Conventional Wisdom: Pat Kelly on the challenges of putting the capital on the meeting planner map

Pat Kelly
Pat Kelly stepped down as CEO of the Shaw Centre in March of 2015.

When Pat Kelly was named CEO of the Ottawa Congress Centre in 2007, one of the first things he did was find out how many conventions would have to be relocated while the archaic facility was torn down and replaced with a shiny new building.

Figuring the massive project to raze the 70,000-square-foot Congress Centre and build a space nearly three times that size would take two and a half years, he also checked with his counterparts in Quebec City and Edmonton to see how many conventions they had on their dockets in that time span.

Both of those cities had at least 40 major events on the books, about what he expected for the Congress Centre. Ottawa’s actual number shocked him. 

“We were sitting with 15 – the nation’s capital,” the affable 61-year-old said in a recent interview with OBJ, shaking his head. “And it was just because the building had become irrelevant. We couldn’t compete.”

For most of the ensuing decade, Mr. Kelly’s mission was to make the country’s fourth-largest city, long forgotten as a convention destination, a key player in the game. On March 27, eight years to the day after he took over as head of Ottawa’s main downtown meeting facility, Mr. Kelly officially said goodbye.

The former hotel manager felt it was simply time to move on to new challenges. After a short vacation to pursue one of his other passions – golf – the grandfather of four plans to launch his own firm. 

“One of the career aspirations I’ve always had … was to actually strike out on my own and put together a small hospitality consulting business and help other organizations succeed in the hospitality industry,” he said. “I thought if I was going to do this, this was the time.”

Mr. Kelly initially planned to leave shortly after the Shaw Centre, then called the Ottawa Convention Centre, opened in 2011.

“But I enjoyed it so much that before I knew it, I found myself approaching the eight-year mark,” he said. “I’ve grown to love this place. I look upon it as my baby.”

When asked what achievement he’s proudest of as CEO, he replied without hesitation.

“I’d have to say the team that’s here at the Shaw Centre,” he said. 

“Everyone raves about the building and rightfully so – it’s a phenomenal convention centre. We knew we had a unique building, a unique product. But we didn’t want to be known for that in the marketplace. If all we were known for was a great building, but things didn’t work inside, you lose your customers pretty quickly. This is the best team I’ve ever worked with.”

Mr. Kelly said he believes the 192,000-square-foot facility, which has drawn raves for local architect Ritchard Brisbin’s unique “tulip” design, has put Ottawa back on the map with meeting planners around the world.

"If all we were known for was a great building, but things didn’t work inside, you lose your customers pretty quickly. This is the best team I’ve ever worked with."

“Opening up the Shaw Centre opened up Ottawa to the types of events that a capital city should be hosting,” he said. “The other thing it did for Ottawa was it then made Ottawa a player in the markets that we weren’t able to play in previously, and that’s the U.S. and European convention markets.”

Cracking those markets remains a work in progress, he conceded. In its first four years, the facility has hosted an average of 45 conventions annually, but only a handful are for organizations outside Canada.

The building has set a target of 60 conventions a year by 2020, and Mr. Kelly believes most of that growth will come from international clients. The Shaw Centre is working with agencies such as Ottawa Tourism to promote the city as a meeting place in London, Washington, D.C. and other major world capitals, and he says those efforts are starting to pay dividends.

Three British organizations have already booked the building for next year, he said. The Shaw Centre is hosting the international One Young World summit in 2016, an event that is expected to draw thousands of delegates from 190 countries.

“That’s the type of event that not only could not have met in Ottawa prior to our opening, but it’s also the kind of event that really is great for the Ottawa brand,” Mr. Kelly said. “It starts to open up the eyes of meeting planners in places like London and Brussels and Washington, D.C.”

An extra 15 foreign conventions a year would bring an additional 12,000-15,000 high-spending delegates to the National Capital Region, he said, each staying an average of three or four nights.

“The economic impact of that effort is huge,” Mr. Kelly said.

Still, questions linger about whether the Shaw Centre is really worth its $170-million price tag. 

The Ontario government, which owns the building, contributed $50 million to its construction, with the federal government matching that total. The City of Ottawa chipped in $40 million, while private lenders provided the rest.

A feasibility study in 2007 projected the new convention centre would attract about 113,000 out-of-town visitors annually, up from the 80,000 that attended events at the Congress Centre. But an Ipsos Reid impact study two years ago found the facility drew 54,400 guests from other cities in 2012. 

Mr. Kelly said the 2012 figures include only convention visitors, numbers that are easy to measure because all delegates must register. 

But the vast majority of the convention centre’s 500 annual events are smaller consumer and trade shows, fundraising galas, charity events and weddings. Out-of-town visitor tallies for those bookings are much more difficult to track and even harder to predict, he said.

“No question, we simply overprojected that particular segment,” Mr. Kelly said. “It wasn’t intentional. It was based on the data that we had at the time.”

While initial studies projected the building would turn seven-figure profits, the Shaw Centre’s annual gross surplus has averaged about $300,000 in its first four years. Mr. Kelly said that still puts it on much better footing than most other facilities of its nature.

“You would be hard-pressed to find any convention centre, let alone one our size, that is turning a profit like that, if turning a profit at all,” he said. “It’s a challenging business model. So far we’ve been able to keep our heads above water.”

The Shaw Centre pumps more than $75 million back into the local economy every year, he said, and pays millions of dollars in taxes to the province and city. 

“It’s been a great investment,” Mr. Kelly said, calling the Shaw Centre “one of the best uses of taxpayer money that I’m aware of, without question.”

There’s still work to do, he added. He believes the city needs another major downtown hotel with 400 to 500 rooms, something he thinks will happen by the end of the decade. The planned redevelopment of LeBreton Flats and the widening of the Airport Parkway will also make the capital more convention-friendly, he said.

All in all, Mr. Kelly said, Ottawa is a much more attractive destination now for major national and international events than it was 10 years ago.

“We have some real competitive advantages that we’re able to lay in front of a convention planner in London or D.C. or Brussels,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to expose Ottawa to a whole swath of the world that we haven’t been able to in the past. I think the future looks very bright.”