The roads taken to host the next big international sport event in Vancouver

Aug 23 2019, 9:59 pm

What do major sporting events held in Vancouver over the past year, such as the IIHF World Junior Championships of Ice Hockey, ISU Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating, and NCAA Vancouver Basketball Showcase, all have in common?

Unlike Vancouver’s past reactiveness pursuits of sporting events, these were all won with the planning expertise and marketing infrastructure of Sport Hosting Vancouver (SHV), a dynamic department of two people within the City of Vancouver that proactively seeks out these incremental tourism generating-opportunities.

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SHV ramped up its work shortly after Vancouver’s central role in Canada’s hosting of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

And they’re continuously on a roll; early this month, Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club was announced as the host of the 2020 CP Canadian Women’s Open — one of the most prestigious events on the LGPA Tour — and sometime over the coming weeks, another major international high-profile sporting event will also be announced for the city.

“There is an extensive calendar of events that are available out there. Each one has different requirements that we have to evaluate and take into consideration to mitigate risk,” Michelle Collens, the senior manager of Sport Hosting Vancouver, told Daily Hive in an interview.

“As a city, we’re looking at those that are self-sufficient, where they deliver themselves, as opposed to the city having to host and run the event. We’re fortunate that we’re in a position where a lot of these events may come to us to consider.”

NCAA Vancouver Showcase

A temporary basketball stadium was constructed inside a Vancouver Convention Centre exhibition hall for the NCAA Vancouver Showcase in November 2018. (Sport Hosting Vancouver)

The department is supported by and works closely with other regional partners, including Tourism Vancouver, Vancouver Hotel Destination Association (VHDA), Tourism Whistler, and entities in Burnaby and Richmond, as well as major venue partners such as Pavco (BC Place Stadium and Vancouver Convention Centre), Pacific National Exhibition (Pacific Coliseum), and the University of British Columbia (Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre).

She explains that SHV is highly strategic when it comes to selecting which events to pursue, by working with major venues to ensure they are not tripping over each other in the events calendar.

Supporting businesses and hotels during the slower tourism months

For the most part, Collens says their strategy for bidding for events revolves around calendar events held during the shoulder of the tourism season — essentially, between October and April.

During the late spring, summer, and early fall months, hotel rooms in Vancouver are already reaching high occupancy levels, due to the heightened overnight seasonal tourism and cruise ship passenger levels — both of which have seen extraordinary growth in recent years.

In some scenarios, it may simply be a matter of scheduling a sporting event over the weekend, as opposed to the weekdays when business conferences are held.

davis cup tennis ubc doug mitchell thunderbird sports centre

Davis Cup held at UBC Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in April 2013. (Standing In Motion)

But when coupled with other events like a large conference held at the Vancouver Convention Centre or a concert held at BC Place Stadium, hotel room occupancy across the city easily soars to maximum capacity levels.

“We look at their calendar to make sure we don’t overstress demand that has an influence on hotel price. We are very strategic to make sure the product we are offering is flexible and affordable for our visitors.

“This proactiveness is why Sport Hosting Vancouver exists, as opposed to the reactiveness of the past. The odd time you get a phone call and someone is excited about an event in July, for example. While we greatly appreciate their interest, we then ask if there is any possibility if there is another time of the year that is a better fit for them.”

This strategizing is now more important than ever: There is an overall shortage in hotel rooms in the region as a result of a number of recent major hotel closures, largely for redevelopment, specifically lower-cost hotel properties.

In fact, there are now less hotel rooms in the city than the pre-Olympic period; according to a city report, there were 13,925 rooms in Vancouver in 2018 — down from 15,030 rooms in 2008. Vancouver also accounts for 57% of the 23,000 room capacity across the region. Recent regulations the curb short-term rentals such as Airbnb have also resulted in an overall loss in accommodations for tourists.

Vancouver hotel

Vancouver’s hotel room stock. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver tourism

Vancouver’s hotel shortage compared with rising overnight visitation. (City of Vancouver)

Success with Vancouver’s annual HSBC Canada Sevens tournament

Building on the momentum of Vancouver’s hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, one of SHV’s first and biggest wins was working with the bid committee that secured Vancouver’s rights to host an annual stop for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

The 10-city stop tournament is held throughout the year, and Vancouver was able to successfully compete with other global cities to land on a circuit date during the city’s shoulder season.

Every year since the inaugural Vancouver tournament held in 2016, the two-day event has been held over a weekend in March.

For organizers, the inaugural year for HSBC Canada Sevens was an immediate attendance success; BC Place Stadium’s entire lower bowl of about 30,000 seats sold out a week prior to the event, pushing organizers to open up thousands of seats in the upper bowl.

Capacity has been increased every year, reaching 40,000 seats per day for the most recent tournament held this past March.

HSBC Canada Sevens at BC Place Stadium in March 2018. (Rugby Canada)

“When we bid for this event, we didn’t know that Rugby Sevens was going to become an Olympic sport beginning at Tokyo 2020, so the profile of the sport was growing as we were bidding for it,” said Collens.

Collens highlighted the tournament was also a “good travel product,” with rugby fans around the world used to going on tour.

She also credits HSBC Canada Sevens’ success for its ability to attract a wide spectrum of attendees, not just rugby fans. So much of this, of course, has to do with encouraging fans to dress up in costume — and Vancouver spectators understood this right from the beginning.

“You don’t have to be a rugby fan or knowledgable about rugby sevens to understand what is going on, you can be someone who just wants to enjoy the atmosphere… and in the process you become a fan of rugby sevens and you want to repeat,” she said.

Spectators in costume at the HSBC Canada Sevens held at BC Place Stadium in 2018. (Canada Sevens)

On the field of play, Collens says World Rugby’s survey of the players in 2018 ranked Vancouver as the number one stop in the entire circuit, beating the experiences hosted by Dubai, Cape Town, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, Los Angeles, and Hamilton in New Zealand.

“This response from players is a testament that what is happening on the field of play is just as exciting as what is happening for the fans, and I think that’s where we’re going to get our credibility as we grow forward,” she explained.

For these reasons, she said, this led to World Rugby’s decision earlier this year to have Vancouver host the circuit stop for another four years, until at least 2023.

Taking existing sporting events to the next level

Aside from attracting new sporting events to the city, SHV is also working to improve existing annual events that need just a little push to take them to the next level.

Collens pointed to SHV’s recent efforts with the organizers of the BMO Vancouver Marathon, which saw a record-breaking attendance of over 18,000 runners in May.

All of the races, including both the Full Marathon and Half Marathon, sold out, and the growth of international runners increased by 25% over the last two years. The scenic marathon route now attracts runners from about 65 countries, according to organizers.

And there is now a drive to maintain the race’s standing as the largest marathon in Canada, and eventually one of the world’s best destination marathons — right up there with the races in Boston, London, New York City, and Berlin.

“We have an amazing marathon in the city, but how can we take that to market it internationally and bring in new visitors, layer with it other components, grow attendance? I think it’s just a better use of our dollars, by giving them some resources to take it to the next level,” she said.

vancouver marathon

BMO Vancouver Marathon. (Christopher Morris / RUNVAN)

In collaboration with Tourism Whistler, this same approach was applied to the annual RBC Grand Fondo, which will evolve into the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships in September 2020. The elite race is held in a different region around the globe every year.

Thousands of riders will follow the same scenic route established by the Gran Fondo Whistler, which begins in downtown Vancouver, crosses the Lions Gate Bridge, traverses the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and ends in Whistler Village. The gruelling closed-course race has a distance of 122 km and an elevation of 6,200 ft.

The RBC Grand Fondo in 2018 saw about 4,500 cyclists, and with the UCI World Championship layered onto the event in 2020 there could be as many as 3,000 additional cyclists.

When the entourage of coaches and other support crew, family, and friends are included, there could be as many as 7,000 additional people at next year’s race held in Vancouver and Whistler.

Sea-to-Sky Highway

Cyclists on the Lions Gate Bridge during the closed-course RBC Gran Fondo Race. (RBC Gran Fondo)

“If we can build off on existing events and grow them to the next level, I think that’s where our priority is laid over the interim. And as we get really good at that, then we’ll expand and grow and look at some larger commercial one-offs,” said Collens.

“Right now those are big entities and big risks, and we need to have event producers who want to work with us and make that investment with us in Vancouver. We’re building that portfolio so that we get that credibility, and so that Vancouver becomes a reputable partner to be with and hosting.”

The next ‘Olympics’

BC has a history of hosting some of the world’s largest international sporting events every few decades.

The province held the Commonwealth Games — a miniature Summer Olympics — twice; Vancouver held the Commonwealth Games in 1954, and Victoria followed in 1994.

Needless to say, in 2010 Vancouver hosted the Olympic Winter Games.

Fireworks exploding from the roof of BC Place Stadium at the end of the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. (mediamon / YouTube screenshot)

And in 2017, there was a push by the City of Victoria to submit a bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2022, but that bid fell apart after the provincial government expressed its unwillingness to financially commit to the event.

The bid committee at the time expected Victoria 2022 to cost about $1 billion, with the provincial government and federal government each contributing $400 million.

Most of the bid’s venue plan depended on the use of existing facilities, including venues built for the 1994 Games and two venues in the Vancouver region — BC Place Stadium for rugby and Richmond Olympic Oval for badminton and table tennis.

Victoria 1994 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony

Queen Elizabeth II opened the Commonwealth Games of Victoria, held over 10 days in August 1994. The Opening Ceremony was held at the University of Victoria campus. (University of Victoria)

New direct capital investments for Victoria 2022 included a new 40,000-seat stadium for athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies in Victoria’s West Shore, a new arena for gymnastics, and an athletes village large enough for 5,000 athletes from over 70 nations of the Commonwealth.

“We consider these one-off events at that scale a mega event,” said Collens. “It requires all three levels of government to align and define that is the next big one. We hope that every 10 years, there is one of those big one-offs that we can hang our hats on.”

“But really, the bread and butter for our return on investment and opportunity are going to be those marque and destinations events. These are more at a level of where venue rights holders, tourism business partners, and the host city can self-determine that event and what we want for it. We can be proactive, have a faster response rate, and have a higher return on those events than those big signature pieces we call mega events.”

BC Place

BC Place Stadium in Vancouver during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (BC Place Stadium)

Collens says SHV is currently largely working in the capacity of only seeking events that can be held by the venues and infrastructure that are already in place.

One of those events was Vancouver’s likely role as a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which had been designed by the joint Canada-USA-Mexico bid committee as a relatively low-cost event that only utilizes existing venues and infrastructure.

For previous hosts, the FIFA World Cup usually involved the construction of extensive new facilities — stadiums and transportation infrastructure, and necessary accommodations — to support the tournament.

Taking these large capital expenses out of the equation, the 2026 tournament — narrowed down to mainly the operating costs for the 12+ host cities, three host nations, and various state and provincial jurisdictions — will be on the very low end of what is usually associated with this ‘mega event’.

Following its experience with the Olympics and the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which had its championship final match held at BC Place Stadium, Vancouver was expected to have a highly central role in Canada’s hosting duties for the 2026 tournament.

But again, as the owner and operator of BC Place Stadium, the provincial government was unwilling to financially commit to Vancouver’s role when a final decision was needed on its participation in the bid. The City of Vancouver and SHV reacted with disappointment over the decision at the time.

All paths taken so far in recent years lead straight back to 2010; it goes without saying that Vancouver’s event infrastructure, knowledge, and experience in successfully hosting large sporting events is one of the lasting legacies of the Winter Olympics.

Vancouver 2010 VANOC

Olympic rings atop Grouse Mountain and in the waters of False Creek were some of the original ‘Look of the Games’ concepts envisioned for Vancouver 2010. (VANOC)

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