Profile, Craig Lehto, General manager, Vancouver Convention Centre

Conventions boss draws on his experience working for several Olympic Games in the United States and Canada | Chung Chow

It’s tough to ask Craig Lehto, general manager of the Vancouver Convention Centre, for a favourite Olympic moment. Having worked multiple Winter Olympic Games including 1988 in Calgary, 2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Torino, 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi, he’s been front and centre for countless historic moments.

“That should be the easiest question in the world for me,” Lehto said. “I think what I enjoy with the convention centre here and working with a lot of people is … getting to the finish line. I enjoyed the endings of each Games – knowing that you’ve put in the work and effort and brought together a team that can go through to a finish line. That’s always represented the most magnificent piece of it to me.”

Lehto was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 1965 and was raised in Calgary, attending Mount Royal College and the University of Calgary. He received a degree in physical education and facility management in 1987, but it was his daily commute while achieving his degree that initially put him on his career path.

While making his way to school every day in Calgary, Lehto drove past the Paskapoo Ski Hill, which was being turned into Canada Olympic Park in preparation for the 1988 Winter Olympics. He said watching the transformation made an impression on him. 

“I was absolutely fixated on the amount of effort that it was taking to build this Olympic-sized venue,” he said. “And I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.”

Lehto said hosting the Olympics in Calgary was an “eye-opener.” 

“That was my very first experience with international sport and events that size, so it was great to be in my hometown and great to be involved with that major effort.”

The first Winter Olympic Games to be held on Canadian soil also turned out to be the launching point for Lehto’s career path.

“It was a time when the Games were growing quite a bit from where they had been in Sarajevo [in 1984] to where they were in Calgary. So a lot of what impacted me in the future with legacy and what sport meant and the priority of a Games all started in Calgary.”

That path eventually took Lehto to Utah, after he was recruited to be the venue general manager for the Utah Olympic Park during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The city was a unique host given its size, said Lehto, who lived in the area for nine years.

“They were certainly in a smaller community or a smaller part of America,” he said. “It wasn’t in a big city, and I think that made it very intimate, and I learned a lot about community – about how an international event can fit into a community and how a community can take advantage of an international event.”

After Utah, Lehto did some consulting work for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. He then came back to Canada, where he jumped on board during the planning phase for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. From 2005 up until the Games, he led a team of 1,200 workers as the director of sliding sports and was also the venue general manager of the Whistler Sliding Centre. Working his third Winter Games, Lehto learned a thing or two about strapping into the Olympic roller-coaster ride – and about what it feels like after it’s all over.

“It is a bit of a hangover,” he said. “It is a big drop after years and years focusing on those 17 days and knowing what you will be doing every minute of those days. I was very fortunate, [in] those Games that I was involved heavily with, I had an opportunity to stay and be there in those communities for a long time leading up to [the Olympics], and then afterwards as well.”

He added that the best remedy is to book a vacation after the Games to help with the transition.

“Once you get through those 17 days you really have to celebrate and you really have to shut down for a little bit. Because it really is a letdown in terms of the amount of energy and the amount of time, the amount of brainpower that goes into what you’re trying to accomplish. So it really takes some recouping.”

Special Olympics Canada asked Lehto to come on as a volunteer to oversee the sports component of the 2014 Summer Olympics in Vancouver. Special Olympics British Columbia president and chief executive officer Dan Howe knew he was asking a lot of Lehto to work unpaid, but Lehto said he got nothing but excitement in return. 

“The Games were an outstanding success, and Craig played a key role in making them that success,” Howe said. “Craig was a superstar. His focus was on the athlete experience, and he used all his people skills, organizational skills and leadership skills to get the job done. To put the time, energy and resources into a volunteer commitment that Craig did is a testament to his belief in the community.”

Lehto also did some consulting work for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In 2011 he had become assistant general manager of the Vancouver Convention Centre, and in 2015 he was promoted to general manager. 

A recent report by the International Congress and Convention Association and Watkins Research Group ranked Vancouver the top city in North America for international meetings. According to the report, Vancouver hosted 78 international meetings in 2015, more than any other city in North America, and placed 29th in the world. 

Lehto said the transition from working Olympic Games to more of a static role in Vancouver has taken some getting used to, but he’s enjoying the switch.

“It’s not absolutely natural,” he said. “There are a lot of very similar components. It [has] the same ingredients; we do about 557 events a year. Not all of them Olympic-size, of course, but some of them quite big.”