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Women Deliver conference in Vancouver wins hearts and minds

When sleeping women awaken, mountains move,” said Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver.

This sentiment echoes the effort that the Vancouver Convention Centre and their partners put into securing the conference which took place in June 2019.

The Canadian conference centre had previously bid for the event but had failed. Learning from their mistakes, this time, they threw everything they had at it to win, a joint effort which involved the Vancouver board of trade, Women in Business and local neighbourhoods.

It was a very emotional journey,” Claire Smith, Vancouver CC’s vice president of sales and marketing said. Once they had won the bid, “there was a groundswell of excitement from all the suppliers who came up with unprecedented offers,” she added. “I’ve never known anything like it in all my time working in the business.”

Stephanie Johnson, the conference’s international sales manager, told me the incredible lengths they went to in order to secure the event. “We were bidding against 50 cities. Then it went down to 12. After this, we had to submit an extremely detailed proposal. When we were whittled down to the last six, the decision makers came for a site visit. I’m not ashamed to say that when we won, I cried,” Johnson said.

I thought about why it was so important to win the Women Deliver conference. After all, Vancouver CC hold 500 events every year, so they must have seen it all.

But this was different. The winner would bring home the world’s largest conference on gender equality; the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women.

The event aims to influence policy makers and politicians. It’s not just about changing hearts and minds, but also to drive investment – political and financial – in the lives of girls and women across the globe.

Women Deliver brought in 8,000 world leaders, influencers, advocates, academics, activists, and journalists from more than 150 countries to Vancouver during 3-6 June 2019. Hotels were at full capacity in the city.

It’s also about putting pressure on governments to change laws. Justin Trudeau, who spoke at the opening ceremony, describes himself as a feminist. And with some cause, as he had previously formed Canada’s first gender balanced cabinet in 2015.

Canada certainly put cash behind the hot air promulgated by politicians. Just before the Women Deliver conference, Gender Equality and International Development Minister Maryam Monsef announced her government’s $300 million contribution to kickstart a new platform that will provide help to women’s organisations in Canada and internationally. 

The meeting planner was keen to point out that they were not a conference but a movement,” Smith said. “They didn’t really ask about the hotel rooms but wanted to turn the conference into an inspiration centre. The stands were called ‘fuelling stations’, where everyone could be served food and beverages. It was also a place to connect with businesses and pitch ideas.”

There were a lot of hoops to jump through. The organisers made the decision to feed all 8,000 of the delegates – an unusual request for the executive chef and his team.

It seems like a hell of a lot of work. But what was indeed a labour of love could well prove a highly lucrative move for the convention centre – and for Vancouver in general. Michael Drake, director of international sales, meetings and conventions, told me that some prospective clients were there to see for themselves how Vancouver handled the event. And not a few of their competitors.

The steep learning curve has meant that Vancouver now has the expertise to deal with issues such as delegates who have never stayed at a hotel before, and engaging with a large proportion of the local community and businesses to collaborate successfully in this endeavour.

Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala, the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, was there to talk about being an ally of women, particularly in education. He quoted the words of his daughter at Women Deliver saying: “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”