BMO Convention Centre taking shape as demand for in-person meetings rebounds

 Wednesday, June 28, 2023 


The BMO Convention Centre expansion is still a year away from completion, but already the building is making a difference when it comes to attracting conferences to Calgary.

Stampede CEO Joel Cowley told reporters on a media tour of the structure Thursday that 34 conventions have already been booked in the new space, and 20 of those could not have been accommodated in the old building.

“It is blowing them away,” said Cowley. “And when our sales team goes to these international conventions, and shows renderings and speaks to the building, people are keenly interested in it. Certainly, the remainder of Canada and the competitive markets have taken notice as well of how fantastic this building is.”

The 565,000-square-foot expansion will bring the BMO Centre’s available space to above one million square feet. The new space will boast two ballrooms including one that is 50,000 square feet, 38 meeting rooms, and more than 100,000 square feet of new exhibition space.

The expansion, funded by all three levels of government, is expected to cost $500 million and is keeping 600 workers going six days a week.

Beyond being a functional multi-use space, the design team has created a unique and attractive building that should impress visitors both inside and out with its modern design elements that are meant to accent Calgary’s big skies.Officials noted that there are 150 aerial work platforms on site, since 80 per cent of the construction work is happening at a height of 20 feet or higher.

A hotel-style lobby known as the exchange room will give attendees a place to gather and network. A concierge desk will steer conference attendees to accommodations, restaurants and local events after their meetings are done.

Outside, much of the exterior of the building is clad in copper panels, including the swooping canopy that many saw under construction during the 2022 Stampede.

The canopy has built-in LED lights, which can provide a dynamic light show, or be tuned to any colour to mark special occasions, not unlike the Calgary Tower. It creates a shelter from thundershowers and hailstorms for the 11,000-square-foot patio section of the Stampede’s Brand Room, which will be the third such room in the Stampede’s history.

Officials said the brand room will be booked by convention organizers as a potential VIP area, with access to the balcony. The space is already being eyed for wedding receptions as well.

Greg Newton, general manager of the BMO Centre, said the COVID-19 pandemic helped guide design changes throughout the building.

For instance, two large service elevators, each big enough to transport a pickup truck to the upper floors, will be treated as “clean” and “dirty” elevators during events. Only one will be used to bring new items up, while the other will transport used items back to the main floor — reducing potential for any cross-contamination.

Newton said the pandemic has led to an unprecedented rush to return to large in-person gatherings. He said while online meetings work for small groups, COVID showed that there is value when people can get together en masse.

“So, all of our design is offering both indoor and outdoor (ways for) how people can connect,” he said. “And we’ve talked about fostering serendipitous connections. We can’t force people to connect. But the power of the meeting industry is not necessarily what happens in the meeting room. It’s the ideas that are sparked in the meeting room that are then solved in the public spaces.”

CMLC president and CEO Kate Thompson said despite the pandemic and the many supply chain problems it created, the project remains on time and under budget. She credited that success to the creation of a strong team before the pandemic hit.

“We got out ahead of the pandemic, and then we kept ahead of the pandemic throughout in terms of ordering and tendering and getting the drawings done,” said Thompson. “There was never any slowdown.”

Cowley said the only thing holding the convention centre back now is the lack of hotels in the immediate area, but he expects those to follow before long. In the meantime, he said they will work to transport people to downtown hotels as needed.

He said the hope is that they can provide an open house next year to show off the building to the general public. It is expected to be ready for use for the 2024 Calgary Stampede.

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