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The Globe and Mail

The only thing hotter than Canadian real estate? Conferences about Canadian real estate

Conference organizer George Przybylowski, left, vice president at Informa Canada, speaks with his organizing team at the RealLeasing conference for real estate in Toronto Sept. 7, 2014.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

At first glance George Przybylowski looks like almost any property developer as he rattles off statistics about office vacancy rates and offers the full history of the bloodbath that landlords faced in the 1990s.

But he doesn't work in real estate. Instead, he organizes real estate conferences.

Mr. Przybylowski is the vice-president of construction and real estate at Informa Canada, part of Zug, Switzerland-based Informa Exhibitions, which has around 8,000 employees in 150 offices in more than 40 countries. He and his team of colleagues put together real estate forums in cities across Canada as well as niche shows about topics such as leasing, real estate investment trusts, and green real estate. They run more than 70 shows annually, up from 55 in 2010.

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In December Informa is rolling what used to be seven different shows into one in Toronto, called The Buildings Show. The Buildings Show is expected to attract 35,000 people, and cost about $4.3-million to put on. The Real Estate Forum, which will take place at the same time, will cost about $1.16-million for 2,350 attendees.

Before he entered this business Mr. Przybylowski worked for the Ontario government in the ministry of municipal affairs and housing. "What was evident to us at the ministry was that any time we wanted to interact as stakeholders we had a hell of a time because the industry was incredibly fragmented," he says. "So when we wanted to reach out to the industry, we created conferences."

When he left the province in 1985, he was dabbling in some other areas but "I could not get rid of the fact that the industry had known me as a guy who ran conferences." And the industry wanted more of them. Mr. Przybylowski ultimately created a conference and trade show company with partners and in 2006 he sold it to MMPI Canada, which was sold to Informa in 2012.

Over the years Mr. Przybylowski has honed his ability to anticipate what might go wrong at conferences, but issues still crop up.

There was the time in Calgary where they ran out of lunch at the buffet before everyone had food, and the kitchen improvised by turning some smoked salmon into smoked salmon sandwiches. Another time a keynote speaker from the U.S. had a little bit too much fun exploring Toronto the night before his speech and rolled in, worse for wear, just as he was supposed to hit the podium.

In the early 1990s, when the real estate market nosedived, Mr. Przybylowski was organizing conferences out of an office on Toronto Street where he was paying zero net rent because landlords were desperate. In 1992 he launched The Real Estate Forum and grossed just under $60,000. He won't disclose revenues or profits for the conferences these days.

He and his colleagues dabbled in areas other than real estate, at one point organizing an exhibition for parents that was sold to Canadian Living magazine in the late 1990s. But specializing in the real estate niche seemed to make sense.

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With the industry forums, money comes from the tickets that are purchased, sponsorship, and advertising in magazines and other publications that are handed out to attendees. At the trade shows it comes largely from exhibitors. Mr. Przybylowski and his colleagues now run 22 real estate conferences in Canada, 18 of which are annual and four biannual. One of his struggles now is to find new revenue sources for the forums because costs of food and rentals are rising but he wants to keep a lid on ticket prices.

He can tell a lot about the state of the market by how many people show up for different topics. In 2009, when capital flows dried up, attendance at the RealCapital show ballooned from about 530 to more than 650 people. It dropped off again the next year, when the markets were better.

And he has learned not to plan the conference agendas too soon.

"In 2007 I remember meeting a guy, who I won't name, in Heathrow in the summer and I asked 'what about this whole discussion on subprime, should we have some stuff at the conference?' And this gentleman said 'don't worry, it will have blown over by November.'"

Some people give Mr. Przybylowski credit for playing a role in the maturation of Canada's real estate sector.

"He's improved the education of real estate through these conferences, the quality of information, the ability to exchange information," says John O'Bryan, chairman of brokerage firm CBRE Ltd. "He's very good at bringing people in, and a lot of people owe him a great favour because he's raised their profile through these conferences."

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