How SAAS NORTH made its home in Ottawa

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by ThinkOttawa

SAAS NORTH is the first event of its kind in Canada: an annual conference that brings hundreds of cloud software executives, venture capitalists and tech enthusiasts together to network, strike deals and learn about the latest happenings in the software-as-a-service sector.

And when its organizers went looking for a city to launch the annual event in 2016, the support from Ottawa’s tourism and tech communities quickly tipped the scales in favour of Canada’s capital.

Local meetings and convention experts showed the SAAS NORTH team how they could leverage local attractions, hotels and event space at the Shaw Centre to create a memorable experience for delegates.

Five years later, the results speak for themselves. Attendance has grown year after year, reaching 1,200 guests in 2019, and SAAS NORTH has become one of the leading events in the Canadian tech industry, and is consistently ranked as one of the top five SaaS events globally.

David Tyldesley, the vice-president of Vancouver-based Cube Business Media who co-founded SAAS NORTH with Ottawa tech accelerator L-Spark, attributes the growth to the connections his team has made in Ottawa.

“It was kind of serendipitous for us to connect with a company halfway across the country who was contemplating hosting a similar SaaS event,” he says. “We have seen incredible grassroots support from the Ottawa community, which reconfirms that we made the right choice by partnering up and hosting it in the city.”

Breaking the event mould

From the outset, Tyldesley wanted to establish SAAS NORTH as a top-tier event and reached out to the Shaw Centre and Ottawa Tourism for insights into the local services available for a conference of its magnitude.

Collaborating with Delia Lapensée, a senior account manager at the Shaw Centre, the SAAS NORTH team received marketing material to help excite attendees about visiting Ottawa. 

“We work really closely with Ottawa Tourism, our hotel partners and local off-site attractions to showcase what Ottawa offers as a host city,” says Lapensée, adding that industry officials typically give conference organizers a tour of the surrounding amenities to get a feel for the destination. “From there we look at their guest demographics, what food and drinks they like and how to design the floor plan so it's conducive to networking and mingling.”

Lapensée and her team worked with Tyldesley to bring the SAAS NORTH vision to life, breaking the mould of the traditional conference floor plan. 

Steering away from the classic pipe-and-drape booths synonymous with trade shows, the team focused on ambient lighting, modern music and an intentionally casual layout that allows people to get lost in the content on display, as opposed to weaving in out of rows of booths. Illuminated turn-key exhibits and displays added a subtle glow that added to the ambiance, befitting of the short November days.

As SAAS NORTH continued to outgrow its initial floor plan, Lapensée assisted Tyldesley in adapting the structure of the event to incorporate even more meeting rooms and event spaces.

“We had to do more than just rely on a great view; we wanted to create an experience for our guests,” says Tyldesley. “We managed to leverage the space, but also create an ambience that actually encourages people to hang out with the vendors and other attendees.” 

A virtual backdrop

Hosting the event in Ottawa over the last four years also allowed SAAS NORTH to prominently promote and build its brand, adds Tyldesley, which contributed to the event’s continued growth.

With fewer competing events taking place at the same time, SAAS NORTH is able to take over downtown Ottawa and host all of its delegates in one area as opposed to everyone spreading out at hotels across the city – making for a more cohesive event structure.

“There was a lot of pressure to put this event in Toronto because of its size and market,” he adds. “But we saw an opportunity to stand out in Ottawa’s mid-size market and it has definitely paid off.”

While plans were underway to bring SAAS NORTH back to the Shaw Centre in 2020, COVID-19 abruptly derailed the opportunity for delegates to meet in person. 

With SAAS NORTH pivoting to a digital conference instead, it was just as important to incorporate Ottawa into the event since the city has played such a pivotal role in the event’s success, says Tyldesley. 

The Shaw Centre team worked with SAAS NORTH’s emcee to film an opening welcome sketch from the event space, paying homage to where the event would have taken place had attendees been able to gather. 

“We had so much fun working on that video for the digital conference this year, and it was a really creative way to bring a sense of normalcy to the guests,” says Lapensée. “It was a great reminder that even though we moved to virtual, the Shaw Centre is still the home of SAAS NORTH.”