3 Questions to Claire Smith of Vancouver Convention Centre

On the occasion of the Sustainable Brands conference which took place in Vancouver last June, Boardroom sat with Claire Smith, Vice-President, Sales & Marketing at Vancouver Convention Centre. Chair of PCMA, Claire shared a lot of interesting insights on the way she has been working with associations.

Has the way you work with associations changed over the years?

It’s definitely changed since the world of associations has changed. As a venue, we work hand in hand with Tourism Vancouver in a very close partnership. They are the conduit to the broader Vancouver community, and, as far as we’re concerned, we’re looking at what happens within the walls of the convention centre. Together, we help an organization create a successful event in our city.

When we opened the West Building of the Convention Centre ten years ago we were stunned at the natural beauty you could experience from it.  From a sales and marketing perspective we were talking a lot about destination appeal and beauty, but my feeling was that ‘what should somebody care? What does that mean for the events that meet here?’. I felt we had to put our attention into what do those attributes mean for success. We started to look at outcomes and how  success is measured. If it is attendance, how can  we  help boost and build attendance, especially from Asia? We took our assets and tried to create relevance in those assets, thinking about how these could benefit associations.

Now we have really shifted to focus on the business relevance of a destination decision. To me, a conference is a business and it has to make business sense for it to be organized in a city. Every organization has different business metrics, and one of them could be growing that field of study in that part of the world: there could be a link to some research centre for instance, but at the same time every association is so specific that, in the end, what it is important is to know what success looks like to them, and how Vancouver can support and drive that success.

How do you identify those conferences that could be the most successful, should they be organized in Vancouver?

There are some that are natural alignment. If we take Sustainable Brands for example, that is a very clear, philosophical alignment as Vancouver is a sustainable pioneer.  There are ones where maybe there is a strong industry sector here and they are a catalyst and want to help. But there are also ones that may not feel naturally like a fit, and that’s where we have to have a different conversation (with a lot of questions and a lot of listening!) and dig deep to understand what success means to an organization and take the first step of collaboration.

An example that comes to my mind is a recent American meeting on neurology we hosted: Vancouver might not be an obvious leading city in that field but we had a strong and passionate school of medicine who   wanted to promote the importance of brain health. That Society worked with our university and local community organizations and hosted  a community outreach programme to help raise the profile of brain health to Vancouver.

In a way, the fact that Vancouver is not the centre of one thing and that we actually have many faces is an asset. Our first priorities are the ones that make natural sense, like any conference related to marine, port and trade for instance, but then we have to take a few steps further and ignite the business relevance of a conference that is not particularly obvious for Vancouver… when it makes sense of course.

How do you think that will evolve in the years to come?

As an industry, we are shifting and mirroring the shifts society is going through. Associations have to work very hard at showing their value. The exciting piece of it that their events have become an even more important platform for them and it is often their main source of revenue and their #1 activation of their mission. Associations are constantly evaluating how to stay relevant in a cluttered marketplace.

What we’re also seeing is blurred geographic boundaries: we see societies that might have been regional in scope that start poking outside their region; we see congresses that used to take place every three or four years take place every year or two years; we see subspecialty organizations being born… In this context, we need to be closely aligned and be able to help as they change, test and try. We have to be able to come up with solutions as how to be a better partner as a destination.

This interview was conducted by Boardroom Chief Editor Rémi Dévé in June 2018 (editor@boardroom.global)

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