This coming August, Toronto will play host to the mother of all conventions: the gathering of the American Society of Association Executives.
Every person attending the meeting is responsible for planning their own meeting of thousands of people. And while a convention of convention planners may not exactly sound like a party, for those in the tourism economy, it is a big deal.
"It's the Super Bowl of conventions," said Andrew Weir, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer at Tourism Toronto. "Every city wants this. It's a live audition."
And it's a particularly interesting time to make this pitch, as the Canadian tourism industry looks to make the most of an opportunity in marketing Canada's openness and diversity, particularly at a time when other countries, including our neighbours to the south, are turning inward.
In March, Tourism Toronto launched a campaign using phrases such as "In this city, it's okay to let your guard down," "All flavours are welcome," "Beauty has many faces," and "Love is love is love." While Tourism Toronto says the campaign is not a response to U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration ban – it was shot last October – its tone is especially stark in the context of the current geopolitical climate.
People across the industry say a longer-term strategy for tourism marketing in Canada is helping to attract business, including lucrative corporate events.
The Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC), for example, generally hosts roughly a dozen "city-wide" conventions a year, which at their busiest, can book 1,100 hotel rooms or more. In the next couple of years, that number is closer to 16 conventions a year.
"I think that's related to Toronto's and Canada's diversity, its openness," David Chisholm, vice-president of sales at the MTCC, said. "It's safe. It's politically stable. We've been fortunate not to see too many terror-like activities. And on top of that, we are easy to get to and from many parts of the world."
The potential to promote Brand Canada to convention organizers comes amid a boom for the hotel and tourism industries. A cheap loonie has attracted more visitors from the United States and elsewhere. Hotel occupancy rates in major Canadian cities are holding near record highs and room prices have been steadily rising. But the currency fluctuations that can have a major effect on people's vacation choices do not affect conventions planned years ahead of time in the same way – even if a generally low dollar doesn't hurt.
And conventions and conferences are huge beasts to tame. The bigger they are, the longer they take to plan and the further ahead they have to book. That means they generally do not turn on a dime to respond to changes such as tightening restrictions at the United States border.
After President Trump signed the Jan. 27 executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, the MTCC fielded some inquiries from organizers who had events booked in the United States with attendees coming from elsewhere in the world, but nothing came of it. The federal judiciary blocked the order – and a subsequent one – but even if it had gone ahead, the penalties to get out of contracts with many conference venues tend to be substantial.
"We haven't seen any immediate increase in business because of it," Mr. Chisholm said.
Marriott International Inc., which owns brands that frequently host conferences, such as Sheraton and Westin hotels, has seen an increase in conferences this year – partly owing to the uptick in events planned around Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations and Montreal's 375th anniversary, as well as longer-term factors.
"It's been growing in popularity for some time," said Laura Pallotta, vice-president of marketing and sales in Canada for Marriott International. "There's been a lot of funding from the government to help the travel industry focus on driving demand to Canada. That's started to make quite a difference. Not to mention, Canada is cool on the world stage."
Still, while there may not be a direct cause and effect, the political environment could be laying the groundwork for a potential boost in the conference and convention business here.
The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) says the United States has already lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business travel. In a recent poll, executive director Mike McCormick said the GBTA found 45 per cent of its European members would be less willing to host future meetings and events in the United States. "Some of that business could shift north and help the marketplace in Canada," Mr. McCormick said.
"There's no question that there has been an increase in interest," said Lyle Hall, managing director of HLT Advisory Inc., a consultancy that regularly researches the convention market.
The GBTA says in the single week after the planned immigration ban was announced, the country lost $185-million in business travel. While the order was blocked, the Trump administration's broader approach to immigration, including an electronics ban also targeting Muslim-majority countries, has made the United States unappealing for some business travellers, with still-mounting costs.
The American Society of Association Executives – the group coming to Toronto in August – was among more than 100 national associations in the United States that wrote a letter to the White House in February expressing concerns over the ban and its potential impact on scientists and engineers – including their ability to attend conferences.
Canada's hospitality industry, meanwhile, has been working on building a very different image.
"The U.S. is not the only country that has adopted an inward-looking stance in the last year or two," Mr. Weir of Tourism Toronto said. "It's too early to know whether there are any impacts from the forces of geopolitics right now. But there is an opportunity."
However, he cautioned against speculating, since there could also be an opposite effect: While organizers of conferences welcoming global delegates may be feeling like they are on shaky ground in the United States, many U.S.-based companies could actually be reticent to hold meetings in other countries including Canada, if some attendees face uncertainty travelling back over the U.S. border afterward.
In the near term, hotel bookings in Canada's biggest cities are on-trend with 2016, according to consultancy CBRE Ltd.'s latest hotel market outlook. Hotels' average daily rates in those cities are projected to rise: Vancouver by 7.5 per cent, Toronto by 6 per cent and Montreal by 7 per cent. But, said Brian Stanford, a senior managing director with CBRE who monitors the hotel industry, it's still too early to suggest that's because of Mr. Trump's policies and attitude.
"Things are really back to the basics of what's driving demand for hotels, [rather] than to suggest any kind of shadow or indirect impact of anything that's happening south of the border," Mr. Stanford said.