Centre of attention: New Shaw Centre CEO believes Ottawa can live up to title of 'Canada's meeting place'

Nina Kressler Shaw Centre
Nina Kressler is the new CEO of the Shaw Centre.

The Shaw Centre’s new boss definitely can’t be accused of setting the bar too low.

Nina Kressler, who took over as chief executive and president on June 1, says the building that has drawn raves for its unique architecture since it opened in 2011 can “absolutely” be the No. 1 convention centre in the country.

“It’s a state-of-the-art, unique, beautiful facility,” says Ms. Kressler, who joined the Shaw Centre as general manager of its food and facilities operations in October 2013 and was named CEO last week. “I think we have a great opportunity there. We have all the amenities here. We just need to get out and sing that battle cry over and over again.”

The 25-year veteran of the hospitality industry takes over for Pat Kelly, who stepped down at the end of March after eight years at the helm. It was Mr. Kelly, a former hotel manager, who shepherded the massive $170-million Shaw Centre project to completion once the provincial, federal and municipal governments agreed to cover most of the cost of replacing the antiquated Ottawa Congress Centre.

Yet while tourism officials often tout the city as “Canada’s meeting place,” the Shaw Centre’s visitor numbers seem to suggest otherwise. Even though business has improved in the four years since it opened its doors, the facility’s gross surplus is still nowhere close to the seven-figure totals its backers projected before it was built, and Ottawa still lags behind other major Canadian cities when it comes to attracting major conventions.

Ms. Kressler, who was vice-president of business development at the Toronto Congress Centre before moving to Ottawa, won’t comment on what some critics call the Shaw Centre’s unfulfilled promise. She sees a “bright future” for the facility, she says, and prefers to focus on that.

“I can’t really speak to (Ottawa’s past struggles to draw large convention traffic), but what I can say is that I think we can definitely increase our market share,” she says. “My goal will be to do that.”

"I always say if you brought a large group to this city, you own it. Whereas in bigger destinations like Toronto, you may be sharing that city with 10, 12, 20 other conventions where nobody knows your name."

Marc Seaman, chair of the facility’s board of directors, says the hiring committee pared 40 initial candidates down to a shortlist of three in an “extensive” national search for a new CEO. In the end, he says, the committee realized the ideal candidate was already in the building.

Ms. Kressler, who brings decades of sales and marketing experience to the role, “really nailed it in terms of the key elements that we were looking for,” he says.

Under her leadership, the Toronto Congress Centre saw a major increase in corporate convention traffic, he says. Ms. Kressler also helped turn the Halifax World Trade and Convention Centre into a “destination of choice” for international as well as domestic convention planners during her tenure there, he adds.

It also helps that she already knows the 192,000-square-foot building inside and out.

“Obviously, that’s a big bonus,” Mr. Seaman says. “It was a real benefit for us that she’s going to be able to seamlessly transition into the role of CEO with a real appreciation of the Shaw Centre’s real strengths and the opportunities that it has.”

Those opportunities, she believes, are numerous.

Like Halifax, Ottawa is a city with a large concentration of academics and professional organizations, she says, adding there is no reason Canada’s capital can’t duplicate the success of Nova Scotia’s capital in luring business groups from the United States and overseas.

“There is an association for everything (in Halifax) and Ottawa is no different than that,” she says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the background here is definitely positioned well to reach out to the international market.”

Despite its obvious strengths as a tourist destination, Ottawa has to do a better job of selling itself to the world, she says.

“I see it as a four-season destination,” she explains. “A lot of places close down in the wintertime because they just say it’s too cold. We embrace it here, and I think it’s fabulous. I always say if you brought a large group to this city, you own it. Whereas in bigger destinations like Toronto, you may be sharing that city with 10, 12, 20 other conventions where nobody knows your name.”

To that end, Ms. Kressler says her top priority will be to meet with her counterparts from organizations such as Ottawa Tourism, the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, Invest Ottawa and the Ottawa International Airport Authority to come up with a co-ordinated marketing strategy.

“It comes back, I think, to old-fashioned salesmanship,” she says.

“I don’t think Ottawa’s necessarily seen yet as a place to bring a corporate business, but I think that’s changing,” she adds, noting Loblaws is bringing its national convention to the Shaw Centre in February. “And I think there’s a lot still out there to be had.”

The Kressler file

October 2013-present

General manager of food and facilities

Shaw Centre

February 2011-May 2013

Vice-president of business development

Toronto Congress Centre

November 2005-February 2011

Vice-president of sales and marketing

Trade Centre Ltd., Halifax