Paul Colston meets Clark Grue, president and CEO of Calgary Telus Convention Centre, a key figure offering direction at Alberta’s Conference Crossroads
Clark Grue is the man in charge of the the first purpose-built convention centre in Canada, the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (CTCC).
No time for resting on laurels, however, and Grue is the first to acknowledge the age of the facility and the need to keep moving forward. “As more cities build newer bigger convention centres, the competition goes up,” he says.
Grue admits the venue may be old but his team, he underlines, is showing the way to a green future, having won the National Air Filtration Association’s Clean Air award.
And, if the outside structure may be old, an invigorating heart beats inside by way of new ‘experience spaces’, created in the Centre. Grue lists a CoLab, Ideation Centre and upgraded boardrooms as areas offering interactive spaces that planners can leverage to make their event special.
Grue sees Canada’s high ICCA ranking (No.9 in the world for association conferences), as an opportunity for Calgary to excel in the business events market.
And while there already may be a ‘stampede’ in North America for the destination based on its leisure appeal, the city is reaching out further afield, evidenced by the recent appointment of an International Business Development Manager for Europe. “Sue Wilkes is in London specifically looking to engage with international planners and expose them to the opportunity Calgary presents,” notes Grue.
Calgary has been a major hosting city ever since its first Olympic experience in 1988, but where does Grue see Calgary and his centre’s USP today in the race to attract international conference gold?
“Our vision is to be THE ultimate host city. We are about delivering a uniquely amazing experience for large groups of visitors that choose Calgary for their business travel, conference or incentive gathering,” he says.
Grue’s vision is being persued by rejuvenating CTCC meetings space while, outside the centre’s walls, playing a role to help connect planners to district partners, including connected hotels, the performing and fine arts community, as well as restaurants and attractions in Calgary’s Convention District: a kind of a one-stop-shop for delegates.
The CTCC joins the city’s efforts to promote strong economic sectors which can also be motors for generating international meetings business.
Grue talks about a Calgary economic legacy that begins with agriculture and finance, and has grown into the energy, logistics, healthcare and technology sectors. “Now boasting the second most corporate headquarters of any city in Canada, Calgary is an entrepreneurial and innovative centre that invites people from all over the world to come and engage in opportunity,” he adds.
Grue’s team is naturally focusing on these economic strengths as it targets group travel to the city.
“Our strong Calgary Champions programme is a powerful tool as we engage our local academic and business community to work with us to bring impactful events to our city,” Grue says. “Without the influence of our Champions and the support of our five leading academic institutions, our success rate would be significantly diminished.”
So, the positive effect of conference ambassadors is clear, but what about any negative political factors south of the border, which have seen Canada benefitting as some organisers switch their conferences from Stateside.
“International events that may struggle to bring international delegates to the US are likely considering Canada as a safe option for their event,” Grue believes.
“We have had re-located events come to Calgary over the past year. The important thing here is to be able to deliver a great experience for the delegates in a shortened time frame. These can be great opportunities to expose planners and delegates to the unique advantages of bringing their events North.”
There is also a new emphasis on Canada as a go-to place for incentives with big demand from China, boosted by 2018 being the declared Canada-China Year of Tourism by government.
Grue’s team has been travelling to China to build the key relationships designed to bring these kind of groups to Calgary.
“NHL hockey team, the Calgary Flames played two games in China in September and we were there to develop the interest in our city with planners,” he says.
“Canada has a diverse offering from skiing in the Rocky Mountains to beach vacations on either of our coasts. And of course great shopping, entertainment, culture and people. It is a prime destination for large incentive groups,” Grue adds.
Of course organisers want to know how the Calgary effect can feed into the bottom line and Grue gives one example of how CTCC and the city worked with organisers to increase the ROI of an international conference hen IEEE (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) brought its Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing convention to Calgary in April 2018.
Over 90% of the IEEE delegation had never been to Canada and Grue says that making them comfortable with the city’s offering prior to the event helped drive one of the most well attended conventions in their history. “Calgary was chosen over other options because of the flexibility of the offerings, the willingness of the city and centre to support last-minute needs. Internationally, many people have heard of Calgary but not visited; the conference gave them a compelling reason to come,” Grue says.
Grue is a great believer in beginning the attendance building initiatives early and his team attended the previous year’s convention edition to offer delegates a taste of Calgary and what they could expect.
Asked about trends in international conferencing, Grue says there is more interest from organisers in his team’s ability to support the experience that they are keen to create. He sees his job as making it easy for organisers to look after logistics and focus on their core purpose.
“As we focus on the European and Chinese markets, we are discovering the changing demands, such as programming support, décor, space utilisation, as well as city pageantry. We want to create an experience that honours varied cultural backgrounds with an infusion of our city’s charm,” Grue notes.
Grue hopes to make the conference process even easier for organisers and says the more ‘turn-key’ services there can be, the more valuable they are to planners. “This is a new paradigm for the industry and will continue to revolutionise the ways large group meetings are held,” he says.
Clark Grue’s career has taken some interesting paths that ultimately have led to the big events business. He has run small businesses, established a foreign office for the British government, worked in Economic Development and consulted Fortune 500 companies.
It may appear he is relatively new to the MICE business, but Grue says he’s always been a ‘meeting’ kind of person: “Since I was in University a hundred years ago, I have been interested in bringing people together and understanding why they convene and how they interact.”
An early involvement in a music career saw him producing concerts and festivals and, more recently, he was part of the company that produced Canada Day on Trafalgar Square in London.
“Bringing 100,000 people together in England to celebrate Canada’s birthday was one of the highlights of my career,” he says, “other than perhaps taking the Calgary Stampede down Wall Street in New York.”
When asked about inspiration, he says he doesn’t think about the ‘talent’ he has worked with like The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Mike Myers, or Hedley. “I think about the people behind the scenes. The great people that make events happen through their dedication to the details. They are the inspiration and they are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning.”