Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It really does pay to attend Centrallia

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Every business person in Winnipeg did not attend Centrallia events last week.

And some of those who weren't there probably wished they were for all sorts of different reasons.

One reason would be that just about everyone they spoke to who did attend probably told them how great an event it actually was.

-- Tom Tessier had to have his arm twisted before he agreed to attend. But the founder and president of Winnipeg's Solara Remote Data Delivery, a niche satellite communication device manufacturer, said he probably made a sale worth tens of thousands of dollars to an Algerian air ambulance firm.

-- Harvey Chorney, the vice-president of Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute in Portage la Prairie, said he was blown away.

The non-profit organization can't survive without fee-for-service development work and Chorney said he's got plenty of leads, including some in the U.S. and Europe, in the meetings he had.

-- Robert Hooper of Hooper Containers Inc. is trying to launch a company making a new hybrid shipping container.

He said by attending Centrallia, he got his foot in all sorts of doors he needed to get through.

Several Winnipeg institutions such as the Composites Innovation Centre and the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals hosted tours.

At the least, their respective profiles have been enhanced and important international contacts were made.

Mariette Mulaire is the president of ANIM, the province's bilingual trade agency, which organizes the event. (Last week's Centrallia was the second time it's been held in Winnipeg.)

"There were so many real stories," Mulaire said. "I was shocked with how many people said they actually made deals, because I always told people that deals don't actually get done at the event... that it's the followup that counts."

Centrallia is a weird kind of event, unlike anything else offered in Winnipeg and unlike anything else most of those who registered had ever attended before.

It shares some similarities to trade shows and industry association conventions, except it's a mash-up of all sorts of industries and individuals who are really not connected.

In fact, those who attend are looking to get connected.

The unique and most worthwhile part of the event are the half-hour speed-dating meetings, as many as 14 of them over two days.

An amazing number of people who attended declared afterwards they made great contacts, even though many didn't even know who they were meeting in the first place.

But as pumped as everyone seems to be in the early aftermath, the planning and organizing of the thing is fraught with challenges.

Still a little punch-drunk a few days after the event, Mulaire was calm enough this week to understand it really did work out despite the fact tha scores of people from around the world could not attend because they could not get Canadian visas, many local businesses who said they would attend needed aggressive prodding, and the fact keynote speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, commanded such a high fee, making it a very risky evening for the organizers.

Even after all that, Mulaire said she's pretty certain there will be another Centrallia in 2015.

But she admits she is not looking forward to another round of arm-twisting to get people to register.

Her organization is in the process of transitioning into the secretariat for the new Winnipeg branch of the World Trade Center Association, and that will have some impact on the manner in which the next Centrallia is organized.

It might also have some impact on the manner in which trade-development efforts in Manitoba are co-ordinated.

For instance, one of the reasons for holding Centrallia in the first place is to help get Winnipeg on the international trade map.

But whereas there are plenty of out-bound trade missions led by politicians Manitoba companies can join, there are far fewer inbound ones.

Were there more ongoing international promotion of Manitoba, it might not be so difficult to get people to attend something like Centrallia.

But then again, if that was the case, there might not be such a compelling reason to hold the event in the first place.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2012 B6

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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