The 2019 NHL Entry Draft could not have arrived at a better time. In fact, for a city that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years and is anticipating international politics to blow back on tourism, it’s a major score.
That is the assessment of officials from the city’s economic scene and executives from the Vancouver Canucks franchise, which will be hosting the draft at Rogers Arena for the first time in more than a decade.
But the value of the draft – scheduled for June 21-22 – isn’t expected to come simply from hosting the event itself. It’s the event’s profile – with global media coverage and energized local sports fan bases – and the opportunity it gives Vancouver to further demonstrate its ability to host large-scale gatherings that outweigh the draft’s direct economic impact (which is substantial in and of itself).
“I think we are probably looking at a direct visitor-spend impact of about $7 million to $9 million,” said Ty Speer, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver. “That’s just from people who are specifically here for this event.”
Tourism Vancouver is estimating a direct visitor count of about 4,000 people from the draft – up to 1,500 NHL and other hockey industry officials, combined with prospects and their families, related media covering the event and others. This, combined with the city hosting part of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships over the past winter and other sporting events, builds on Vancouver’s reputation as a vibrant sports town, Speer said, which is highly conducive to the city getting additional events – and their economic bumps – in the future.
“With events like these, there are things you cannot identify right away that’s adding value to your brand,” he said. “We know that when we host something like the World Juniors, it isn’t just a benefit by itself. It also helps us start conversations with other events that are now looking our way, saying that if we can do this well for the tournament, maybe we can do something similar for those other events.”
That boost to Vancouver’s tourism brand may be coming at a time when the city needs that catalyst more than at any other time in the last few years. The city saw visitor totals reach a record high of 10.7 million and is projecting another high of 11 million this year, but concerns over ongoing trade frictions between China and the United States – as well as frigid relations between China and Canada due to the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. CFO Meng Wanzhou – are worrying officials like Speer because of their potential impact on Vancouver’s tourism numbers.
There have already been reports that Chinese tour operators are warning tourists to avoid the United States in light of tensions between those two countries, and some observers note it is possible for Canada to get the same treatment if the Huawei situation deteriorates.
Potential downward market pressures like that, Speer said, are why an event like the NHL draft can be viewed as a boon in the city’s push for 11 million this year.
“In a big numbers sense, one individual event like the draft isn’t an enormous contributor towards 11 million,” Speer said. The individuals it brings, however, count.
“The NHL is a high-value customer, so they will be investing significantly as compared to the average visitor. So it’s not a volume game, but a value and a brand game.”
Hotels like the Rosewood Hotel Georgia are already reporting they anticipate their establishments to be at or close to 100% capacity for the draft weekend. Other establishments, such as the BC Sports Hall of Fame (located within BC Place Stadium, steps away from Rogers Arena and all the hotels serving the neighbourhood), say they expect foot traffic to improve by at least 25% and potentially as much as 50% or more, depending on whether Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame decides to bring award trophies and the like to the B.C. museum for the draft.
“Probably the best comparison recently is the Heritage Classic in 2014 that was held right here at BC Place,” said Jason Beck, curator and facility director at the BC Sports Hall of Fame. “It was a one-day event, but the buildup for it was all week long. The Canucks and [Ottawa] Senators were practising here all week long, and from our perspective, it was a big week because we partnered with the Hockey Hall of Fame to bring the Stanley Cup here.… We noticed a huge uptake in foot-traffic, especially on the day the cup was here.”
For the neighbourhood immediately around the two sporting venues, Beck said the last few years – when the Canucks, BC Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps FC all simultaneously had struggles of their own – really put a dent in local businesses, with an obvious decline in sports-driven consumer interest that the community depends so heavily on.
That’s why, Beck said, he is hoping that the draft – combined with some signs of renewed excitement around a young Canucks core and a renewed Lions squad – energizes local fan bases and reinvigorates the neighbourhood.
“I would say 2012-2013 was definitely a peak,” he said. “The numbers now are still decent, but you are right that the success hasn’t been there, and any professional team sport, if you win, the trickle-down effect is that much bigger. But it looks like things are going in the right direction.”
That’s also the hope of the Canucks organization, which is planning a big year starting with the new season in the fall, which will be the team’s 50th anniversary as an NHL franchise. Chris Brumwell, the Canucks’ vice-president of communications and community partnerships, said that was one of the main reasons the team began pursuing the NHL in the spring of 2017 to bring the draft to Vancouver ahead of the new season.
“We thought this would be the perfect opportunity to launch our 50th season,” Brumwell said. “It’s an opportunity to honour our history and launch a new era of Canucks hockey.”
The Canucks – perennially the hottest ticket in town during the team’s successful season that culminated in a run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011 – has had difficulty reaching the same season ticket sales since 2014, with reports of falling renewal rates as the current team finished near the bottom of the NHL for four seasons.
But while ticket retailers expected last season to continue the slide, there was renewed optimism stemming from new forward Elias Pettersson, who broke the Canucks record for rookie scoring – held previously by Pavel Bure and Ivan Hlinka – in often spectacular fashion. Along with the emergence of players such as forwards Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, and the high expectations heaped on new defenceman Quinn Hughes, the Canucks saw a rebound in ticket demand last season – a re-emergence in fan enthusiasm that, Brumwell said, is continuing and pushing business upwards.
The Canucks, Brumwell noted, are hoping the NHL Entry Draft opening the 50th anniversary season – combined with the new interest in young players, including whoever the team brings in with its 10th overall pick this year – will buck the trends of the last few years and potentially ignite a stronger year at the gates.
“I can tell you that season ticket renewals have gone very, very well this summer. It’s all part of the storyline we are seeing with the Canucks this year moving forward,” he said.
The Canucks are projecting the draft to bring in about $10 million for the local economy by itself, with about 20,000 hotel room nights of business associated with the visitors. The draft’s first night is already sold out, Brumwell added, and tickets for the second day are expected to sell out soon. •