Conventions Sector Targets Academic Alliances
They’re enticed by the scenery, the hotels, meeting spaces or restaurants, but increasingly, they want more. Today’s international conference planners are also looking for direct access to local knowledge, contacts and expertise.
That demand is driving a trend for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) to partner with a broader network of non-tourism stakeholders like academic communities, according to a recent report sponsored by Meeting Professionals International and Destination Marketing Association International.
In August 2016, 1,200 delegates from around the world will come to Calgary for the 22nd International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) conference.
The result of five years of work led by Meetings + Conventions Calgary (MCC) and the University of Calgary, it’s a classic example of how destinations are leveraging their knowledge economy to drive international meetings tourism.
Timing is Everything
It started with a conversation in 2011 between Dave Sclanders, MCC’s executive director, and Jackie Sieppert, dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the U of C.
Sclanders’ team had been researching leads and discovered that ISPCAN had never held its biennial congress in Canada.
When they determined the U of C’s social work faculty had ISPCAN members and had conducted research in this area, they reached out to Sieppert.
The timing was ideal. As part of its Eyes High strategic plan, the U of C was positioning itself as a global intellectual hub. And 2016 was the 50th anniversary of both the faculty and the university.
The two groups worked together on a bid and ended up on a short list with Dubai.
Playing to Strengths
“When I heard we were up against Dubai, I was at first discouraged because they had far more financial resources,” says Sieppert.
Undaunted, he picked up the phone and called child service leaders in government, health care practitioners and the city’s social service sector to ask them to participate. “It was amazing – every single one said yes.”
In 2013, the congress was awarded to Calgary and the U of C.
“I am convinced we won the bid not necessarily because we had a better program than Dubai, but because we had the full support of our community and could offer up access to so many leaders in the field,” says Sieppert.
Meetings with Meaning
Intellectual capital is huge draw for international meeting planners, says Brian Slot, Travel Alberta’s director of Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events (MICE).
“Increasingly, the trend is to reach out to academia, economic development organizations and others to provide a well-rounded destination experience with better business deliverables,” says Slot.
He notes that the move to leverage knowledge to drive attendance impacts all tourism operators. “Conferences that connect delegates to local thought leaders result in more business travel, which can help diversify our economy.”
Ambassadors to the World
Sieppert is a Calgary Champion with MCC’s Ambassador Program, one of 61 Calgarians teaming up with the DMO to attract and host international conferences.
“I like to talk about academic tourism,” says Sieppert. “I’m convinced there is great potential for the tourism industry in partnering with universities.”
As he points out, academics are mandated to travel. “It’s part of our job description to go out into the world and to bring the world back here.”
The benefits of hosting international conferences are huge for post-secondaries – unique opportunities to network face-to-face with the brightest minds in the world, connections that can lead to research partnerships and funding, and even enticements to hire top faculty.
The host community also benefits as global thought leaders bring their expertise, ideas and best practices to share, and leave a legacy that can impact a community for decades.
Sclanders takes it a step further.
“The international delegates who come to Calgary will go back home with an appreciation of what our city has to offer,” he says. “Whenever they talk about the congress, they’ll mention that the dialogue happened in Calgary. It’s a subtle way to build our brand around the world.”
ISPCAN, for example, reports that last year it reached 3,600 professionals around the world, above and beyond its own members.
International meetings also generate regional tourism spinoffs as delegates often come early or stay for a few extra days to experience a different culture and scenery.
That can translate into trips to Banff or Jasper, dinosaur tours in the Canadian Badlands and visits to city attractions.
“And at times like this, when other sectors are struggling, a conference like ours can deliver a nice boost to Alberta’s economy,” says Sieppert.