When it comes to meetings and conferences, a driver of the Canadian economy and a barometer of tourism, business isn’t what it used to be. Consistent annual cuts over the last decade by the federal government to the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) marketing budget have created concern across industry segments. In the face of this change, technology has also impacted business, reducing the need for travel.

With the proposed CTC budget for 2013/14 pegged at $57.8 million — a 41.5-per-cent decrease from 10 years ago — the Canadian meetings and conferences industry has some work to do.

According to the Toronto-based Print Measurement Bureau (PMB), the number of Canadians who attended one or more conferences has decreased by 14 per cent over the past 12 months. In fact, according to PMB’s 2012 survey, 1.49-million Canadians attended a conference during the past 12 months, down from 1.74 million in its 2010 survey.

“The decline in conference attendance is real,” says David Redekop, principal research associate, of the Ottawa-based Conference Board of Canada. And, he says, much of this is due to technology. “The reason you attend a conference is to gain content,” says Redekop, but “that’s being usurped by technology. On any day, you can access webinars, often at no charge. They’re very focused on specific topics and are often available after the event.” Redekop believes networking sites such as LinkedIn, combined with the flexibility of webinars, has resulted in lower attendance numbers at conferences.

Tony Pollard knows too well about the decrease in federal marketing. “Ten years ago 65 per cent of hotel usage was domestic and 35 per cent was international inbound, the majority of which was American,” says the president of the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC). He believes meetings and conferences are crucial to Canadian hotel and tourism revenue. “Today, 80 per cent of the clientele is domestic, with only 20 per cent inbound.”

Vito Curalli, executive director, Canada, Latin America and International Sales, Hilton Worldwide, says 9-11 also hurt conference business. “Stricter passport regulations between Canada and the U.S., since 9-11, coupled with a protracted recession have also had an impact.” Curalli believes Canada’s profile is diminished amongst bigger and louder competitors. “Canada continues to suffer, from a marketing perspective, in the global arena, and it’s not because other destinations offer more,” suggests Curalli. “Canada’s hospitality is top-notch, but we’re not as well heard or seen. The city of Las Vegas spends eight times more on its tourism budget than the Canadian federal government spends on all of Canada,” stresses Curalli.

So what are hotels doing to attract increased meetings and convention business to their properties? In a bid to draw more corporate and social events to its property, the Four Points in London, Ont., expanded its convention centre footprint. A complete rebuild of the lobby and public spaces, has given way to a dramatic new lobby, ballroom, restaurant and 4,000 sq. ft. of additional meeting space.

Marie-Andrée Beaudoin, director, Sales and Marketing, Le Centre Sheraton Montreal, is focusing her energy on pampering the clients she has while working hard to find new ones.

“It’s about going beyond the usual tradeshows,” she says. Making use of online advertising and incentive programs for planners makes sense, she says, but, she adds it’s important to bring customers in to tour the facilities.

To coincide with Sheraton Montreal’s 30th anniversary, Beaudoin brought clients to Montreal from across Canada and beyond, to show off the hotel’s $40-million renovation. At an open house earlier this year, Beaudoin gave a tour of the revamped rooms — 825 in all — and the hotel’s meeting spaces. “By bringing decision-makers to the hotel,” she says, “they experience what it’ll be like for their people to stay with us, giving them some of our Montreal charm.”

Similarly, in 2010, the Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal was renovated to attract new business.
And, Curalli takes Beaudoin’s idea to share the property one step further. He stresses the need to show Canada for what it is — a place for great arts and entertainment, hospitality and natural attractions. Plus, it’s also a safe destination. “From a corporate perspective, we’re keen on multi-year or multi-event deals, which make it easier for customers to book multiple meetings across our hotels in Canada,” says Curalli.

He’s currently busy wooing conventions to Hilton Canada from Latin America, particularly from Mexico and Colombia. Seeing opportunity in the region — thanks to a growing manufacturing base and increases in the import/export sectors — he points to a bounce in the Mexican economy. “They’re anticipating a higher GDP than Brazil,” says Curalli. “We have good synergies in the region, and we are a shorter flight than Europe.”

Andres Trivino, president of the Canada Colombia Chamber of Commerce agrees and says, since the signing of the Free-Trade Agreement between Colombia and Canada last year, he’s been busier than ever. “Last year we had less than 10 Colombian companies coming to Canada from the food, retail and infrastructure industries to attend trade fairs and meetings. This year we saw an increase of close to 100 companies attending events for construction, mining, clothing and food,” he says. “We anticipate double [that] in the next year.”

And, it doesn’t hurt to market to these groups in a clever way to catch the planner’s attention. Beaudoin offers conference planners 100,000 loyalty points for events booked before year’s end. Room upgrades and complimentary receptions are other enticements. At Hilton, Curalli offers HHonors meeting planner points when customers book with Hilton. “HHonors is our global loyalty program, providing customers with the opportunity to collect points and redeem them for overnight stays or gift items.”

Increasingly, “meeting organizers are aware they have to look at the meetings market in a different light,” says the Conference Board’s Redekop, pointing to the impact of technology. “I recently spoke at an event in Toronto that was streamed live on a website.” Hotel meeting facilities won’t always be on their radar, says Redekop, so it’s about thinking differently, while servicing the way business people communicate. “Our Chicago presentations are now available [on] Dropbox. It is a new frontier for the meetings industry,” he says of the free online, file-sharing service.

And, presentations aside, once the clients have booked, hotel reps can earn loyalty by beefing up the food offerings and appealing to a growing interest in responsibly sourced food. “Hyatt’s industry leading effort is our new food philosophy — Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served,” says Christina Ramsay, director, Sales and Marketing for the Park Hyatt Toronto. “[It] provides food and beverage options for our guests that are good for our people, our planet and our communities. Thoughtfully sourced means considering how that product was raised, the wholesomeness and the integrity of how it came to be in our kitchens. Carefully served means how that product is prepared — the integrity of how it reaches you.” The menu includes naturally raised, antibiotic-free lamb and poultry; natural and antibiotic-free, premium 28-day aged beef; and free-run eggs.

But, while many Canadian destinations are finding it challenging to attract meetings business, Calgary is bucking the trend. “There’s been an increase in international conference business over the last 10 years,” says Cynthia Douwes of Meetings and Conventions Calgary. She attributes the increase, in part, to name recognition brought by the Calgary Olympics, the growing international popularity of the Stampede and the province’s “exquisite natural backyard.” Most of that city’s business comes from the resource sectors — oil, engineering, and lumber, but it’s also seeing business from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the International Association for Impact Assessment. Growth is also being spurred by the U. S. market, and, she says, winter bookings are helping. Traditionally a slow time for convention bookings, winter business is on the upswing as planners take advantage of affordable room rates and the majestic beauty of the Rockies.

But, the rest of Canada may not have that luxury. Redekop warns hoteliers that convention business may continue to be slow, citing the Conference Board of Canada’s prediction that international travel to Canada will grow slightly, at a rate of two to three per cent annually over the next five years, while domestic business travel is forecast to grow approximately 2.5 per cent annually through 2016.

Adding to that challenge, price is a factor. According to Douwes, for example, the U.S. is offering rooms at $120 to $150 a night. “They’re giving the farm away. We’re lucky if we can offer guestroom rates starting at $150 a night.” And, another challenge is lack of room supply. Douwes says Calgary could have much more convention business, if only it had the rooms.

Still, while technology and the economy are causing concerns, Redekop says the hotel industry has an ace in the hole. While technology is important, you can’t hold a show or exhibition online, and you can’t have an anniversary celebration or wedding through the Internet.


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