Archive for February, 2005

Voice over internet phone – new Vancouver Company

Monday, February 28th, 2005

‘Maximum mobility both in and out of the home’

Peter Wilson
Sun

 

CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

People Line marketing director Russ McDermott can use his phone from the Think Bistro to make calls over the Internet.

 

A Vancouver-based Internet phone service, People Line, has cut the cord for those making their calls on the Web.

Armed with a wireless phone from Zyxel, voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) users can now take their phones with them and use them from unrestricted wireless hotspots in places such as cafes and coffee shops.

And at home or work they can forget about a portable phone plugged into an adapter box connected to the Net. The WiFi phone simply connects to the home or office network wirelessly.

That means users can simply tote their VoIP phone around the house or even carry it out on to the deck or the yard — as far as their WiFi network reaches.

“I was using it at some cafes with wireless hotspots recently and you can use it just like if I had cellphone,” said Russ McDermott, marketing director at POPstar Communications Inc., which operates the People Line service.

McDermott said People Line is hoping to market the phones largely to residential customers with an in-home wireless network or to small offices of four to 10 people which have wireless networks.

“I think that more and more small business offices are being set up for wireless these days, so this would be a convenient way for people to have phones within the office,” said McDermott. “If they’re travelling, again they can take advantage of wireless hotspots to make their calls from there.”

Currently, the phones don’t work at hotspots where a subscription to use the service is required, although McDermott is hoping he may be able to work out deals with those.

McDermott said that one of the advantages of the WiFi phone is that people are not subject to the charges that can be run up on a cellphone.

“In the home, you have the mobility of a cordless phone and you’ve actually got pretty good range,” said McDermott. “People have told me they have been able to walk out to the playground, so it will give you maximum mobility both in and out of the home, just like a cordless phone.”

People Line sells the Zyxel Wi-Fi phone for $275. It’s basic service for a home line, call waiting, call display, caller-ID block and a free software phone goes for $9.95 a month. If you add call waiting, call display, voice-mail, call forwarding, call hold, call transfer and three-way calling, the price rises to $14.95 a month. Office users can get similar service, plus a separate fax number, and e-mail to fax and fax to e-mail, for $19.95. Adapter or phone rental adds another $5 a month to all the plans.

Unlike most entrants in the Canadian VoIP marketplace, People Line does not base its marketing on long-distance bundles, relying largely on pay-as-you-go (at 2.5 cents a minute in North America). Instead it aims at customers who make the vast majority of their calls within local service areas.

“What we’ve tried to do is differentiate ourselves as to services and features from our competitors,” said McDermott, whose company has been a pioneer in the Fax over IP market. “They won’t have all the messaging services that we have — for fax for example.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Beyond Google: new search engine delivers instant buzz

Monday, February 28th, 2005

Online news and gossip addicts will benefit from information at top speed

Sarah Staples
Sun

American researchers claim to have invented the first Internet search engine tuned to uncover scandal as it unfolds gossip as it’s being dished, and able to monitor the prickly views of an increasingly prominent tribe of “instapundits“: the bloggers.

“Online Search,” the working title for a prototype tool by Accenture Technology Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif., goes beyond mere keyword lookups about products, public figures or trends.

Instead, the search focuses on several thousand influential sources of online news and gossip that have traditionally been less accessible to search algorithms — from chat rooms and bulletin boards, to Usenet groups, fan sites and blogs written by amateur scribes. From those, it identifies hot topics, and monitors people’s positive or negative reaction to The Next New Thing.

Record executives who want to track the “buzz” their artists’ new releases are getting online, politicians looking for instant feedback about a policy announcement or speech, and companies seeking speedier, cheaper ways to conduct post-marketing surveillance after a product launch, are among those expected to benefit from the more tailored search.

It’s a potentially cheaper, more efficient alternative to focus groups or polling. The information is date stamped and refreshed daily, and may be used to chart detailed analyses of competitive issues as they evolve, the inventors say.

“It’s reading the Web well enough to understand what’s being discussed, how analysts or customers perceive your company, how your products and reputation is being compared with others, and analysing your impact in the news,” said Gary Boone, a machine learning expert and project group leader, in an exclusive telephone and e-mail interview with CanWest News Service.

The searches reveal more sophisticated analysis than services like Google Alerts, which automatically sends an e-mail each time a desired keyword appears online.

That method “can tell that you’re being mentioned but it won’t tell you what’s being discussed, or how the online community is talking about a person in relation to others and how that [view] changes.”

“If you’re a political adviser and a scandal appears, you want to correct errors quickly, without inflating the scandal. If you’re a company, you need to gauge when a rumour about your product is large enough that you must respond, [and] shut up the moment it starts to fade,” Boone said.

During the U.S. presidential election, Accenture’s engine trolled political news sites, plotting shifts in voter sentiment between George W. Bush and John Kerry, and accurately gauged the negative impact of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on Kerry’s campaign, he added.

In the demonstration, engine searches are refreshed daily; but the system could easily be tweaked to capture near-instant monitoring of stocks, Boone said.

The technology can deduce roughly what a conversation is about, even flag musings about the competition. Despite the effort of numerous research groups to design “semantic” searches patterned after information retrieval mechanisms of the human mind, however, no experimental Internet engine as yet could tally how much money a political candidate raised, or predict the outcome of the next election.

“That’s a level of sophistication that will take decades to achieve,” he said.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

 

Olympic housing promise dropped

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

B.C. in the lurch as promised $1.5-billion fund left out of budget

Frances Bula
Sun

The disappearance of a promised new $1.5-billion housing program from the federal budget is very bad news for B.C. and especially Vancouver as they prepare for the Olympics, Vancouver politicians and housing advocates say.

“We cannot rebuild our cities and we cannot prepare for the Olympics without money for housing,” Coun. Jim Green said Friday after an emergency conference call with other representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on the issue. “It’s a real problem for B.C. and Vancouver.”

This week’s budget shocked housing advocates nationally. The federal Liberals had campaigned on a promise of adding $1.5 billion in housing money over the next five years; two of the three opposition parties had supported that. But there was no mention of any new programs in the budget.

Labour and Housing Minister Joe Fontana’s explanation to housing groups has been that it was hard for him to get any extra money, because there is still $800 million left from the previous housing program initiated in 2001. Only B.C. and Quebec took advantage of that program, which required provinces to put up matching money in order to get federal housing dollars, and obtained the full share allotted to them from that program.

Green says that leaves B.C. in the lurch.

“It penalizes British Columbia and Quebec that have been using the program. This is totally unfair to the places that want to deal with the issues and are prepared to put up their part of the ante.”

Not only should there have been a new program, but B.C. should have received a special allocation to help get ready for the Olympics, Green said.

He said the city signed on to the Olympics on the understanding that it would not mean displacing the poor or creating a homelessness problem, as has happened in other cities.

Green said he is going to advocate that the municipalities’ federation push for a couple of alternative strategies.

One is that provinces that are willing to build housing should simply be able to take money from the allocations of provinces that aren’t.

“If there are provinces unwilling to use their allocation, then British Columbia and Quebec and any others should be able to take those out of the pool and apply them. They shouldn’t be penalized because those others aren’t doing their job.”

Green said politicians also need to work with provincial municipal associations to put pressure on other provinces to get on board.

The absence of new money for housing came as a complete surprise to many.

Green said he had been in meetings at various times in the past few months and Fontana and the minister of state for communities, John Godfrey, had never indicated there was any thought of wavering from the $1.5-billion promise, which many were counting on. Fontana and his staff recently criss-crossed the country, holding meetings to solicit people’s ideas on future housing needs and programs.

NDP MP Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver East, said her party was stunned by the news.

“I thought that they would make at least the minimum commitment of $1.5 billion. This was not about a lack of capacity to provide the dollars,” she said.

The NDP won’t be supporting the budget, in part because of the housing issue.

Davies said it looks to her as though the Liberals decided that housing was an expendable issue, one that wouldn’t cost them too many political points.

Vancouver advocate Linda Mix, of the Tenants Rights Action Coalition echoed that.

“It says to me that homelessness is not a priority.”

Vancouver‘s housing centre director, Cameron Gray, said the federal decision is a blow for Vancouver, which had been hoping to create 800 units a year of social housing for the next several years as part of its housing plan.

Although B.C. just got its $42-million cheque from the federal government for the second phase of the old housing program, that will go fast and it’s now unclear how long B.C. will have to wait for more money while other provinces catch up.

“What happens in the next couple of years while those provinces are coming onstream?” he asked. “Every year, we just dig ourselves a bigger hole in the social deficit.”

B.C. Housing Minister Murray Coell was unavailable for comment. However, staff in his office said it was a disappointment, but the province does have the $42-million, phase-two money this year, and people are hopeful that the federal government will pull things together next year and come up with extra money.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Living with elan downtown means never living with ‘Kita’

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

Michael Sasges
Sun

Living with élan downtown means never living with ‘Kita’

Presentation centre address: 1295 Seymour (at Drake), Vancouver

Presentation centre telephone: 604-696-9030

Hours: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. daily, except Fridays

On offer: 229 apartments and townhouses

Prices: Studio, 472 – 630 sq. ft., $199,900; two-bedroom apartment + roof deck, $499, 900; ”cityhome,” about 1,000 sq. ft., $519,900

Developer: Cressey Architect: Paul Merrick

The terms of endearment used by builders and developers to woo the downtown new-home buyer took a decidedly passionate turn this week with the launch of the marketing campaign for the $80 million elan residential tower.

Costing about $500,000 to build, decorate and furnish, the elan presentation centre features three “lifestyle pods” to transform visitors into prospects.

A “morning” kitchen (facing page, top left), an “evening” scheme (facing page, bottom left)) and a “night” kitchen (top middle) demonstrate that, indeed, new-home temptation and seduction, like the devil, is in the details.

Each has been individualized with fittings and finish.

“Morning,” for example, tops the island sink with a gooseneck faucet; “evening,” with a single-lever faucet; “night,” a single-lever, gooseneck faucet.

The millwork in the “morning” kitchen is cherry; in “evening” it’s white; and in “night” it’s teak.

One constant in the three kitchens, besides the obvious, like the location of the cooktop and oven is behind the lower double doors on the left: They open on a front-loading washer and dryer.

The presentation centre’s designer, Kari Henshaw at Insight Design Inc., said her goal with the elan assignment was to create generally “an experience” for visitors and specifically with the pods “three completely different vibes.”

“Morning is classic, timeless, clean lines,” she dares you to deny. “Evening is a more modern, contemporary, minimalist feel ready for that kind of person who likes simplicity and the clean edge of the colour white.

“And the third pod is more hip and funky, a bit risque, not for all.”

Developer representative Hani Lammam says the presentation centre is an acknowledgement from Cressey that the metro Vancouver new-home buyer generally and the downtown buyer specifically is an extraordinarily astute consumer.

“It’s a brand signalling the individuality and urbanity of the downtown new-home buyer.

“Nowhere in Canada do we see this level of sophistication utilized to sell a home.”

The project’s marketer, MAC Real Estate, generated early publicity last summer, by inviting the public to name the project.

The website campaign generated hundreds of candidate names, with Kita, Spira and Meta among the more tempting considered and not used.

“Why just live, when you can live with elan,” the marketing campaign’s slogan soundly trumps “Why just live, when you can live with Kita.”

The developer introduced the centre Thursday with a “club” affair headlined by somebody called Kyprios (below) (“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content; Content Explicite . . . ,” his CD reads.)

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Strata councils can impose peculiar rules – doc.

Friday, February 25th, 2005

If you don’t like them, get yourself elected as a council member

Joey Thompson
Province

Maureen Rieder has just joined the crush of first-time condo owners who too often find some neighbours relish running other people’s lives.

While it seems the norm to pass outlandish restrictions in condo land, for this Vancouver grade-school teacher, the bylaw at her Fairview’s Slopes complex banning her from having a roommate in her two-bedroom home without strata approval, or pay a $100 fine every week, was over the top.

Especially when almost half the 13 strata units in the building are rented, with no cap on the number allowed on the rental market.

Rieder joined an estimated one million condo owners in B.C. when she bought her west-side townhome in June. And boy, was she excited. After all, it was a big investment and a major move for this single lady. But after six months on her own, Rieder figured sharing the space with a pal had definite advantages.

Don’t even go there, was the directive from the strata group, citing Bylaw 3.2: No one can have a paying resident or roomer unless the six council members say they can.

Now, this rule may not seem as out there as some, like the one asking residents to change their blinds to colour co-ordinate with the freshly painted forest green exterior, but it’s preposterous nonetheless.

“I thought this bylaw to be a violation of my human rights and infringement on me as an owner to live with whomever I choose,” Rieder told me. “What’s weird is that if a unit is designated a rental property, the owner can rent to whoever they choose without getting approval. But since I live here, this bylaw gives them control over whether someone lives with me or not and that’s intruding and wrong.

“What right does council have to tell me whether I am allowed to have someone move in with me?”

No right at all, says Tony Gioventu, head of the 50,000-member Condominium Homeowners Association. But the corporation does.

And there lies the difference. Strata corporations are made up of all the current owners of a complex. With a three-quarters “yes” vote the corporation can pass whatever usage limits it wants as long as the do’s and don’ts comply with federal or provincial statutes.

But strata councils are, by law, elected by the corporations to enforce the bylaws, not design them.

Gioventu said the corporation could call a vote on the bylaw but Rieder’s council can’t call the shots as to who in the complex can have roommates and who can’t.

“I would challenge whether that bylaw is even enforceable,” he said.

The executive director said many first-time buyers don’t bother reading the bylaws before buying in. And stratas should routinely renew and update them, anyway.

If owners aren’t happy with the council, yard them out and elect a new slate, it’s cheaper than arbitration or court.

And check them out first.

There’s lots of great homes in great neighbourhoods to choose from,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rieder says changes are coming if she’s elected at the coming annual general meeting.

© The Vancouver Province 2005

Blue Tooth Wireless workplace goes on the road – doc.

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Bluetooth technology is already popping up in cars — taking phone calls and starting the car remotely. The office is next

Ian Harvey
Sun

There’s good news and bad news about Bluetooth, the wireless technology that seamlessly stitches together the fragments of your digital life.

First, a refresher: Bluetooth is a technology protocol that lets devices such as mobile phones, cars, laptops, PDAs and home computers wirelessly and securely communicate. You can update your e-mail by being in the vicinity of your computer, co-ordinate your schedule on the fly and access your address book through one device. It has a range of about nine metres, making it a kind of personal area network (PAN) as opposed to the local area network (LAN) most have at the office.

More important for drivers, it allows hands-free use of a mobile phone through the car’s audio system, resulting in better sound and control all around and a sensible, safe way to get around legislation banning cellphone use while driving.

The good news is, after eight years in the “coming soon” headlines, Bluetooth is hitting the marketplace as an affordable and practical solution. Acura has made it standard in its TL, MDX and RL vehicles in French and English, while Chrysler offers it in the 300C and Pacifica. Other manufacturers have similar offerings in their higher-end products.

For those who want to retrofit, some automakers are producing in-dash CD/MP3 players with Bluetooth features retailing for about $200.

The bad news? You can run from the pressure of work and society, but it’s getting more difficult to hide and unplug from the grid — thus extending that workday even more.

Bluetooth — named after a Viking legend — is the big step toward a totally wireless world, and its first breakthrough is in the vehicle, making it truly mobile technology. Beyond entertainment and phone calls, however, there are other practical possibilities on the design boards: Remote starting to warm the car in the winter or start the air conditioning in summer, iPod or MP3 players streaming to the audio system, a remote parking garage or home garage door controller, payment for gas at the pump and toll road payments — the list goes on.

For the first wave of acceptance, though, the key is the phone function. With more than 70 per cent of mobile calls made while driving and with safety concerns, it’s a rich deposit for manufacturers to mine.

“I like it because, when I’m driving and sometimes the phone conversation gets really quiet for whatever reason and I can’t hear, I just turn up the volume,” says Anton Yewchyn-Pawczuk, a public relations manager at Honda Canada.

Like BMW, DaimlerChrysler and other manufacturers, Acura sees a growing world of Bluetooth enhancements.

For now, Bluetooth simply eliminates wires. This means wireless headsets for about $150 that keeps the phone in your pocket while you talk. In a Bluetooth-enabled vehicle, it means the car audio system takes over the phone function.

“At first, when we introduced it in 2004 vehicles, the questions we got at the customer call centre were around which manufacturers’ phones were compatible,” Yewchyn-Pawczuk says.

With more phones and converged devices, such as the BlackBerry, offered as Bluetooth-enabled, it’s not as much of an issue.

“You just set it up once, all done by voice commands, and then, whenever you get in the car with your mobile, the car recognizes you and transfers the phone function to the car,” he says. “The phone icon will light up on the dash.”

Dialling numbers is a matter of announcing a name or barking out the numbers to the microphone built into the car.

BMW was first to market Bluetooth as part of the BMW Assist package, and it’s extending it through the line.

Cort Nielsen, BMW Canada’s product and technology specialist, says the protocol has taken off in Europe and has just started to pop up in North America. With the growing proliferation of Bluetooth-enabled phones — as in Europe – Nielsen expects the demand for compatible technology in vehicles to also grow.

“Certainly, BMW customers are not afraid of technology,” Nielsen says. “And, I’m a tech head and I love it.”

He says it was easy to incorporate Bluetooth into the BMW 5 and 6 Series because those platforms use fibre optics.

Bluetooth-equipped vehicles also have a function that allows more than one user with a different phone access through the car system. It will prioritize the most frequent driver as the default setting.

There’s a privacy setting so that drivers can switch to a headset or to the mobile phone to take a call they don’t want passengers to hear.

Tejas Rao, Nokia technology director, says although Bluetooth devices have made a breakthrough with automobiles, consumers and business users will begin to see other applications offered as carriers such as Rogers, Telus and Bell look for ways to spur revenues from the data traffic on their networks.

“Games certainly are a big thing,” says Rao, pointing to Nokia’s popular N-Gage platform, which allows users to indulge in multi-player RPGs such as shoot-’em-ups or snowboarding across Bluetooth networks.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

 

Cellphones, PDA & Lap Top brackets for cars

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Lowell Conn
Province

RAM’s universal mounts hold GPS, cellphones and PDAs secure during shaky mobile conditions.

The company also manufactures a mount that will allow drivers to use their laptop computers on the go — not to mention an octopus contraption that will carry all of the above.

Each RAM mount uses the company’s patented solid rubber-ball-and-metal-socket construction.

The company even designs mounts that hold devices steady on motorcycles. Imagine tapping away at your PDA while driving your Harley through traffic. Now, imagine the white, shiny walls of the hospital they take you to after the inevitable accident.

Ideal for the clutter-averse, RAM mounts are the perfect afterthought for consumers who buy mobile gadgets only to discover they have no place to put them. See www.ram-mount.com.

© The Vancouver Province 2005

Realtor liked his listing so much he bought a unit

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

George Wong will be moving into the third floor of One Harbour Green

Malcolm Parry
Sun

Realtor of The Year George Wong sold out the waterfront One Harbour Green to, among others, himself.

GEORGE WONG, 49, has a special reason to look from his 18th-floor office window in West Hastings Street‘s Guinness Tower and watch the One Harbour Green project rising two blocks away. And it’s not just because the Macdonald Realty Realtor of the Year and his 25-member Platinum Project Marketing Group sold out the 57-unit development in a little over a month.

In October, the Hong Kong-born, Vancouver-raised Wong will actually move into the building, where his third-floor, 2,200-square-foot unit (plus 3,000-square-foot deck) set him back “a lot less” than the penthouse. That’s the one for which Wong got a record $6.02 million from a Texan couple, for whom it will be a “recreational” — and fourth — home away from home.

Wong won’t have to move his furniture and clothes quite so far. He lives 13 floors higher in the nearby Anila, which is the first in ASPAC Developments’ alphabet of Coal Harbour projects — Anila, Bahania, Casina, Denia, Escala — which only changed sequence with One Harbour Green.

The new naming rule will hold for at least one more development, the 71-unit, $180-million Two Harbour Green. Its 5,800-square-foot penthouse and 3,000-square-foot “sky garden” will fetch “over $8 million — closer to 10″ when sales begin in April, Wong said.

That project will easily take Wong past a career sales total of $1 billion — still small spuds beside ASPAC brother-principals Raymond, Thomas and Walter Kwok’s reported joint net worth of $13.7 billion.

As for the size and cost of the gestating Three Harbour Green, “That depends on what we get from buyers at Number Two,” Wong said. But he does expect them to maintain their current composition of 60 per-cent local, 20 per-cent American and the remainder from Britain, Germany and elsewhere.

“Very few Asian are buying here now,” he said. “And those that do are already local residents.”

Some may also be brushing up on their meditation, which Wong began as a University of B.C. commerce and accounting student and now practises twice daily.

He gets more than psychic and academic rewards from the Point Grey campus nowadays. He sold out Orca West’s 95-unit Galleria project there in one week last month, but expects to take three months moving Brenmor’s upscale, low-rise Esse, where Latin scholars may clamour for unit 2B.

Looking into his five-year crystal ball, Wong sees “a lot more world travellers coming here to buy for recreational purposes in Victoria, Kelowna and Vernon.” Meanwhile, Vancouver working couples “are setting aside their capital for weekend getaways in place like Agassiz,” where, coincidentally, he represents a property near the Sandpiper golf course.

As for Wong in 2010, “I want to spend two months a year in Bali, two in the Caribbean, six in Vancouver, and the rest I’ll fill in — maybe Tibet.

“I told you I’ve started meditation again.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Plan to build more lodges in provincial parks raises concerns – doc.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

B.C. residents ‘attach high values to their public parks,’ a report says

Bruce Constantineau
Sun

A B.C. government plan to build more lodges in provincial parks will significantly expand commercial development within park boundaries without public consultation, according to a report from concerned public service employees.

“British Columbians have strong emotional ties and attach high values to their public parks,” said the report from Public Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

PSE, a group of past and present government employees, uses internal government documents — including ministerial briefing notes — to support its claims.

The B.C. Parks Lodge Strategy won’t be approved until late this year or early 2006, but the report says actions to promote the commercialization of B.C. parks are already well advanced.

A treasury board submission last year from three ministries — small business, sustainable resource development and water, land and air protection — said the province wanted to identify 10 new park lodge sites and issue proposal calls on the development opportunities before the end of the 2005-06 fiscal year.

The submission estimated that total investment in new lodges and existing lodge upgrades would amount to $35 million over the next three to five years.

But Water, Land and Air Protection Minister Bill Barisoff said those numbers are optimistic.

“If we were fortunate enough to get four or five of these [potential new lodge sites] identified in the next year or so, that would be great,” he said in an interview.

Barisoff said annual visits to B.C. parks have declined since 1998, when they attracted a record 26.5 million visitors, so a major thrust of the park lodge strategy is to increase visitation and make the parks accessible to more people.

“Lodges can give more of an opportunity to more of our seniors’ population and people with families to access our parks, without having to sleep in tents,” he said.

Barisoff noted several provincial parks already have lodges — including Manning, Tweedsmuir and Mount Assiniboine parks — and said any new lodge developments would have to be appropriate for the surroundings.

A November 2004 ministerial briefing note said the province had received eight written or verbal expressions of interest in building “lodge-type developments” in various B.C. parks.

Barisoff said he recalled only one — an Alpine Club of Canada proposal to build a 30-person hostel-style “eco-lodge” on the Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Park.

But the briefing note listed seven others, including:

- An Intrawest Corp. plan to build a series of huts along Spearhead Traverse, between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains in Garibaldi Park.

- A proposal to build a floating lodge to support kayak use in Broughton Archipelago.

- A lodge development that borders the ski area in Mount Assiniboine Park.

- An angling guide proposal to build a fixed-roof operation in Hamber Park.

Small Business and Economic Development Minister John Les said what’s considered an acceptable type of lodge development will vary throughout the B.C. park system.

“There are places where only the most rustic type of development would be appropriate,” he said. “But there are other locations, maybe not within a park but close to a park, where something much more sophisticated would be in order, including something quite commercial in nature.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Vancouver’s winning combination draws meetings despite oversupply of space

Bruce Constantineau
Sun

44 conventions have already signed on to use the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion, shown in an artist’s rendering.

U.S. cities from Hickory, N.C., to Fort Wayne, Ind., are falling all over themselves in a “type of arms race” to build new convention facilities even though attendance at major trade shows has dropped in recent years, according to a study from U.S. think tank The Brookings Institution.

News about too many convention centres chasing a static market comes as the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre prepares to more than triple its convention space by opening a $565-million expansion project by the summer of 2008.

The Brookings study noted the convention space available for the top 200 U.S. trade shows has increased by 40 per cent since 1990 but attendance at those conventions has declined, even in major destinations such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans. Total attendance currently languishes at 1993 levels.

“With events and attendance sagging in even the hottest destination spots, few centres are even able to cover basic operating costs and local economic impacts have fallen far short of expectations,” the study said.

It also states that with the possible exception of a handful of major cities, the grand promises of convention centre investment are unlikely to be realized, “the strategy doomed to failure.”

But VCEC general manager Barbara Maple said Vancouver won’t face the same problems that have hurt some U.S. cities that built new convention centres for the wrong reasons.

“Some facilities were built in smaller communities that expected more national and international business but didn’t get it because they didn’t have enough hotel capacity or airline capacity (to complement their convention centre),” she said. “That’s not a problem here.”

Maple noted Vancouver routinely turns away 30 to 50 convention events a year because the current facility already operates at full capacity and is too small for some events. She expects the expanded centre will attract a lot of new business from large groups that couldn’t consider Vancouver in the past.

Maple noted 44 conventions already have been booked for the new convention centre between 2008 and 2016.

She said a lot of U.S. convention centres focus entirely on the U.S. market but Vancouver has a more diversified client base, split almost evenly among Canadian, U.S. and international customers.

While new convention centre expansions are being planned in places such as Peoria, Ill., and Des Moines, Iowa, Maple said Vancouver enjoys a competitive advantage in having a strong global brand with a certain cachet.

“Our clients see us as being a great international city but there’s still lots of work to be done in that area,” she said. “We rate very highly as a leisure destination but we need to improve our reputation as a meetings and convention destination. We have fallen behind in that area but the expansion will put us back on the map.”

Maple said convention clients are tough negotiators because they know a lot of facilities are after their business. But she said nothing is given away for free to attract new convention business to Vancouver.

“Savvy clients know there isn’t anything for free. If you’re not paying for something at the front end, then you’re paying for it somewhere else.”

Tourism Vancouver meeting and convention sales vice-president Dave Gazley said winning the 2010 Olympic bid validated Vancouver as a true international destination, making it easier to sell the city to prospective convention clients.

He said groups that held conventions in Vancouver last year reported that attendance at the events was, on average, 12 per cent higher than their 2003 conventions because Vancouver is a popular city.

“We’re a little shy about it sometimes but we have an incredible destination that people want to visit and expansion of the convention centre just opens up so many more doors for us,” Gazley said.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005