Collision, an annual tech gathering that Forbes called “the best technology conference on the planet,” has welcomed tens of thousands of attendees to New Orleans for the past three years, but that audience may move north of the border in 2019.
Before the decision was made, Paddy Cosgrave, the co-founder of the conference and CEO of Ireland-based Ci, which organizes several tech events around the world, took to LinkedIn to share his perspectives on the search for a new city to call home.
The post — “Justin Trudeau wants us to move Collision to Canada. Should we?” — shared that the event, which was just held in New Orleans at the end of last month, was looking at Toronto for a number of reasons — a multicultural population, the city’s tech-focused future, and a letter from the country’s prime minister.
One can only guess how many great tech entrepreneurs and engineers have been discouraged from attending a tech conference in the U.S. because of uncertainty over immigration policies.
In addition to those positive elements, Cosgrave also offered a candid reflection on the current travel climate. “We know that quite a number of tech entrepreneurs from around the world were denied entry into the United States to attend Collision 2017,” Cosgrave wrote. “That pattern, despite our best efforts, has continued in 2018. One can only guess how many great tech entrepreneurs and engineers have been discouraged from even considering attending a tech conference in the United States recently because of uncertainty over immigration policies.”
Harvey said that the culture of New Orleans has been a huge draw for Collision attendees, but Cosgrave’s post made it clear that the tech conference’s goal of reaching the broadest audience may be at odds with the national “America First” position.
“At the very moment when some countries around the world seem to be shutting their borders, when intolerance is on the rise, Toronto stands for diversity and inclusion,” Cosgrave said when announcing the move on May 1. While international tech entrepreneurs have been denied visas to attend Collision in New Orleans in recent years, “Canada now fast-tracks international work visas.”
A LONG TIME COMING
The “America First” rhetoric has caused recent concerns for the conference industry, but Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, chief executive officer of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), has been worried about the lost financial impact due to visa policies for many years.
In 2010, CEIR commissioned Tourism Economics to conduct a study to gauge how much money the U.S. economy was losing due to visa issues. At the time, the research revealed that visa issues prevented 116,000 international participants from participating in U.S. exhibitions. Their barriers to entry cost the U.S. economy $2.6 billion.
Eight years later, Breden believes that visa issues have only gotten worse. While some reports indicate that international arrivals have declined in recent months, Breden expects the events industry will not fully understand the consequences due to longer booking cycles for events.
“Because contracts are signed so far in advance, we’re not going to see the impact immediately,” Breden told Convene. “Exhibitors have already signed contracts, and people have made their travel arrangements. If we’re going to see an impact, it’s going to happen over the next couple of years.”
That impact could be massive. Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, told Convene that his company’s most recent analysis found that an average international attendee spends more than $6,000 during a visit to the U.S. If events like Collision take their attendees and exhibitors elsewhere, it’s easy to see how $6,000 times tens of thousands of people could put the country on a collision course with economic growth.
“When you see that exports are lagging, it’s clear that there is a trade deficit,” Breden said. “So it seems logical that you would want attendees coming here from other countries to purchase U.S. products, and both attendees and exhibitors coming here to spend their money.”
Despite all the challenges of visa policies, however, Breden remains optimistic. “I still believe we can fix this issue,” she said. “But the first step involves a friendlier welcoming message from Washington, D.C.”
[A print version of this story went to press before the decision to move to Toronto was announced.]