Politics

Canucks and cash helped Vancouver land ‘the Olympics of Tech’

Dan Fumano: Bringing Web Summit, a major tech conference, to B.C. took more than a year of behind-the-scenes work and at least $14 million of public funds.

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The two former schoolmates embraced tightly and slapped each other’s backs.

“We did it. We did it,” said Casey Lau, head of Asia Pacific for Web Summit, one of the world’s top tech-conference organizers. As Lau hugged Ken Sim, with whom he attended Vancouver’s Churchill Secondary School decades ago, he told the now-mayor: “I’m super-proud of the city.”

Lau and Sim were among a crowd of excited government officials and business people at an event Friday in KPMG’s downtown Vancouver office tower, toasting the week’s news: Web Summit is coming to Vancouver for three years starting in 2025, slated to bring tens of thousands of delegates and hundreds of millions in economic impact for the city.

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Getting the event to the West Coast required a lot of behind-the-scenes work among different levels of government and private-sector actors — and at least $14 million of public funds.

An event on Friday, June 14, 2024 to celebrate the announcement that Vancouver will host the 2025 Web Summit
An event on Friday, June 14, 2024 to celebrate the announcement that Vancouver will host the 2025 Web Summit, an annual event billed as the ‘Olympics of tech’. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The event, formerly known as Collision Conference and sometimes described as “the Olympics of tech,” was held in Las Vegas in past years, and then New Orleans, and most recently in Toronto from 2019 until this year’s edition, which later this month marks its final time in Canada’s most-populous city before moving west next year.

“The Toronto deal was ending,” explained Lau, who is now based in Hong Kong. “I said: ‘I know this guy in Vancouver,’” meaning Sim, “and then that’s how it started.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Sim said he has had his eye on bringing this event to his hometown since soon after being sworn into office in late 2022.

Sim, an entrepreneur before getting into politics, is a major booster of Vancouver’s tech scene. He seems to love big business conferences and international events, especially those that shine a spotlight on Vancouver and boost the city’s international profile. When the news broke earlier this week about Web Summit Vancouver 2025, Sim was in London for a tech event there.

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Long before this week’s headlines, government officials, private-sector players and lobbyists were working toward this result.

B.C.’s lobbyist registry shows that last year, Destination Vancouver enlisted the services of Thoughtbridge Management Consultants, led by Bill Tam, to help Vancouver’s work putting together a competitive bid to attract what was then known as Collision Conference.

The province contributed $200,000 to support Destination Vancouver’s bid development efforts, said a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation.

Later, the B.C. government put up $6.6 million to secure Web Summit for three years — $3 million in cash for the organizers and $3.6 million for “in-kind contributions,” the details of which are still to be determined, the ministry spokesperson said.

The federal government also kicked in $6.6 million to support the hosting of Web Summit Vancouver, said a spokesperson for Pacific Economic Development Canada.

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim at an event Friday, June 14, 2024 to celebrate the announcement that Vancouver will host the 2025 Web Summit. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Brenda Bailey, B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic development and innovation, says this public investment will provide a great return for B.C.

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“It’s very appropriate for people to ask that question. This is money that belongs to the public, and we have to spend it very carefully,” Bailey said. “You can imagine the level of analysis that goes into making a decision like this, to support such a thing as a splashy conference. But it’s not the splash that attracts me, it’s the investment community and opportunities that will come out of this.”

Earlier this year, some of the Web Summit organizers visited Vancouver, where they met Sim and others, and Victoria, where they met Bailey.

The organizers also attended a Vancouver Canucks game while they were in town.

Neither Sim nor his chief of staff attended the game with the group, the mayor’s office said in a statement, but the hockey tickets were “generously provided by the Vancouver Canucks” to local tech industry leaders “an opportunity for the Web Summit team to experience the energy and vibrancy of Vancouver first hand.”

Vancouver’s ABC-majority council publicly threw its support behind a bid for the event in September, after Sim introduced a motion that was seconded by Green Coun. Pete Fry.

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The effort, Fry said, represented “a rare moment of collaboration” across party lines.

Then, in April, council conditionally approved a cash grant of $250,000 to the event organizers, along with up to $1.32 million in “value-in-kind offset grants” over three years, including waiving fees for operational and public safety costs, street banners and permits for Web Summit to host events on outdoor city-owned public spaces.

The April meeting was closed to the public, which is normal for certain types of meetings. But information from the meeting was released publicly this week, following the announcement of Web Summit coming to Vancouver.

While Web Summit has grown over the years, the firm and its CEO, Paddy Cosgrave, have also drawn controversy and criticism. Not everyone in Torontos’ tech industry was sad to see Collision leave town. In a commentary last year in The Globe and Mail, Philippe Telio, founder of Canadian tech conference Startupfest, argued that public money would be better directed to homegrown Canadian organizations. Collision was receiving about $6.5 million a year in public funds, Telio wrote, and was asking for even more money to stay in Toronto, a request the government should reject.

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Vancouver’s bid was also supported by Frontier Collective, a not-for-profit working to boost Vancouver’s high-tech sector. Frontier Collective co-founder and CEO Dan Burgar said Web Summitt will be “a game-changer” for the city.

Vancouver has a burgeoning tech scene, Burgar said, but it lacks access to early-stage capital to help companies scale up, as well as an international profile. Web Summit, he said, will help with both.

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