Vancouver Convention Centre use falls short of projections, just like other centres across North America

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      The competition for conference bookings in the Lower Mainland is about to intensify.

      That’s because September 14 will mark the grand opening of the Anvil Centre, a new civic centre bringing up to “18,000 square feet of dedicated function space” to downtown New Westminster, according to its marketing brochure.

      The launch of the city-owned conference space in the Anvil Centre comes at a precarious time for the convention industry.

      According to a new book by University of Texas at San Antonio professor Heywood T. Sanders, centres across North America are not attracting nearly as many visitors as originally forecast when these multimillion-dollar facilities were built.

      The Vancouver Convention Centre is among those feeling the pinch as nonresident-delegate days have fallen sharply over the past two years.

      “There’s been this enormous space boom—from 2000 to 2013, a 37-percent increase in space in the U.S.,” Sanders told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I don’t have the Canadian numbers off the top of my head, but there’s been a parallel increase. There’s a new centre in Niagara Falls. There’s a new centre in Ottawa.”

      In Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities (University of Pennsylvania Press), Sanders documents how this industry is often falsely presented as a pot of gold, justifying massive public investments in new buildings.

      However, these convention centres never attract as many delegates as promised in consultants’ reports.

      He suggests in the book that the major beneficiaries of these massive subsidies are nearby property owners who enjoy a lift in land value, not taxpayers who pay the bills.

      He told the Straight about the Music City Center in Nashville, which cost $623 million. It was supposed to generate 442,000 hotel-room nights on an annual basis but he said it only achieved 272,000.

      Sanders also mentioned that the North American city with the largest convention centre, Chicago, doubled its amount of convention space in the McCormick Place.

      “They are now doing a little better than half the business they did a decade ago,” he noted.

      It’s a similar story in Las Vegas, another premier convention market. Its convention centre doubled in size in 2002, yet according to Sanders, it generated less of this business last year than it did in 1997.

      In another example, he cited a consultant’s report claiming that a convention centre in Boston would generate 794,000 hotel-room nights by 2012. According to Sanders, there were only about 320,000 that year.

      “Last year, they did 249,631,” he said. “What happens? The Massachusetts state legislature just approved a billion-dollar expansion with yet another consultant’s study.”

      The consequences of this glut of convention space are visible in the Vancouver statistics.

      In 2011, the Crown corporation that operates the Vancouver Convention Centre, Pavco, forecast 403,000 nonresident delegates in 2012–13. The actual figure was 347,000.

      The forecast for the fiscal year ending on March 31, 2014, was 313,000. According to Tourism B.C. statistics, there were only 289,298 nonresident-delegate days over the last four quarters ending in December. “They have dropped back below [where] they were in ’98 and ’99,” Sanders said.

      The Anvil Centre is the newest entrant in the competition to attract convention delegates.
      Charlie Smith

      Under normal circumstances, voters must approve large capital expenditures for civic-government-owned facilities in a referendum.

      In Convention Center Follies Sanders explains how these facilities’ proponents figured out how to avoid doing this by financing them through hotel taxes and federal and state contributions.

      A similar model was employed in Vancouver, where the new convention centre was initially estimated to cost $495 million by the Gordon Campbell government.

      The final total was $883.2 million when it opened in 2009. Of that, $540.7 million came from the provincial government, $222.5 million from the federal government, $90 million from Tourism Vancouver through hotel taxes, and $30 million via “generated revenue”.

      The City of Vancouver granted the facility a property-tax exemption in lieu of making financial contributions, boosting the public subsidy even higher. Because it’s a provincial building, there was no need for a public vote in advance.

      Sanders pointed out that the original KPMG business plan [click downloads tab above] for the new Vancouver Convention Centre forecast an 89-percent increase in annual delegate days, from 395,000 to 747,000.

      Nonresident-delegate days, as reported above, have fallen far short of that figure.

      Beneath Sanders’s upbeat demeanour lies considerable exasperation over what he sees as a waste of public funds in cities across North America.

      “I get seriously angry about the way in which the public is manipulated and misled,” he admitted.



      Xander Davis

      Aug 27, 2014 at 2:57pm

      But it's Gordon Campbell's folly, so "that's alright."


      Aug 27, 2014 at 6:13pm

      The real reason Vancouver doesn't attract so many convention delegates is the cost of just being in Vancouver. Hotels cost more, food costs more, transportation costs more. Those things might not matter to a tourism visitor, but they matter greatly to someone planning a convention. The first thing convention planners consider is how to have the best convention at the lowest costs. With the deck already loaded against it, it's easy to see why convention planners would go almost anywhere besides Vancouver. The convention center itself is beautiful and indeed a world class facility, but the bottom line is what really matters to convention planners and delegates. The biggest problem the Vancouver Convention Center faces is Vancouver itself.

      Not bad

      Aug 28, 2014 at 3:18am

      According to the stats we are doing significantly better than other major cities. It would have been nice if the reporter touched on some of the reasons for the decline. It was a very lucrative business at one point, not that long ago, so what went wrong? Obviously the recession was part of the reason, as indicated by the poorer performance of US cities. But what other factors are at play?


      Aug 28, 2014 at 6:22am

      And some of you wankers complain that we can't afford $300 million for a new art museum.


      Aug 28, 2014 at 8:40am

      It's typical of the Straight and Charlie Smith to be against anything and everything... especially with anything that has the Liberal stamp of approval on it.


      Aug 29, 2014 at 11:03am

      Cities tend to be judged on their downtowns, and this city is not going to be contracting in population or visitor traffic, so having a convention centre that is underused for some years before it does in fact get used up to prediction is not terrible to me.

      As for Vancouver food being expensive... Vancouver food is awesome... people should come here to eat not just to ogle the Asian girls and complain about the douchebaggery.

      I would agree that it is probably not a good idea to build mega projects based on inaccurate planning of course!

      get it straight

      Aug 29, 2014 at 11:20am

      y'all dont know what you're talking about. Conventions are typically booked 5 years out. 2013/2014 is down as a direct result of the 2008 financial meltdown. Re-write the article next year.. as 2015 will be the biggest convention attendance year that Vancouver has ever seen.. exactly 5 years post 2010 when the new convention centre was actually open for busienss.


      Aug 30, 2014 at 8:29pm

      vancouver is a pathetic backwater with no industry, no big companies and no attractions..

      vancouvers is dead, no big city amenities... wayy to expensive... no reason for anybody to go there

      And they call it: (punchline) CAPITALISM!

      Aug 31, 2014 at 11:01am

      Think of the billions of dollars of public monies dumped in the lap of the luxurious resort community of Vancouver: Convention Centre, BC Place upgrades, the Winter Olympics, Canada Line, Sea to Sky highway (a publicly funded subsidy to the real estate industry).

      Let's face it there is no private sector in Vancouver, there is only the wealthy capitalizing off gigantic taxpayer subsidies.

      Bruce Biles

      Sep 1, 2014 at 11:34am

      A very good, interesting article. I like that the author did not express outrage at the Vancouver convention centre cost over-runs or the extraordinarily poor projections - the numbers do enough to create disgust in the mind of the reader. Tax-payer night-mares of Fast ferries and BC Place roof come to mind. The common theme here is government who get to play developer with tax-payers $$ in a consequence free environment. The only solution seems to be some form of legislation introduced that will prevent this type of waste from happening again - that would (finally) be a proposal worthwhile hearing about from our money wasting politicians.