A totem stands tall inside the Victoria Conference Centre. The facility is struggling to win business back after the low period of 2008.

A totem stands tall inside the Victoria Conference Centre. The facility is struggling to win business back after the low period of 2008.

Victoria councillors to address conference centre woes

Sluggish conference business parallels local tourism industry

City of Victoria councillors are expected to approve a comprehensive review of the Victoria Conference Centre on Thursday (May 16) in hopes of luring business back to the Capital Region.

Past and upcoming bookings for 2013 will see 40,000 fewer delegates attend events at the conference centre compared to a high of 137,000 delegates in 2007.

Most North American cities, including Victoria, subsidize their conference facilities as economic generators. Cities can be slow to take action when economies change, said Bruce Carter, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO.

“That corporate market has all but disappeared for a number of reasons, partially due to economics, but also partially due to social responsibility,” he said. “Public bodies generally need to be pushed. If this were a private business, (the review) would likely be done much faster, with less consultation.”

VCC bookings from U.S. organizations have failed to bounce back in the wake of the recession due to stiff competition from other Canadian cities and smaller delegate numbers, said Carrie Russell, managing director of consultancy firm HVS Global Hospitality Services.

“At its peak, Victoria was almost 50/50 with (hosting) U.S. and Canadian conferences,” she said.

Tighter passport regulations, a depressed U.S. economy and competition from newer regional facilities such as the Vancouver Conference Centre are all factors in Victoria’s lack of recovery, Russell added.

Hoteliers use conference bookings as a “bedrock of occupancy” to set room rates, said Tourism Victoria CEO Rob Gialloreto.

“Conferences book business way in advance. … If you’re relying 100 per cent on leisure travel, that’s a really risky way to do business,” he said.

While other Canadian cities have seen hotel room bookings and revenue increase since 2008 lows, Victoria has actually declined, Russell said.

“The trend in Victoria has been one of the poorest in the country.”

Conference centre general manager Jocelyn Jenkyns said the 8,000 hotel rooms in Greater Victoria, along with the long-term lease inked on Crystal Garden, are reflective of an optimistic period when the region had a more buoyant tourism economy.

“In 2007, we were turning away business,” she said. “We do really well in terms of what we’re able to generate, but because we have this abundance of hotel rooms in the city, we always have this ongoing challenge to bring more business.”

The conference centre anticipated more bookings when it leased the Crystal Garden, a 30,000-square-foot facility across the street at 713 Douglas St., to its existing 40,000-sq.-ft.capacity.

Gialloreto said all stakeholders “recognize the numbers are going in the wrong direction” and are eager to see the recommendations of the VCC review.

“Everybody would like to see better performance out of the conference centre. How to get that done is a much trickier proposition.”

The review is expected to take months, said City of Victoria spokesperson Katie Josephson.