Toronto: the place to be in 2017

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Toronto: the place to be in 2017

CMW takes a breakout with Mark Crawford, director, international business development at Tourism Toronto:

Mark Crawford would appear to have the ideal job: he says he always wanted a career in sales and is intensely proud.

“I started working right out of school for a big tourism company, and slowly worked my way up.”

Along the way he worked on development in Eastern Europe and Southern Asia before the opportunity to join Tourism Toronto came along and he started doing international marketing and sales for the leisure trade and travel trade side.

In that role he was able to bring in his knowledge of the city and to mentor some of the suppliers.

A few years later and he moved over to the Business Events side.

“We’d never pro-actively gone after the corporate side for business events before and I got the chance to develop this.

It was, of course, a different marketplace, but a very interesting challenge.”

Things have grown to the extent that, today, Tourism Toronto has representatives in five countries and people actively selling corporate international for the city. Not many cities in North America have that dedicated resource.

The agency has representatives in China, India, Mexico, Europe and UK.

There have been both frustrations and excitement since he walked in the door in 2008, Crawford admits.

“Toronto is a city that people around the world are aware of, yet not many understand how it relates to this industry.”

It is all about telling the city’s story face-to-face, Crawford believes and says a typical reaction is that people will say they just didn’t know what to expect from the city. “That’s exciting, an opportunity and he says awareness has grown exponentially,” he says.

As to the kind of challenges and misconceptions he is typically faced with from the global market, Crawford stresses that each market has its own challenges and hurdles.

“In China and India, it is distance, cost and visa restrictions in the front of people’s minds,” he notes.

“But we’ve been able to engage our government on the immigration side and it really understands our business.

I used to dread the question of visas, now I look forward to it” he adds.

And the evidence is there to back up Crawford’s words: Toronto hosted Amway India in 2014, when 4,500 delegates and visitors all got their visas.

Crawford adds that another big success was the Perfect China incentive in May, when 4,500 received their visas.

The New Year promises more large groups from China, two already booked for over 2,000 delegates each.

It seems the industry has won its case with government and Crawford notes that 75% of the Chinese travellers have usually travelled already to a Western country, and 95% are extremely high earners.

Venue scene

One main facility, Metro Toronto Centre, Crawford picks out as “The pearl of our city for events”. One big plus is its location, right in the heart of downtown with over 8, 000 rooms within walking distance.

No need for shuttle buses to get involved for most events at the centre, Crawford notes.

The Enercare Centre and Allstream and to the offer at ‘The Campus’ at Exhibition Place, where Hotel X is another integral part of a destination that includes the Ricoh Colliseum indoor arena (8,000 capacity) and the Liberty Grand complex.

A construction boom in recent years has seen a Shangri-La, Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons all emerge and, according to Crawford, change the profile of the city.

“They are all strong brands and the investments there had a lot to do with the growth and success of the Toronto International Film Festival, the Who’s Who of the film industry,” he adds and notes new events are cropping up all around the city around the festival.

In terms of sectors that are particularly strong for Toronto and, therefore its MICE business, it is first and foremost a business city, with powerful incentive destination pull.

“Niagara Falls is on our doorstep,” says Crawford who is at pains to stress that ‘business’ doesn’t mean boring.

“Business people want a playground as well. Toronto is

ranked No.1 in the world to work, live and play by The Economist,” he adds.

Diverse industry, IT and the biomedical sector are other major strengths for Toronto that creates a high percentage of all apps in the world. Conferences coming to town reflect this. Microsoft held its World Partner Conference with 16,000 delegates-plus in 2012, 2016 and is coming back again in 2018.

“That has sparked other events as well,” says Crawford. It has been very successful for us.”

Toronto is a city that has 16-18 hospitals downtown connected to various research facilities. More fertile ground for meetings and the medical/pharma sector is another big draw.

In the world of finance SIBOS is one big-ticket conference that has been to town and set to return within the next two years. Toronto also hosts ASAE 2017 for international association professionals.

Coming down the pipeline also to Toronto also is MPI’s World Education Congress in 2019.

“We do a great job of holding big events but also do a great job of hosting smaller ones,” says Crawford and highlights first-rate service and a great exchange rate as two more aces in the hole. As a seller, I’ve got a lot to show,” he adds.

And for those still not convinced that the Toronto excitement barometer can rise, should think maybe about taking the highest outdoor walk in the world, around the top of CN Tower, once the tallest tower on earth.

And, if Niagara Falls, which is just over an hour away, doesn’t blow the cobwebs away, then big nature is not far away in the shape of 500,000 freshwater lakes in the province of Ontario.

Lake Muskoka is Crawford’s personal favourite, but he lists Lake Joseph and Lake Rosseau as two others attracting the Asian incentives delegates in recent years.

Some, bizarrely, come to see the birthplace of the famous (in China at least) Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune. Bethune worked in China on triage techniques, where he is revered. His memorial in Lake Muskoka has frequent visitors from China, says Crawford.

And the future means a new targeting of international corporate business.

“We are going to venture further afield into Europe and will be engaging corporate multinationals directly. We definitely want to go after that business a bit more.

“Agencies have been good but we’re not afraid to go direct.

We will also be working on more big opportunities in China and are hoping to drive a lot of room nights.

“Frankly Australia is hogging it all and it is time for us to step in. We’ve been very successful for a short time.”

Another big market is Mexico where visa restrictions were recently lifted. And with ‘next door’ likely to have some future issues with the Mexican market, Crawford thinks it is another opportunity for Toronto and Canada to capitalise.

Visa restrictions had seen visitation numbers go from 80,000 people, dropping to low 20,000s. Crawford says the figure is slowly coming back to around 40,000. “We anticipate we can add a further 30,000 in next few years,” he adds.

Crawford says Toronto’s main direct competitors for big-ticket international events are usually Sydney, Melbourne, Western US, LA, San Francisco and Vancouver, as well as Hong Kong and Seoul. Chicago and Boston are also often in the same shake up for final bids, he notes.

In terms of other city USPs, Crawford picks out air access. Toronto handles more international flights than any airport in North America apart from JFK.

“Canada jumps out right now,” says Crawford, who notes the exchange rate helps: running at 25% less than US dollar.

And whisper it softly, but security is another word likely to be increasingly on planners’ lips in 2017. Indeed, Crawford says: “I am seeing the words ‘safety’ and ‘security’ mentioned in more RFPs than ever before.

Back in the positive mood, Crawford concludes: “If you want to have fun, restaurants, incredibly venues, then Toronto is the place to be.”

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World. Write Paul an E-mail

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