European connections paying off for Shaw Centre

Percentage of international delegates to downtown convention facility on the rise thanks to aggressive marketing efforts with Ottawa Tourism, CEO says
Nina Kressler
Shaw Centre CEO Nina Kressler says 2017 will be a banner year for the facility.

In the midst of what’s looking like a banner year for Ottawa’s largest downtown convention facility, the Shaw Centre is already stepping up its efforts to ward off a Canada 150 hangover in 2018 and beyond.

The city’s second-largest location for major meetings is hosting a total of 50 conventions this year, up more than 50 per cent from the 33 it welcomed in 2016.

The Shaw Centre typically sees between 500,000 and 600,000 convention delegates pass through its doors each year, and they pump more than $80 million in direct spending into the local economy. Like many tourism-related businesses in the nation’s capital, the facility has received a nice boost from the full slate of activities celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.

“It’s been one event after another,” CEO Nina Kressler told OBJ, noting the Shaw Centre enjoyed its busiest June ever this year when it played host to six conventions. “(Canada) 150 certainly has had a lot to do with it.”

But the influx of visitors hoping to combine industry meetings and presentations with events such as the Kontinuum exhibit and other Canada 150 attractions is only part of the reason for the momentum that’s been building at the Shaw Centre this year, she added.

Ms. Kressler said a growing number of corporate delegations have begun looking to Ottawa when choosing a site for their annual meetings. When Loblaws brought the largest corporate convention in the city’s history to the Shaw Centre in 2015, that sent a message to others in Canada’s business community that Ottawa could deliver as a meeting host, Ms. Kressler said.

“I think that was really the springboard for opening corporate Canada’s eyes that Ottawa really is a destination that can execute well on corporate meetings,” she said.

This summer alone, the facility hosted gatherings for two major companies, Pet Valu and Sun Life Financial, keeping things buzzing during what can often be a slow time of year on the convention circuit.

“Typically, summer is a quiet time for us, so we’ve got a lot of great things happening,” Ms. Kressler said.

The Shaw Centre is also casting its glace farther afield in an effort to attract more foreign delegations. Organizations from outside Canada represent about 20 per cent of this year’s convention total, a ratio the facility is aiming to grow.

The building’s marketing team is specifically targeting three European cities that are home to a host of international organizations – European Union capital Brussels, London and Paris. Officials from the Shaw Centre joined their counterparts from Ottawa Tourism on a sales mission to London and Paris this spring that included meet-and-greet dinners with representatives from a number of major professional groups.

The two Ottawa groups set their sights on organizations that have the capacity to move their events around the world and have board members with a strong local connection.

“There is a great deal of research that (happens) prior to issuing the invites and executing the events because we don’t want to waste anybody’s time or money by doing things that aren’t (feasible),” Ms. Kressler explained.

Four site visits

Those face-to-face meetings prompted four European-based organizations to travel to the capital to check out the Shaw Centre’s operations, Ms. Kressler said. Earlier this month, for example, the facility hosted a delegate from the Paris-based International Urban Development Association, which has put the building on its list of potential convention sites.

“We’re in the people business,” Ms. Kressler said. “Marketing is incredibly important. When you go into these cities and you meet people face to face, I think it changes the whole experience of the relationship.

“They need to come and experience the destination, they need to determine if the Shaw Centre can accommodate the group, the logistics of the hotels. The greatest step is getting them here. Once we have them here, we know the city can sell itself.”

In addition, U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order barring visitors from six Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Somalia – from getting visas to enter the United States has led some overseas delegations to take a closer look at Canada’s capital as an alternative to destinations south of the border, she added.

"(Conference organizers) are reconsidering the U.S. because many of their speakers or delegates are from the (six) countries that the administration has pointed out could have challenges entering the country.”

“We don’t lead with that when we’re in a sales pitch, but it’s the prospective clients who bring it up directly,” said Ms. Kressler, who became chief executive of the six-year-old convention centre in mid-2015. “They’re reconsidering the U.S. because many of their speakers or delegates are from the (six) countries that the administration has pointed out could have challenges entering the country.”

Ottawa is an increasingly cosmopolitan city that still manages to retain a small-town feel, she added – a quality that can work in its favour in the global competition for convention business.

“You bring a major event to Ottawa and you own the city,” Ms. Kressler said. “In comparison to a very, very large city such as Toronto, for example, you might be one of 10 or 20 other conventions in the city that week – whereas here the store owners, the retailers, the restaurateurs, the cab drivers, the airport authority, they recognize it when a major event is in the city and they get to know (delegates) personally. I think that’s a huge selling feature for us.”