Tech conferences are relocating from the USA to Canada to attract attendees and speakers who don't want to come to Trump's America

One of the USA's sources of "soft power" in the world is as a convener and crossroads for academics, businesspeople, professionals, and other members of international communities that gather every year or two in huge global conferences and trade shows, often choosing the USA for their event's site.

This has always been a fraught business: the US immigration process is subject to huge amounts of individual discretion by the officers who interview speakers as they cross the US border, and even before Trump, it was pretty normal to hear that a distinguished speaker had been turned away at the border on a flimsy pretense or for no reason at all.

But all that got worse under Trump. Between the Muslim ban, the official hostility to people from Mexico and Central America, and the rise and rise of xenophobia, many speakers and attendees are loathe to put themselves within reach of US authorities.

Canadian tourist boards have figured out that this gives them something to sell: they're close enough to the USA that events that relocate to Toronto or Vancouver are no hardship for US attendees, and overseas participants may be more receptive to the idea of crossing the Canadian border than the US one (though, of course, Canadian border guards can be just as capricious and unaccountable as their US counterparts, as Canadians like me well know).

Conferences like Collision have announced that they're leaving the USA for Canada effective 2019, and Creative Commons -- whose CEO lives in Toronto -- hosted its annual summit in Toronto this year.

This may create a long-lasting shift for US cities: once conference organizers and attendees establish relationships with Canadian venues, inertia will favor staying put in the years to come, and shifting conferences back to the USA will require an infusion of work to re-establish venue, hotel and other relations in the former host cities.

At Access Now, a non-profit that organizes the RightsCon digital rights conference, Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries hit close to home.

“One of our interns at the time was an Iranian citizen with a U.S. green card, and she wasn’t able to leave the country to go to Brussels to help us organize the (2017) event,” RightsCon director Nick Dagostino said.

For years, RightsCon has alternated between San Francisco and a series of global venues, and after last year’s event in Brussels, heading back to California would have been the natural choice.

But then, people started telling Access Now that if the event happened in the U.S., they wouldn’t show up.

Tech conferences moving north as Trump policies turn off attendees [James McLeod/Financial Post]