TORONTO — When the global tech community descends on Toronto next week for the Collision conference, there will be chatter about the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, which many predict is poised to disrupt all sectors of the economy, and the wave of layoffs that has shaken the industry.
But between appearances from AI leader Geoffrey Hinton and executives from Airbnb, Amazon Web Services and Google's AI researcher Deep Mind will be another hot topic: the value and future of the event itself.
The travelling conference run by Irish parent company WebSummit is designed to unite startups, investors and business heavyweights over four days of mingling and discussions about technology.
This year will mark Toronto’s fifth time playing host after the event extended its stay when the COVID-19 pandemic forced it online for two years. The event, previously held in New Orleans, announced another Toronto extension until 2024 on Tuesday.
It has yet to name its host city for 2025, but remaining in Toronto longer or heading elsewhere are both possibilities.
“We'll kind of figure it out over the next nine months," said Paddy Cosgrave, Collision’s chief executive. “It would be great to stay here for the long term.”
But after four Collisions, some think the industry’s needs could be covered off by existing Canadian conferences, better support for startups and changes to tech policies.
"I'm all for the government supporting entrepreneurship, it's just that between (Canadian conferences) Saas North (in Ottawa), Elevate (in Toronto), Traction in Vancouver or Startupfest in Montreal, there are other places that the government could put that kind of money," said Phillipe Telio, who runs Montreal tech conference Startupfest.
Telio has been to Collision several times and has even attended its larger, sister festival WebSummit, which Portugal’s government is paying 11 million euros a year to keep in Lisbon.
Given the same amount of money as Collision or WebSummit, Telio argues Startupfest could also bring in flashy guests, but he ultimately feels that amount doesn't even need to be spent on a successful conference.
Millions on tech policy changes could aid many businesses, but if governments prefer it go to a conference, he said it should at least be Canadian.
"That's money going to a foreign entity," he said. "It's not driving any more value than any Canadian event could be delivering."
Tourism organization Destination Toronto, which helped keep Collision in Canada, expects the event to contribute $49 million to the city's economy this year, in addition to the $27 million it delivered in 2019 and $43 million in 2022.
The group confirmed it has received a proposal and is continuing to work with Collision to keep the event in Toronto, but did not offer fundraising specifics.
"We do not discuss the details of our individual investments with our clients, as by nature they are private agreements," spokesperson Kathy Motton wrote in an email.
The City of Toronto, which currently has a $1 billion budget shortfall, contributed $750,000 to Destination Toronto to support Collision in 2019 and 2022 and is authorized to give money again this year, she added. Destination Toronto "would welcome financial support from other orders of government."
Asked about money the province has committed or is willing to give the conference, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said Ontario has supported Collision by connecting international delegates with local companies, stakeholders, incubators and municipalities "through complementary programming."
The office of Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne directed a query about Collision to Global Affairs Canada, which said it does not provide funding for Collision and has not made agreements to do so in the future.
Asked about what they seek from cities before holding an event, Cosgrave said Collision solicits interest through a request for proposals process, where “funding is a component.”
Infrastructure, including an airport supporting direct flights from other major cities, public transit and many hotels, are also key, he added.
A May story by Canadian tech publication BetaKit said the conference was seeking a new three-year deal to stay in the city and wanted funding similar to the agreement Web Summit has with Portugal.
Cosgrave said that amount is “an indefensible lie” but wouldn't say how much funding Collision does want, or name what city tops his wish list.
BetaKit said it stands by its story. "The bar to report sensitive information is high for any publication and BetaKit takes this requirement seriously," wrote editor-in-chief Douglas Soltys in a statement. "BetaKit stands by its defensible reporting."
However, he said he’s been talking to several U.S. cities willing to host the event and that others in Canada are showing interest and not balking at a price tag he compared to the $36.2 million the federal government gives to Montréal’s Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix between 2025 and 2029.
Money aside, Jeffrey Doucet, chief executive of the Toronto-based Thrive Career Wellness career platform, questions how useful Collision is to many attendees because many of the speakers are artists, celebrities and politicians.
"It feels more like a media-type hype conference versus a technology conference (that) a founder trying to figure out problems for their business would benefit from attending."
He thinks the Collision floor remains packed year after year and governments flock to the event because of an "inferiority complex."
"We're obsessed with bringing stuff from the United States or other countries to Canada versus elevating or displaying our own," he said.
"It's like we need whatever the U.S. has but also for the U.S. to validate that we're important enough for them to care about so that we feel great."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2023.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press