In preparation for the sporting spectacular, the West Coast city boasts new and upgraded hotels and an expanded airport and convention centre. By Chris McBeath, November/December 2008
In October, when tickets went on sale, Vancouver-Whistler’s countdown to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games kicked into high gear. The excitement is palpable.
Many event venues, such as the Pacific Coliseum, are already open for business, while others, like the long-awaited convention centre, will be market-ready this spring.
“Market ready” has been the rallying cry of most Vancouver properties that have undergone a flurry of upgrades, expansions and renovations in order to capitalize on the global attention to come. Add to this upgraded transit systems and a number of new hotels about to open their doors, and you have a city that looks, feels and is very different than just a few years ago.
Vancouver’s new energy starts the moment you arrive at the airport. The expanded international terminal is the cornerstone of the Airport Authority’s $1-billion construction programme, and its two large aquariums are a showcase of B.C.’s indigenous sea life. From here, the city’s new rapid-transit system, Canada Line, will soon be fully operational, connecting passengers to the downtown core in only 26 minutes. On the return trip, visitors will be able to get their boarding pass downtown, then travel the Canada Line train to the airport, worry free (tourismvancouver.com).
The 338,000-sq.-ft. expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre (vcec.ca) more than triples the existing 133,000 sq. ft. of space ‘beneath the sails’ to a combined 471,000 sq. ft. of flexible and functional space. During the Olympics, it will serve as the main press and broadcast centre to an estimated 10,000 international media.
Constructed to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Gold standards, the expansion will open as one of the most eco-aware centres built to-date, with a target to operate with zero waste and be carbon-neutral by 2010. Green innovations include design elements such as sustainable B.C. forest products, seawater heating and cooling systems, on-site water treatment, a built-in fish habitat and Canada’s largest living roof, featuring 400,000 indigenous plants and grasses, complete with a rainwater irrigation system. Moreover, the two ‘scratch’ kitchens – the largest purpose-built banquet kitchens in Canada – will source fresh, local and organic foods. The expansion includes a grand ballroom, with spectacular ocean and mountain views and a 55-ft. ceiling, which will accommodate more than 3,000 guests for dinner, and exhibition halls seating more than 12,000.
Fancy new facilities aside, Vancouver does not rest on its laurels when it comes to the kudos it’s earned, whether as Canada’s Best Walking City or placing number one in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Ranking. Perhaps more importantly to planners, The International Congress & Convention Association rates the city North America’s top destination for international meetings, while the convention centre itself has received accolades from the International Association of Congress Centres as the World’s Best Convention Centre in both 2002 and 2008, the only centre worldwide to receive this award twice. Consequently, it would appear that despite current economies, Vancouver still offers a solid, value-driven destination choice. Indeed, 2011 is already shaping up to be the busiest year in the city’s convention history.
“The economic climate has an immediate impact on the entire meetings industry,” observes Carol MacKenzie, director, Sales Advance Group Conference Management. “Budget concerns tend to diminish corporate sponsorships and their support to an association conference; of particular concern to associations is the reduced number of attendee registrations. Whether for PD conferences, trade shows or qualifying for an incentive travel group, it’s become more important than ever to demonstrate the value of a destination.”
For John Butcher, International Association of Facilitators, Vancouver was chosen for the group’s 2009 venue because value is packaged in a combination of outstanding qualities. “Our members see Vancouver as one of the most attractive destinations to visit in the world, and certainly the most appealing in North America. When you combine the city’s aesthetic qualities with its ease of access – our delegates will be coming from across the United States and Canada, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand – alongside the high quality of both facilities and service standards, it’s an unbeatable combination.”
In spite of such an endorsement, MacKenzie is quick to add, “The art of securing conference business right now is being able to source out those industries that operate outside of economic swings – agriculture, technology, environmental concerns and pharmaceuticals.”
Emily Edwards, president and owner of Destination Planners, agrees. “We have weathered 9/11, SARS and avian flu, so Canada is practiced in making quick shifts to changing patterns. Right now, the corporate market is following a holding pattern (both economically and politically), which means shorter-than-usual lead times when the business does come through. Meanwhile, incentive travel tends to be up during challenging economic situations or recessions, though there is a shift in how that market is landing. For example, a U.S. client who might have been considering Europe may shift and come to Canada due to perceptions. We’re still considered international, but are more value-oriented, especially with the exchange rate at this time, which is attractive to all international clients.”
For Heather MacKenzie, meeting planner with Autodesk, in San Francisco, Vancouver’s great attributes include its beauty, first-rate venues, excellent access from the airport and easy-to-get-around downtown core. “Our annual new-product road show uses multiple venues throughout the U.S. and Canada, and Vancouver is consistently above-standard in services. I can tell you, consistency isn’t a standard everywhere, but it sure is in Vancouver – and that’s across-the-board, from the convention centre and hotels to the restaurants.”
Another draw is Vancouver’s appeal to an increasingly youthful corporate and incentive sector. The Winter Olympics has added a must-see dimension to its experiential arsenal, and because outdoor activities are so accessible, they’re easy to build into an eco-aware programme. Giving back to the community is another fast-evolving trend, whether it’s a team-building exercise of painting playground murals or building children’s bicycles and donating them to charity. Either way, Vancouver has many philanthropic organizations, so tie-ins are easy to arrange.
Until next summer, however, downtown Vancouver will resemble a construction zone. Tunnels for the new transit system are forever disrupting traffic, and along the shores of False Creek, work is in overdrive on the Olympic Village in anticipation of housing 2,800 athletes and officials.
While the Olympic mountain runs at Cypress and Whistler are already welcoming athletes training for gold, other new and Olympic-driven venues include 5,700-capacity Hillcrest/Nat Bailey Stadium Park, 7,000-seat UBC Winter Sports Centre and The Richmond Oval, geared to hold 7,600 spectators. All complement existing high-capacity venues – favourites like the Rocky Mountaineer Station, Science World, the U.B.C. Museum of Anthropology (currently expanding its event facilities by 50 per cent) and the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as auditorium-style spaces such as the dome-covered, 50,000-seat B.C. Place Stadium (host of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies), General Motors Place (to be renamed Canada Hockey Place during the 2010 festivities) and a revamped Pacific Coliseum (vancouver2010.com).
In terms of hotel facilities, planners will be hard-pressed to resist some of the new facilities coming onto the scene.
First off is the Holiday Inn goliath. Vancouver Downtown is the first Holiday Inn property in Canada, and among the first in the world, to launch the company’s $1-billion brand makeover. Upgrades include refreshed guestrooms, new bedding and enhanced bathroom features.
The Hyatt Regency has completed a six-year, $40-million renovation encompassing all 644 guestrooms and 45,000 sq. ft. of public space. The Four Seasons, too, is finishing up a $5.3-million overhaul of the main level, including a new, open-kitchen restaurant, complete with a backdrop wall consisting of a photograph of native foliage.
The opening of Shangri-La Vancouver, the hotel chain’s first North American property, kicks off 2009 with lavish style. Selecting Vancouver as a flagship location is part of an aggressive plan to expand the Shangri-La name worldwide. At 61 stories, the Shangri-La Vancouver will be the city’s tallest landmark, offering state-of-the-art executive meeting facilities, spacious guestrooms, a luxurious CHI spa (debuting with the Vancouver opening) and cutting-edge architectural design.
Since creating such a property on equally impressive real estate is pricy, developers often offset costs with fractional residences, retail and marinas. This has been the solution in developing the Shangri-La and other upcoming grand-scale properties. The new 70-room The Loden (a Kor boutique hotel) and the new 60-room L’Hermitage each has a residential component, as do The Fairmont Pacific Rim and Coast Coal Harbour. Both open later this year. Located near the convention centre, each will offer diverse event space. For example, Coast Coal Harbour will have a 5,000-sq.-ft. ballroom with 20-ft.-high, north-facing windows. And when Olympic fever fades? Watch for the Ritz-Carlton (landing here in 2011 as a 58-storey hotel-condo) and a reconstructed, redesigned and expanded 230-room Hotel Georgia.
With such a metamorphosis, it seems appropriate to paraphrase from a Tale of Two Cities. Financial markets may liken themselves to the worst of times, but tough economies notwithstanding, these too shall pass. For many purchasers, these can be the best of times and in Vancouver, they are part of a destination renaissance.
– Chris McBeath is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.