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Marketing Metro Vancouver in Canada’s next immigration wave

Vancouver needs to sell purpose, not lifestyle, to maximize immigration gains, analysts say
Analysts say that more densification is needed in Metro Vancouver to increase housing affordability for newcomers | Chung Chow

With the return of international travel on the horizon, Canada’s plan to attract more immigrants than ever over the next three years will likely see many of them land in the Lower Mainland.

But with municipalities likely to get more say about which new Canadians get to go where, Metro Vancouver analysts and researchers say the region needs to properly market itself to prospective immigrants to gain the maximum social and economic benefits of migration-driven activities.

Specifically, one researcher says, the city shouldn’t focus on its lifestyle – often the most prominent asset of Vancouver that’s recognized globally – in its messaging to perspective residents.

“One thing we learned from our consultants is that you don’t need to sell the lifestyle,” said James Raymond, senior manager of research at the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC). “Everyone knows Vancouver is world-class; you can’t score any higher. So the recommendation is to sell all the other aspects. In all of our material, we never talk about lifestyle first. It’s literally on the last page because you don’t need to sell that.

“What you need to sell is the fact Vancouver is an amazing place to have a career. It’s a place to make a difference. One particular strategy we’ve used is to sell Vancouver as a place of purpose ... Talking about progressive social movements is important because young people want to live in a place that represents their values.”

Late last year, Ottawa announced ambitious plans to attract more than 400,000 new permanent residents to Canada annually from 2021 through 2023. Such immigration levels have not been seen in the country since 1913, and the annual figures for the next three years surpass that recorded more than a century ago. Currently, Canada draws on average an annual new permanent resident count between the high 200,000s and the low-to-mid 300,000s, with COVID significantly disrupting that process last year.

“We do have a slowdown in immigration during COVID itself, but it’s not clear that’s going to persist,” said Nathanael Lauster, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and principle investigator of the Metro Vancouver Zoning Project supported by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). “And certainly, we have this ramp-up in immigration that’s expected from government, and I would expect it to hit Vancouver as a gateway city.

 “We should certainly expect a number of those people will land here first.”

The VEC is familiar with the task of selling the Lower Mainland to perspective newcomers. Even though its main mandate is to support local businesses, officials say foreign direct investment (FDI) attraction plays a key role – and with that comes the task of not only attracting investors, but also human resource talents to entice investment and new business activity in Metro Vancouver.

“It used to be that talent would follow where the businesses go, right?” Raymond said.

“But that’s been flipped. We are increasingly seeing businesses and jobs going to the places where the talent is.”

The VEC’s view that Vancouver’s global sell to immigrants should focus on purpose and opportunities rather than the city’s obvious lifestyle perks comes from research. In 2015, the commission’s brand research of Vancouver found that global investors and talent ranked the city high for being green and sustainable, but also lower for industry innovation and creativity.

That is why the VEC pursued Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) so aggressively during the company’s 2017 search for HQ2. That pursuit eventually secured the tech retail giant’s commitment to two downtown Vancouver office building sites – one of which is scheduled to be completed in 2023 in the former Canada Post office on West Georgia Street – despite losing out on HQ2.

Raymond called such a development, along with securing Northeastern University’s Vancouver campus in 2019, “a breakthrough” for the city’s image for the talent it wants to attract. He noted that a Destination Canada Mobility Forum career fair held in France prior to the pandemic drew thousands to the VEC kiosk – a trend that is expected to resume as soon as international travel normalizes.

“This fair was aimed at people who speak French, and we had people flying in from all over Africa,” he said. “We had people from India flying in to speak to us. It was unbelievable. People were lining up around the block to speak to us. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that – as soon as the taps get turned back on – we are going to back to exactly where we were before.”

There are challenges, however.

Along with its reputation of natural beauty and lifestyle opportunities, Metro Vancouver’s high cost of living and its penchant for attracting the ultra-rich have also garnered international attention in recent years.

Lauster said that will present the region with one of its key challenges as it looks to market itself to skilled immigrants who can choose to go anywhere in the world.

“Those things are hard to shift,” he said of the pros and cons of a city’s global reputation. “Vancouver has also acquired a bit of a reputation for wealthy people, so that’s a potential hazard that has emerged with respect to our reputation globally for immigrants. ‘Is this a spot for me? Can I afford to live there?’ Our housing market may give people the impression they can’t afford to move here.”

Lauster therefore believes that further densification of the local housing market is needed, because the affordability of Metro Vancouver single-detached homes is unlikely to return.

To make the Lower Mainland attractive to talent, the region must make its housing more affordable while maintaining superior quality of life.

“Single detached houses have really become a bit of a luxury item,” Lauster said. “With respect to most of the people who will be coming here, most migrants are not that wealthy but are still happy to come here. I think Vancouver has attempted to hold up the idea that you can live outside of a detached house in a North American city and still have a really good lifestyle. That’s where I think the brand of Vancouver is heading for most migrants.” •