Bringing the World to Our Shores

Bringing the World to Our Shores

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Jon Tattrie

The new Halifax Convention Centre has downtown booming

After spending years and millions of dollars building a new Halifax Convention Centre to attract people to the city, the success of the enterprise will depend on convincing delegates to leave the building.

Paul MacKinnon, Executive Director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, says he’s been to many conventions elsewhere that felt like casinos. Once they get you to the convention centre, nothing pulls you away from that table. But the Halifax Convention Centre from the start focused on getting delegates out the doors, he says.

“It’s not really been done here before and frankly, in my experience, it’s not something that’s done very well in most cities that I’ve travelled to for conferences,” he says. “What’s different about this convention centre from a lot of other ones is it’s right smack in the middle of downtown. We’ve got these wonderful, historic, walkable blocks. There really is a sense that they want people to get out and explore the city.”

MacKinnon says that’s crucial for the long-term prosperity of downtown businesses. Once the shine’s off the Nova Centre and another city opens a newer convention centre, Halifax will rely on an all-around experience that makes attending conventions here worth it.

He says the convention centre has lived up to promises since finally opening in late 2017, after many delays. “A giant weight had been lifted. Just having survived all that construction was a huge relief. That turned very quickly to excitement,” MacKinnon says. “We were promised great things would happen and it really seems like great things are happening.”

Joe McGuinness operates four downtown businesses and says the three year-round ones have seen a sales bump already. “Absolutely. Immediately. The convention centre opened officially on Dec. 15. Shortly thereafter, there was a weekend event — a wedding show — and we had one of our busiest Saturdays and Sundays in December ever as a result of that.”

When the federal Liberal Party convention rolled into town, many of its 3,000 delegates stepped outside to visit Durty Nelly’s, Stubborn Goat Gastropub and Antojo Tacos and Tequilas — all businesses owned by McGuinness. He saw a 30 per cent increase in sales that Saturday. On average, takings go up 20 per cent when the new convention centre has a conference.

“The old convention centre, the capacity was limited, as we all know. We didn’t see the huge, multi-national conventions coming to town,” he says. “We did see spikes in business when there were events such as Festival of Trees or the Halifax Chamber of Commerce spring and fall dinners.”

A big conference at the old centre would bring about 700 people to the downtown, whereas the new one will bring in several thousand people for big conferences. McGuinness says before, a bump in business only came if the demographics were just right. Often, he saw no increase at his pubs and restaurants. “Certainly, there was business in the past, but nothing that compares to the new convention centre.”

He’s a member of Discover Halifax ( and that helps him see what’s coming up at the centre and when delegates will have free time. When Business Voice spoke to him, he was preparing for the upcoming East Coast Music Awards in May. Next up was Rendez-vous Canada, a large hospitality and tourism trade show. It last came more than a decade ago, but outgrew Halifax.

Next up will be the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at the end of May, bringing mayors and senior executives from across Canada. McGuinness had his eye on June’s 450-delegate congress of the Canadian Neurological Sciences Federation and the similarly sized meeting of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.

“During the months of May and June, we’re expecting to be extremely busy. We’re looking forward to it — it’s been a long time coming,” he says. “Durty Nelly’s, although it is an Irish pub, one of the reasons I think it does succeed here is because the culture of Nova Scotia is Celtic — Irish and Scottish. The old kitchen parties and the traditional music blend well together.”

After enduring the streetscaping and construction, he’s reaping the rewards. “Kudos to everyone involved. Our mantra here with our businesses is to create a legendary experience for each and every guest and we’re thankful for the opportunity to do so.”

Carrie Cussons, the President and CEO of the Halifax Convention Centre, shares that optimism. She says they have 49 events booked, delivering 30,000 delegates in the first year. “It’s about three times what we’ve ever had,” she says. “We’re really excited.”

The gigantic project started in 2012 as part of the $500 million Nova Centre, which consists of about one million square feet. It was originally set to open in January 2016, but in fact opened in December 2017.

Trade Centre Limited, the Crown corporation that preceded the Halifax Convention Centre, spent a decade making the case for the new centre inside the mammoth Nova Centre. Taxpayers poured in millions of dollars at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The 2015 Halifax Convention Centre Act decreed that the province and HRM would jointly appoint a board of directors to manage and operate the new convention centre. That replaced TCL.

The centre is much bigger than the old one. It has more than 120,000 square feet of event space, including a 30,000 square-foot ballroom overlooking the city, a 50,000 square-foot multipurpose convention space and 40,000 square feet of smaller-scale meeting spaces.

In March, the Nova Centre finally announced its anchor hotel: Sutton Place Hotels, a luxury brand that is now putting some 262 high-end guest rooms and a restaurant into its part of the centre. Tom Gaglardi, CEO of the hotel chain, told reporters it should open in the spring of 2019. At the same time, developer Joe Ramia said the Nova Centre had 70 per cent of its tenancies filled. The unfilled sections mostly consist of office and restaurant space, he said, expressing optimism that they too will be filled.

The centre’s staff worked with the tourism industry and downtown businesses before opening to develop a local program. On the centre’s website, click on location and you’ll find the slogan: “We’re on the edge of North America and in the centre of it all.” Every other link on the page sends people to the wider world, encouraging them to eat locally, go to a cultural event or walk downtown.

The centre used about 226,000 square feet of glass (which it measures as equal to 13 NHL rinks) — meaning it’s hard not to catch a stunning view of historic Halifax.

The first thing Cussons talks about is the importance of showcasing that world outside the centre. “As much as we love to host people within the facility, obviously we would like to get folks out into downtown Halifax and all of the province of Nova Scotia.”

The idea is to give delegates a taste of Nova Scotia inside the centre that inspires them to go out exploring. Inside, TV screens show videos and photos of things like people dining on the ocean floor in the Bay of Fundy or driving through nature’s painting palette on the Cabot Trail. They’ll also see fresh brews from local cafes and images of the iconic Halifax Central Library.

They give visitors a literal taste of Nova Scotia by working with local suppliers including Meadow Brook Farms, River View Herbs, Blue Harbour Cheese and Acadian Maple Products, to bring their products to the menus. Homemade Acadian Maple ice cream has proved to be an early hit, Cussons says. Other treats have included mini donairs and blue cheese salads.

“I know that local suppliers are really enjoying that we’re using their products in the facility and I also know that they’re seeing traffic from people coming out to explore,” she says.

She says the convention centre works with Taste of Nova Scotia to do this. It has a community panel with representatives from tourism across the province, downtown businesses, the airport, hoteliers, all helping to create an “amazing experience” in the province for delegates.

Out of that group came the idea to focus on giving each delegate a warm Maritime welcome. At key contact points like the Halifax Stanfield International airport and hotel check-ins, they’ve put up welcome signs and promotions aimed at delegates.

“We’re really ready as the convention centre, and more importantly as a city and a province, to really put our best foot forward as we welcome those guests,” she says.

It’s about “teasing them in the convention centre with what the experiences could be and then driving them out into the community to actually experience the authentic way we like to host in Halifax and Nova Scotia.”

So far, word-of-mouth suggests it’s working, she says. They do a lot of exit surveying to see what delegates did and as time goes by they’ll be able to measure the economic impact. Cussons says once the food market is established, they want to focus more on cultural events for delegates to go out to.

MacKinnon says members of DHBC located on Argyle Street are reporting boosts to business. But he’s also heard from businesses on Grafton and Barrington streets and they are beyond keen to draw those delegates their way. He says the general feeling is, “we as taxpayers have put a big investment into the convention business, so let’s make sure that we’re maximizing that.”

He wants to build on the welcome programs so the practice becomes a staple part of holding a convention here. He notes the airport has greeters specifically welcoming delegates as they arrive and telling them what they can do while in Nova Scotia. A Show Your Badge program offers deals to delegates at participating businesses.

That “wow” factor, MacKinnon says, will hopefully encourage business visitors to see some of the sights and one day return as tourists — or for another convention.

Up the hill at Durty Nelly’s, McGuinness says his decade in business has seen steady increases in revenue. “We’ve not had any years where our business went down, so we can honestly say we were not negatively affected by the building of the Nova Centre or the streetscaping.”

He hopes they will continue to grow as the convention centre settles in.

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