hoping it will pique the interest of its membership who are based in Washington, D.C. where there’s a similar pub called The Fainting Goat.

This group was in Halifax before, for a meeting they describe as “legendary.” The city remained on its list for future conferences, but it wasn’t until the new Halifax Convention Centre entered the mix that they seriously considered returning. After the visit at the building site, they’ll spend the day pretending they are residents, dining, shopping and drinking their way around the downtown. When event planners book, it’s about the experience. “I love that it’s on the water,” says one of these clients about the city. “I love that it’s like a fishing village, but it’s not. And there’s good scotch here and you can eat lobster until it comes out of your ears.”

As the debate over the development goes on, Baldwin, who handles the international market, and her team members have been busy booking conventions. It’s tough to convince clients to book an event in a building that is unfinished. But so far, they’ve booked 18 with more than 13,000 delegates.

“We have to be creative and come up with other ways to help them imagine what it will be like,” Baldwin says during an interview at a French pâtisserie on Prince Street, across from the construction site where she often takes clients so they can view the construction site through its tall windows. “The building is really important and they want to see the space and the layout, but they are trusting in us in that what we are showing them now is going to be and we will deliver a great event.”

Baldwin’s job starts long before the site tours. She scours the Internet for leads in sectors where Nova Scotia is a leader, such as oceans and brain research. She works with organizations like the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) and Globe Research and Intelligence Network (GRAIN). And she establishes committees of local experts from various industries, people who might be able to reach out to convention planners looking for a city to host their next big event.

The entire process from a lead to closing a deal takes anywhere from three to seven years in the international market. But often, she says while planners require certain specifications in a convention facility, the final decision comes down to the facility and the destination. “I think they like it here,” she says. “I’ve had clients tell us they meet real people here. You guys are authentic…It’s probably somewhere you don’t have the opportunity to go often, but when you do, you will.”

Still, the current facility has its limits, one of the most crucial being ceiling heights in many of the rooms. “You can’t do much with eight-foot ceilings,” Baldwin says. “With all the technology, people want that big-screen technology. We have one room where we can do that and once it’s gone, we’re done. It’s really challenging.” The Halifax Convention Centre will have more spaces that can accommodate much larger screens.

According to TCL, 55 per cent of the current space doesn’t meet industry standards. That, they say, has meant a loss of 120 events and more than 90,000 delegates to the city in the last number of years.

Michael Parsons knows the limits of the current facility. The research scientist spent five years as a volunteer co-chair planning the 10th International Conference on Mercury in Halifax in July 2011. Baldwin was his main contact and with her and the TCL team’s help, they made the space work for their 900 delegates who came from 48 countries. But there were concerns about those low ceilings, the lack of windows and natural light, sightlines and locations for sponsor posters on the congested ground floor.

In 2009, the group had its first visit of the city and toured the current convention centre. “That was the first time we heard people say, ‘It’s not as big as I thought it was,’” Parsons recalls. “By that time, we had thought very carefully about how we were going to organize the space.” The group had to run four parallel sessions, which he admits “wasn’t great.” The scheduled some lunches off-site so session space didn’t have to be reorganized.

“It’s not a very inviting space; it’s like telling everyone to come down to the basement,” Parson says. “We made it work, but if had had the same amount of delegates we had in Madison, Wisconsin, [more than 1,000], we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

But Parsons recalls the excitement about visiting the city. In 2009, he gave a 15-minute presentation at the 9th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Guiyang, China. There he showed the delegates photos of the city and an aerial view of the downtown core, with a scale demonstrating how walkable the city was and how closely connected the facility was with restaurants, pubs and shops. “You could hear the gasps in the crowd,” Parsons says. “People approached us after and said, ‘I can’t wait to come to Halifax. That looks like a spectacular spot.’”

Parsons would like to host the event again in the new space. “I personally can’t wait to see that new space and I really do hope people are willing to step up, get excited about the possibilities and not be afraid to blow Halifax’s horn on the international stage,” he says.

While Baldwin digs up leads and takes clients on site tours, a marketing team at TCL works on the brand for the Halifax Convention Centre. Research started two years ago when Trade Centre Limited started connecting with those event planners, including those who’ve hosted conventions here before and those who wanted to but couldn’t because of the limitations of the current space. Again, these planners want details and so TCL had to find creative ways to provide them while engaging them in the process of building a new site.

With the help of National Public Relations, they created ways for planners to experience the centre long before it opened its doors. They sent out air fresheners designed in the image of the finished facility, with a “new convention centre smell” (the briny tang of the Atlantic). Next, carpet samples were sent out, asking planners to choose one they liked best. Eventually, the planners will even weigh in on the cutlery. And as planners respond to email campaigns with their suggestions, TCL officials build a database of leads.

Baldwin thinks events, and the marketing team thinks details, and it’s Scott Ferguson who thinks bigger picture. The CEO and president of Trade Centre Limited is confident the space will attract 29 conferences and 15,000 delegates during 2014/15 period. The goal for the first three years of the new facility is to host 142 national and international events and 76,000 delegates.

He works with counterparts in cities around the world to share leads and knowledge. For example, TCL has developed a partnership with Abderdeen, Scotland and its convention centre. That city, like Halifax and Nova Scotia, has an industry in offshore oil and gas. Together they agreed to share leads on international conferences that have cycles of 10 to 12 years before they return to the same city. “Our goal would be to establish two or three or four of those relationships around the globe so we’re all working together effectively and not competing,” Ferguson says.

“We’re strong in Nova Scotia in creating expertise and positive innovation and activity,” he says. “What we’re not good at is collaboration. We need a platform not only to celebrate what’s happening in our community but to make those connections and get more out of them.”

Baldwin, meanwhile, continues to sell the Halifax Convention Centre and says she’s ready to move into the new space. While she’s heard the negativity, she thinks the tides are turning and Nova Scotians are starting to see the benefits of a new convention centre for the city and beyond. “It is time for us to grow up and move to the next level,” Baldwin says. This also sends a message to the world we are open for business and we’re willing to invest in infrastructure to make our city better. This centre is opening doors for us that would have been closed before.”

CONVENTION QUESTIONS

Phil Pacey and the Heritage Trust are less optimistic about the business the Halifax Convention Centre will attract. They’ve opposed the development since its earliest days, so much so the organization, its officials and directors now face a lawsuit from developer Joe Ramia and Argyle Developments Inc. Heritage Trust  is concerned about the taxpayer money being used to build the project, the lack of an independent study on the business case, and, of course, the height of the building and how it could block the view from the Citadel Hill.

Despite organizers booking 18 events in the new facility, Pacey says the current space would do just fine. “None of the conventions that were booked or listed, none of them were so large they couldn’t have been booked in the existing convention centre,” he says. “None of them were so large they couldn’t have been accommodated in the local universities.”

Pacey has some experience in planning conventions. The retired chemistry professor served as logistics chair for the Chemical Institute of Canada’s conference that was held in the city in 1990. Some 1,800 people attended that conference and space wasn’t a concern. “I was very well aware of how well Dal could accommodate it, so we did it at Dalhousie,” he recalls.

That conference, Pacey says, now hosts about 800 to 1,000 attendees when in Halifax (a press release from Trade Centre Ltd. dated January 23 of this year says the delegate count for that conference stands at 1,000). “That shows you how the convention business is shrinking over a 20-year period, for one thing, but it also shows you that’s easily could be held at Dal or at the current convention centre.” But conference organizers contacted Halifax Magazine after the print edition of this article was published to say that it hasn’t gotten smaller: the 2006 conference in Halifax hosted 1,800 attendees, while organizers expect at least 2,000 delegates for their conference at the new convention centre in 2016. The organizers also shared delegate numbers for their conference over the past decade: the 2013 edition of the conference in Quebec City had 2,500 attendees, and 2,700 attended the 2014 conference in Vancouver.

Dalhousie does host many conventions. The Cohn alone has a capacity of 1,050 and between May and August, there are more than 150 spaces for groups to host conferences, plus residences for accommodations.

But Trade Centre Ltd. president and CEO Scott Ferguson says Dalhousie doesn’t cut it alone. “It is wrong to suggest that Halifax and Nova Scotia won’t benefit from increased convention hosting capacity,” Ferguson says. “A new facility, with larger, more flexible space will allow us to grow by creating the ability to host multiple events simultaneously and single larger events, which we can’t do today. The new Halifax Convention Centre is critical to our ability to attract national and international events to the province.”

Pacey says it’s not too late to change things at the site. Heritage Trust, he says, has no issue with office or residential space, with appropriate heights, being built where the Halifax Convention Centre construction is now underway. A financial investment could be made in other areas, for example tourism. Quebec City operates a convention business much the size of Halifax. But that city, he points out, draws in five times more tourists because it preserves its heritage, making that industry, not conventions, the better business case. “Heritage sites in Halifax are a big draw here,” he says. “The convention centre is not a draw.”

CORRECTION: After the print edition of this story was published, we learned that Pacey’s assertion that attendance is shrinking for the Chemical Institute of Canada’s conference is inaccurate, because of incorrect information he received in a press release from Trade Centre Ltd. The story above is updated with the correct information.

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