Calder At Large
Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Who'll pay when conventions stop coming?

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Demand for management meetings in our far-flung isles dubious in face of the low-cost online alternative.

Utherverse software allows users to "create and populate" virtual worlds.
Utherverse software allows users to "create and populate" virtual worlds.

What if you built it and nobody came? Is there not at least a possibility the convention centre SkyCity is building in Auckland will turn out to be as future-proof as the windjammer and the rotary-dial telephone?

It relies on questionable assumptions for its commercial viability, not least among them that the world is full of organisations aching to send legions of middle managers for a week to the most remote destination on Earth where they can run up huge bills on a company credit card.

It's worth wondering who will carry the can if the convention centre turns out to be a white elephant.

A couple of weeks ago, Herald columnist Brian Rudman asked whether anyone had calculated how much it will cost Auckland ratepayers when conventions stop signing up for the Aotea Centre in favour of the new place. But I'm inclined to wonder who will pay when conventions stop signing up for the new place.

A convention centre that is full week after week would surely deliver economic benefit to the city that surrounds it. But Brian Shuster is one man whose whole life is based on the assumption that convention centres are going to get emptier and emptier.

Shuster is the founder and chief executive of Utherverse, a Vancouver-based company that creates networks of interconnected virtual worlds. Its basis is the so-called Virtual World Web, which Shuster contrasts with the "flat web" - the one we all know and use.

Utherverse develops software and browsers that allow users to "create and populate" virtual worlds. It has proved very successful in education and real-estate applications, he told me.

"But the virtual-convention business is the most successful. It is the one that immediately received attention and popularity. You can stage massive trade shows, have speakers, discussion panels, and handout materials, and the cost for a person to attend measures in the pennies.

"The cost to create a booth, which is at least in multiples of thousands for a real show, has gone down to the hundreds of dollars."

The deal the Government signed with SkyCity means the city gets a $402 million convention centre for nothing and the casino operator gets extra pokie machines and other concessions.

Public opinion is about two to one against the idea but from SkyCity's point of view the business case must have looked better than watertight:the concessions it receives will be worth as much as $527 million over the 35-year lifetime of the deal.

Gambling, like liquor, is famously a recession-proof industry since it offers fun in good times and hope in hard times. But conventions are a different matter.

Tucked down at the bottom of the world, New Zealand is an attractive destination for tourists who want to get away from it all. But people go to conventions to get together with others, not get away from them.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce describes the centre as a piece of infrastructure that will attract high-value visitors and will be "crucial both from Auckland and the country's perspective".

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) chief executive Brett O'Riley reckons it will contribute to "a transformation of the central city".

But it doesn't take a futurologist to wonder whether the last decade's aspirations are being used to varnish the next decade's reality.

Rising fuel prices and carbon emissions are making long-haul air travel problematic and companies worldwide are retrenching, particularly among the managers who traditionally populate conferences.

"The cost of flying people half way around the world - or even just to Las Vegas if you are doing a conference for the North American market - is extraordinary," says Shuster.

"And the shutdown of business that happens in order to get people out of the office to these conferences is enormously costly for companies."

To people now in their 20s who grew up in virtual worlds such as Second Life, the product that Utherverse offers is familiar.

Those who find it eerily futuristic don't need to think back far to remember when the fax machine seemed improbable, much less video calls on handheld devices.

"What we have now is only the leading edge," Shuster says. "If you project out 15 years or so, the stuff we are doing now is going to look like the internet before there was animation or video."

And maybe, long before this 35-year agreement ends, flying long distances to conventions will be as popular and efficient as delivering mail by pony express.

For more on Utherverse, go to:

- NZ Herald

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