Toronto Continues to Attract International Conventions Despite Economic Downturn

The winner of five major conventions in recent months, Tourism Toronto is off to a strong start in 2009, said Tara Gordon, the organization’s vice president of meetings and conventions. Groups including the Lions Clubs International, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and the American Association for Thoracic Surgery have booked meetings scheduled for 2013 and beyond. “We are being cautiously optimistic as far as what is going on the books for future years,” said Gordon, who maintains that the city continues to be a competitive destination, despite challenges in the global meetings market.

“I know there is a lot of talk out there as far as some of the major centres in the U.S. getting hit by cancellations and groups not meeting because of perception. We haven’t been experiencing cancellations to the same degree as that of our neighbour. There have been cancellations, but not at an alarming rate. And I think that’s a message we need to be very clear on getting out there,” Gordon said. “We have a solid base—that was booked between five to seven years ago—of major events coming into the city.”

Still, the value of the Canadian dollar, new passport regulations, and the general state of the U.S. economy are raising concerns among meeting planners holding events in the city this summer. “There are a lot of things at play,” said Dr. Robert Atcher, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, which is slated to hold its 2009 annual meeting at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from June 13 to 17. “At our preview meeting in August, I was having substantial heartburn because the Canadian dollar was almost at par,” Atcher said in an interview.

The society rotates its annual meeting through Toronto every four years, he said, noting the exchange rate has been much more favourable in the past. (The Canadian dollar is currently sitting at 83 cents to the U.S. dollar.) “We were predicting a crash and burn due to the dollar, the new passport regulations, and the economy,” he said. The society's 2005 meeting—held at the convention centre—drew about 4,000 attendees and an additional 2,500 exhibitors. This year, Atcher anticipates the total draw will be closer to 3,500.

“I would have been much happier had the U.S. government decided to start the passport program on July 1 rather than June 1,” he said of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will require all U.S. citizens to have valid travel documents to re-enter the United States by land from Canada. (Valid passports are already required for travel by air.) There are also three key meetings for professionals in the field of nuclear medicine being held in Canada within a four-month span, he said, noting that fact may also impact attendance in June. However, despite his concerns, Atcher said, “It’s way too late [to move the meeting to another city]. We’d be taking a $150,000 to $200,000 hit on the contract if we cancel.”

David Chisholm, director of sales at the convention centre, said although there have been some cancellations, business is “still strong” this year. “I think what we're seeing is that attendance numbers at events are shrinking and it's driving other revenues down, like food and beverage and in some cases parking,” he said. “That's where we're seeing more of a drastic shift.” In addition to conventions, the venue is a popular site for annual galas, trade shows, and corporate meetings—one area that is tracking behind this year, Chisholm said. “We're not seeing any RFPs [from the U.S. corporate market],” he said. “People are making decisions last minute ... but if it's a meeting you need to be at, you're going to go.”

Registration is also “somewhat down” for the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s annual expo, taking place at the convention centre from May 30 to June 4, said Carol Tobin, the association’s director of education and meetings. “We’re still doing all kinds of promotion, and we’ve extended our early-bird deadline,” she said. “Companies have had a rough year this year. A lot of business travel has been cut back, and that includes exhibiting. But we’re going to have a good showing.”

The association, which books its annual meeting seven years in advance, was last in Toronto in 1999. “We had a fantastic response. People were glowing about Toronto, so of course we wanted to come back,” she said, noting the association expects to attract about 6,000 attendees this year. “We really haven’t cut back much of anything as far as the activities for delegates. There’s still a reception and we have a very large education session. We have a very robust program, so there’s good value there,” Tobin said.

According to Renee Aubin, conference director for the Lions Clubs International, value was a key factor in the organization’s recent decision to book its 97th annual convention in Toronto in 2014. “Really I think the decision was based on the city being affordable and attractive. There is a good international airport and a lot of facilities,” she said.

Gordon reported that Tourism Toronto—which has offices in Ottawa, Washington, and Chicago—is continuing to promote the amenities Toronto offers. “We’re out there trying to capture market share from weakened competitors,” she said. “If some of our competition is backing off, if they’re sending fewer exhibiting personnel, if they’re not taking booths in some of the major events, well then as long as we have our visibility, it’s actually a richer base for us. Either you’re sucked into the vortex or else you rise above it and you go out there and capture market share.”

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