Often when travelling on business, I set aside at least one night on my own to take in a sporting event, theatre production, or concert after work. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Billy Elliot in London, hockey games at Madison Square Garden, a Rolling Stones concert in Seattle, and dozens of other entertainment-related events all over the world.
Generally I’ll begin my evening with dinner at a local neighbourhood diner, followed by a brief visit to either a museum, attraction, or store before attending the main event…all the while racking up charges on my Visa card.
Many business travellers like me contribute to what’s known as the nighttime economy (NTE)…which for all intents and purposes encompasses social, cultural, and economic activity that happens after dark. Although much of this so-called nighttime economy is fuelled by local residents, a significant portion of after dark spending is generated by leisure visitors or more importantly, road warriors attending conferences, trades shows, or meetings. It goes without saying that the NTE is a vital part of the broader tourism eco-system.
When the business events sector (otherwise known as MC&IT – meetings, conventions & incentive travel) ground to a halt during COVID, so did much of the NTE in British Columbia and across the country. For the better part of two years, producers, tourism and hospitality operators, retailers, and countless others lamented the absence of conference delegates, especially given the amount of money business travellers typically spend in a destination (3-5 times higher spend than an average tourist).
In Canada, MC&IT generates about 40 percent of visitor spending in a normal year. So it stands to reason that many cities and entertainment sectors across the country remain concerned that recovery for business events appears to be lagging compared with other segments of the tourism industry.
The average booking pace nationally for international events scheduled in Canada is at 55 percent of what it should be, while the years 2023 to 2028 show pace to be at just 47 percent. According to several colleagues I spoke with at the TIAC Congress in Ottawa this week, the sector lost considerable momentum due to a number of factors including the length of time it took Canada to scrap ArriveCan and re-open its border.
Thankfully in British Columbia we’re bucking the trend somewhat. Many event planners are extremely busy. Booking pace is ahead of the national average. Places like Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, Kelowna, Nanaimo, and other centres have performed well this year, largely due to domestic business and those international conferences that were rescheduled for 2022 after postponing their meetings during the pandemic.
Yet in spite of our seemingly strong performance, we still need to be mindful that the MC&IT sector is not out of the woods yet and could very well be the last segment of BC’s visitor economy to fully recover. As you can appreciate, there is stiff competition and many American cities got a running start on Canadian destinations to scoop up lucrative international conferences (including US) for the aforementioned years ahead. What’s more, industry experts at the TIAC Congress noted that many meeting planners and delegates still perceive Canada to be difficult to get into, notwithstanding other issues that have recently emerged including the impending recession, supply chain obstacles, and the new CBSA requirements imposed by the CARM program that we referenced in last week’s Voice of Tourism newsletter.
I take some comfort in knowing that BC’s business events sector has the skills, expertise, venues, destinations, and services that clients and delegates from around the world have come to respect and appreciate. That said, several colleagues insist that collectively we need to specifically prioritize MC&IT here and across the country now as part of tourism recovery efforts or we could be reeling down the road. One simple tactic is to dial up messaging that COVID restrictions have been lifted and Canada is open for business, especially considering that many international clients still believe otherwise.
Earlier this year, in response to a Tourism Task Force recommendation, the province provided some $8 million over two years to 11 community destination management organizations (DMO) to be used for convention development and marketing. The funds are helping DMOs secure new business for both the short and long-term and are most certainly keeping many BC convention destinations ahead of the national booking pace.
Along with theatres, concert venues, restaurants, and other sectors that comprise the nighttime economy, hotels, convention centres, attractions, transportation companies, meeting planners, suppliers, retailers, adventure tourism operators, and even rural communities (that welcome post-conference visitors), all depend on a strong and healthy business events industry to generate revenues and keep people employed. As congress delegates heard this week, it’s also key to a full tourism industry recovery in BC and across Canada.
Thankfully business travel is over for me until Q1 next year. And since I didn’t get a chance to support Ottawa’s nighttime economy as much as I would have liked to, I’ll gladly boost Vancouver’s NTE over the Christmas season even if it means getting dragged to the Sound of Music by my wife.