Photography by Daniel Alexander

ON October 2, 1984, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the newly minted Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC). Since then, the iconic structure in the heart of downtown Toronto has achieved a number of significant milestones, from a major expansion in 1997, to an impressive list of industry firsts.

In the 35 years since its launch, MTCC has gained global recognition on several fronts. As Canada’s largest convention centre, it’s welcomed more than 65-million people from around the world and hosted 21,000 events. As such, it’s become an important economic driver, generating an estimated $7.8 billion in direct- spending economic impact for the city and the province. It’s also a major supporter of local business.

The centre also has the distinction of being the first in the world to host both a G7 and G20 Summit (in 1998 and 2010 respectively) and the first in Canada to offer clean renewable power. And, it recently received a significant endorsement when it was named one of the top-ranked meeting destinations in North America by Watkins Research Group for the first time. But perhaps the most significant milestone was the addition of the South Building in June 1997, which doubled the centre’s capacity. “It was evident in the early 1990s that the original centre was not big enough to accommodate events for customers wanting to come to Toronto,” says David Chisholm, vice-president of Sales, MTCC.

Now, MTCC is poised to enter another growth phase, following a comprehensive two-year
feasibility study by Ernst & Young and Conventions, Sports & Leisure, says the centre’s new president and CEO, Lorenz Hassenstein. “Right now, we have excess demand and are having to turn customers away. We believe we can take the steps needed to offer a great deal more economic benefit to the city and the province.”

Much has changed in recent years in terms of audiences and the city’s status on the global stage, says Chisholm. “Toronto now has a more global presence with so much diversity. More than half the people who live here came from somewhere else, [which] has tied directly to our success in hosting international events. Associations are looking for destinations that serve their need for diversity and inclusion.”

In addition to its appeal to diverse audiences, the MTCC offers a number of logistical benefits, including immediate connections to all forms of transit and walkable access to 10,000 hotel rooms, as well as thousands of restaurants, attractions and shopping.

The launch of the UP Express (Union Pearson Express) train service from Pearson International Airport during the Pan American Games in 2016 has proven to be an additional draw for planners. This addition heightened ease of access to MTCC and the city as a whole, as Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), GO Transit, VIA Rail and UP Express services all converge at nearby Union Station.

“Delegates can get from the airport to Union in 25 minutes, while enjoying free Wi-Fi, then walk indoors to up to five different hotels,” Chisholm says. Those include the InterContinental Toronto Centre and Delta Hotels Toronto, which are directly attached to the centre. “We also work closely with Tourism Toronto and other local hotels to support large meetings from outside Canada. In our business, collaboration is extremely important.”

The proximity has become a significant advantage in an increasingly environmentally conscious world, Chisholm explains. “Gone are the days where meeting planners would have to [use] shuttle busses to bring guests to hotels. Because of the concern for climate change, they want venues where people can walk or take transit.”

This is only one of many sustainability initiatives at the heart of MTCC’s operations, says Christine Tse, director of Marketing. “More than ever, we’re getting requests from planners and organizers for sustainable meeting solutions or operations. That demand drives everything we do, including procurement, recycling and food-and-beverage services. We also put measurements in place so planners can see how we lessen the impact on the environment.”

Through its many sustainability efforts, MTCC has been able to divert 90 per cent of its waste from landfill, among other achievements. “We have a strong, robust recycling program. It’s been part of the onboarding process since day one,” Chisholm says.

Another important legacy is its contributions to the community. To date, MTCC has donated more than 340,000 meals to local food-rescue organizations, including the Toronto District School Board’s Student Nutrition Program and the Daily Bread Food Bank, among others. The organization also donates extra furniture and flowers to local organizations and women’s shelters.

There have been many defining moments for Chisholm, who has spent more than 20 years with the organization. One was the 2010 G20 Summit. “They knocked on our door in December, so we had to free up the entire centre for a 15-day window. We had just seven months to create a successful and secure event.”

Another example is the 2006 International AIDS Conference, which attracted political and industry luminaries from around the world, including Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. “That event was at the forefront of everything going on around the world,” he says.

A great testament to the MTCC’s success is an extremely loyal customer base. “We have a great track record of repeat customers,” Chisholm says.

A particular point of pride is the Canadian International Auto Show, which has been a cornerstone event for the venue since it opened. “It’s been here since day one. As the building grew, it grew.”

Part of that loyalty can be attributed to the centre’s high employee retention, where turnover stands at a surprisingly low 10 per cent. MTCC employs up to 800 staff, 350 of which are full-time. Many have been with the organization for more than 10 years, which Chisholm says works to its advantage. “Customers like to work with people they see all the time. It’s a lot easier when they know about your events.”

“Our HR department does a wonderful job of ensuring we have the best programs for employees, including a recent initiative that allows employees a day to volunteer outside the centre,” Tse adds.

Given its longevity, MTCC has seen its fair share of difficult times in the industry, but has had the resiliency to weather them, Chisholm says. “When SARS happened in 2003, it had a major impact. Many conventions were cancelled and revenues disappeared. We were able to recover fairly quickly and had strong years from 2004 to late 2008, until the recession hit.”

A key advantage is that many of its operations are managed in-house, which allows the team to respond quickly to changes, he explains. “We don’t subcontract our food-and-beverage or infrastructure services, including Internet and Wi-Fi. That allows us to be flexible in working with customers.”

The future of the industry is an ongoing topic of discussion at MTCC, Chisholm says. The U.S. political climate in particular has bolstered projections for the time being. “We’re seeing more interest in hosting international events outside the U.S. New business has been more interested in Canada because of the fear international attendees won’t get into the U.S. Right now, attracting an international audience is a lot easier to do in Canada.”

MTCC has always been able to keep pace with change and make necessary adjustments, he adds. “We continue to be a high-demand destination and revenues are certainly growing; but we also know that can change.”

In response, MTCC has been looking for ways to expand to meet growing demand. The recent feasibility study provided a number of important take- aways that will drive its future direction, Hassenstein says. “The first is that 90 per cent of customers prefer to be in a downtown location at MTCC or the nearby district. That’s critically important to our success.”

A second is the need to access hotel inventory, he adds. “The competition
for rooms in Toronto has increased. We’ve gone from 5,100 available rooms five years ago to 3,600. In a couple of years, accessible hotel space will be [down to] 2,700 to 2,800,” he says, noting accessibility to hotels over time has gone down due to competition for rooms from other areas and not enough new properties in that core area to fill demand.

A third critical focus is exhibit space. “We haven’t expanded in 15 years, but we continue to get more attention from customers. Many of their events are growing as well. Not only will we need to expand hotel rooms, we need to add 100,000 sq. ft. of event space to each of our buildings, plus meeting rooms and other facilities that go with that.”

Given the centre is now turning away more than $0.75 billion in revenues every two years, based on major customer data, there’s a huge opportunity for MTCC moving forward. “Canada is in demand because of the favourable exchange rates and our inclusive culture,” says Hassenstein. “We just need better assets to support that demand — that will add a lot of value to the community.”

Joining Hassenstein and the MTCC on its journey forward is Ron Pellerine, who was appointed the centre’s general manager in September 2019. A hospitality industry veteran with international experience, Pellerine most recently served as the GM of the Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto. “Being a Torontonian, Ron knows the local community and market,” Hassenstein says. “Between the two of us, we’re well suited to understanding how we can best manage our way through new growth opportunities.”

Written by Denise Deveau


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