From Capital Investment to the Convention Industry

Author: David McMillin       

Meetings and events professionals don’t all begin their careers with visions of convention centers and headquarter hotels. For many in the industry, the path toward leadership is a journey filled with knowledge from other sectors that all adds up to one key fact: Business happens by bringing people together.

Clark Grue, the new president and CEO of the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, is one of those leaders whose diverse accomplishments are fueling his approach to drawing a strategic blueprint for one of Canada’s rising convention stars. The cofounder of Rainmaker Global Business Development, Grue spent nine years helping clients in the energy industry identify global expansion opportunities. Now, in his new role at the convention centre, Grue is focused on a different kind of energy: the power that comes from face-to-face experiences. I caught up with Grue six months after taking the reins in Calgary to learn more about his career, his love for Calgary, and his outlook for the next generation of events.

What brought you to Calgary? And will your experience with bringing projects to Calgary in your role with Calgary Economic Development translate to bringing convention and trade show business to the city?

After spending 25 years in British Columbia, my wife and I moved to Toronto in 1996. Eventually, with three young kids, we wanted to come back west for family purposes. There were opportunities in Kelowna and Calgary and I had heard great things about Calgary so we moved here and fell in love with the city. After settling into Calgary, I accepted an exciting VP role with Calgary Economic Development that drew me into the city promotion industry. I eventually became the Director of the British Trade Office. Foreign-direct investment was my area of specialty, and I was aiming to get British companies to come to Calgary. So I’ve really been in the business of attracting business to Calgary for a long time, just in a slightly different capacity.

After cofounding Rainmaker, we hosted a Canada Day event in London with 100,000 people in Trafalgar Square. My time at Rainmaker accelerated my understanding of events and how they can be used to bring people together. I was thrilled about the convention centre opportunity. It’s a chance for me to get back into promoting Calgary and elevate the brand of the city and make it a destination that more and more people want to experience.

You were familiar with events and conferences, but what has surprised you in your first six months leading the centre?

 Well, it was a nice surprise to come into an organization that was already being very well-run and efficient. There is a great staff that has a lot of pride in the organization as a whole and the city. So I’ve been able to adopt a group of really high-caliber people who are very passionate about their jobs, and that’s always a great surprise.

While I understand events, I’m not sure I had a full appreciation for the critical role that a convention centre plays in marking a city and presenting the destination to the rest of the world. There is such a massive audience that can be reached through what happens here at the centre, and I’m hopeful that we can help everyone in Calgary recognize how important this work is and what a difference it makes when organizations choose Calgary for their group meetings.

What are some of the key pieces of the convention centre’s long-term strategy?

It starts with the way I look at Calgary. I’ve been selling Canada for 20 years in various roles, and Calgary is truly a gateway to all of Canada. If you come to Calgary, you’re going to get exposure to people from across the entire country because so many of them have moved here to pursue opportunities. We want to make sure that meeting professionals understand the diverse culture and the youthful spirit that exists here in Calgary, and we also want to expand our business beyond being just four walls. We’re looking at ways to use technology and art to shape a more unique attendee experience throughout the entire city.

Another key piece of the strategy involves one of my favorite programs that was already in place when I arrived, our Calgary Champion program. Having people in your community who are willing to serve as ambassadors is critical. I’m not sure we would be able to bring in some of the major events we’ve recently hosted without these Champions. We’re a volunteer city because of our roots with the Olympics, and I’m excited about making the Champion program even stronger. We’re looking for opportunities to continually leverage the expertise and intelligence of our community to spread the message about Calgary.

LEARN MORE: Recent Success Stories from the Calgary Champion Program

There’s a lot happening in Calgary between the airport expansion and the potential for hosting another Winter Olympics. How do you think the city will change over the next decade? And what do those potential changes mean for conventions and conferences?

The airport expansion was huge. Although the energy industry is in a bit of a slowdown, Calgary is still growing very quickly. That growth has the potential for a dramatic acceleration based on our potential Olympic bid. A lot of us in Calgary would love to see the Olympic Games return. We have such fond memories of hosting the world during the ’88 Games. We’re eagerly awaiting the results of the [Calgary Bid Exploration Committee’s] study on the feasibility of hosting the games in 2026. If the city decides to move ahead with the bid, investment in new facilities and updates to legacy venues will really ramp up over the next nine years. There’s an opportunity to really reshape the city.

MORE: Calgary’s Local Knowledge Economy

What is the biggest disruption that will impact on the meetings and events industry? And how will Calgary prepare for the changing expectations of meeting planners, attendees and exhibitors?

A lot of my work has been in international business development, and there has been a tremendous push from the business community to accelerate global trade. At the same time, there is currently a lot of pushback from some governments. Naturally, safety is a top priority for any meeting planner — they want to find cities where they are safe, and their attendees can feel comfortable. I think that’s where Canada really shines. Canadian cities are safe and clean places to live, work, and learn.

In addition to facilitating idea exchanges at conferences, Calgarians know how to celebrate. Click here to learn about the city’s annual week-long Stampede, and go here to learn more about taking your next event to Alberta.

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