CEO Clark Grue lauds Calgary’s Convention Centre as a community hub, and is one of the city’s strongest advocates.
“From a social point of view and from a community point of view, it’s very much part of the fabric of Calgary,” he explains – but why Calgary? And more importantly, how has the TELUS Convention Centre, one of the first to be purpose-built in Canada, contributed to the fast-growing city and become a top event location for businesses around the world?
Following a lengthy search for the right candidate, Grue took on the role in 2016. His vast experience in business meant he’d been on “the other side” of event planning. Following stints at Calgary’s British Trade Office and Calgary Economic Development, Grue then allowed his entrepreneurial streak to shine through, starting Rainmaker Global Business Development which “build offices around the world to help businesses move into new markets globally” with locations in Toronto, London and New York. For Grue, the move to the Convention Centre was “a fascinating opportunity to combine my love of our city and love of connecting it to the world through the convention business”.
How has this experience benefitted him since taking over the huge task a year and a half ago? One of his first tastes of large-scale events was when Rainmaker took over London’s Canada Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square in 2009. “We got fully involved in pulling off a huge event for the first five years,” Grue explains, adding that the event then spread to New York and became the largest Canada day event outside Canada.
It was here that Grue learned the events industry is one that involves juggling many tasks, with a high potential for things to go wrong, and that the right people are essential. “There were a number of interesting angles on that event – we had to cope with a number of issues. Security levels have to be right with 100,000 people going through the square in 2013 with bands all day, street hockey, vendors… it was a complex ecosystem,” Grue concludes, but one he came to love and recalls in his dealings with clients at the centre. “As we deal with planners and organisers, who have so many balls in the air, we need to create an amazing experience for their guests and delegates. Our role in doing this is to develop the experience.”
Calgary Convention Centre: building an experience
Planning a convention is a lot more than just offering a roof overhead, and according to Grue this has especially changed within the past few years. “It’s much more than just, ‘rent our space’ – it’s about helping them create cool, safe, engaging spaces. It’s about interaction with technology and people. With smartphones, people are so connected all the time now. How do you create cool spaces where they can be connected, using their devices or not? It’s about how we activate an event, as well as the look and feel of our facility. It used to be just about getting a whole bunch of people in a space, putting a speaker in front of them and everyone took notes and fell asleep. Now it’s about creating vibrant learning opportunities at these conferences.”
The centre’s strategic downtown location is a key aspect of its importance, coupled with its integration into Calgary’s unique network of raised walkways. “It’s strategically placed with close proximity to all the shops and restaurants. In 2000, we expanded the centre with a fresher, more vibrant, light-filled convention facility right across the street, which is now connected with a walkway and tunnel.”
Adapting and updating
Such an historic centre at the heart of the city was quite an undertaking for a new CEO. Grue puts his success down in part to the most old-fashioned piece of the puzzle there is – the people. “I’ve shaken the organisation up a little bit,” he concedes, emphasising his main responsibility is to the volunteer board of directors, as the centre is owned by the city of Calgary. A key change Grue has made has been creating new job titles, including a Vice President of Acceleration “which is really about accelerating the activity in new and creative ways”, as well as a Vice President of Experience – “how we create the experiences and manage them so our clients and delegates love this place”.
Grue came in as the new boss of a 40-year institution. “You’ve got some people who have been here a long time, and then in rolls this cowboy who’s got different ideas and turns a few things on their ear… What’s been great about that sort of disruption at the leadership level is there’s so much strength in the new people that have come in, as well as those who have been around for 25 years.” Hiring and retaining people who understand and support his vision is important to Grue. “Often in hiring it’s gut instinct as to what’s going to fit and make the culture of the organisation work – if you don’t get the culture right, the organisation won’t achieve much.”
Indeed, working with people is also the most enjoyable part of Grue’s role, in particularly witnessing “the loyalty and passion for what they do”, he enthuses. “A convention centre is made up of lots of moving parts, from professionals who run administration, sales teams, events planners, custodial and maintenance staff, engineers...” Grue emphasises the mosaic of perspectives that forms the organisation. “It’s fascinating to see that work so well. I’ve loved that.”
An international host
The centre has hosted some huge international events since Grue’s arrival, and two in particular spring to mind. The Gala Awards for the International Live Events Association (ILEA) moves around the world every year, and 2017 was Calgary’s turn. “It was a time of pride; it was brilliant to see groups from all over the world.” Calgary has also become home to Otafest, a growing anime convention. “It’s a strange collision of young people in costumes and technology – you get to see that generation and how they like to come together. It’s changing so much, so that part is important for us to understand.”
The centre is also excited to host the IEEE Engineering Conference 2018, which hadn’t been intended for Calgary at all. Originally set to be hosted in South Korea, it was moved to Calgary following international tensions. “It was a huge move. I was proud they saw Canada and Calgary as a safe place to bring that conference, and that people would like to come here. They know they’ll have good support and stable services.” This April, around 2,500 engineers will descend upon the city.
Grue describes the 135-year-old city of Calgary as a youthful melting pot, and with the Twitter handle @MrCalgaryCanada (which he claims is an official title), is its biggest advocate. “A lot of people have moved here from Canada and abroad to get ahead, set down roots and become engaged with the community. That makes it a special place. Calgary is a business town, very entrepreneurial. Our location is a real draw for people coming from Europe – they love the idea of coming to Calgary then hitting the Rocky Mountains an hour away. The differentiator with Calgary is the experience you can have – everything’s available from theatre, sports, outdoor activity, a bar scene, shopping… We can create a very special value proposition for conference planners, depending on the experience they want to have.”
Indeed, Amazon considered Calgary for its second headquarters earlier this year and while the city proved unsuccessful, Grue feels it will still be put on the map in a big way. “I’m glad we went after the Amazon project and I think Amazon would have done very well here, but we are still at a growing stage,” he reflects, adding it’s not advisable to try to become the next Toronto or New York. “Calgary is unique. I love all Canadian cities, all have their own special culture and way they do life. Calgary’s place in Canada is being the centre where businesses can start, grow and go international.”
The centre of the city
Not only is Calgary a beneficial location for the centre, but both centre and city enjoy a symbiotic relationship. “The centre doesn’t just get used for international events; it gets used regularly by the local business community and by community groups. Lots of fundraisers, charity events, graduations and weddings happen here – it really is a community hub for Calgary.”
The centre creates three levels of economic impact, according to Grue. From the money being directly spent on and in the centre, to indirect value – “it spills its economic interest onto the street, where people can spill out and go to restaurants and bars” – and not forgetting the induced economic impact that lasts long after chairs have been folded away. “Bringing people together creates economic impact that is of course difficult to track, but people are connecting and creating new ideas and business.”
The centre also enjoys mutually beneficial relationships with hospitality partners it has built up over the years, without which it could not boast such a quality experience for visitors. “We have a long-standing relationship with the Marriott Hotel, which handles our catering. As we know, a big part of going to a conference is food: well prepared, hot and timely. They do a remarkable job alongside us to make all this happen. On the other side of the street we have the Hyatt at our new building, so both are connected to us and have been excellent partners – as have the other local hotels.”
Aside from 2,500 engineers in April, what does the future hold for centre and city? “The meetings and conventions industry is such an economic engine for cities nowadays,” says Grue. “Everywhere in the world there are great facilities engaging with this industry. Calgary needs to continue to grow that. The meetings and conventions industry in the US alone is worth $330bn per year… it’s a large industry that we believe we can lead the way in.”