Many people would balk at the notion that business meetings need a promotional push. Yet the Meetings Mean Business Canada (MMBC) organization understands the fluctuations of the economy in a way few others do — and it knows what happens when conventions cease. Anyone with a long enough memory can site the devastating financial impact of the SARS epidemic. Meetings Mean Business reminds stakeholders across multiple segments that business meetings have both short- and long-term impacts to the Canadian economy.

Heidi Welker, MMBC Chair and senior vice-president, Business Development and Industry Partnerships at Freeman Audio Visual Canada, describes how the organization began. “When SARS hit, we lost a lot of business. Associations cancelled meetings across the board,” she says. “I’m not just talking about the audio/visual business, but the industries of convention centres, hotels, restaurants and other service sectors.”

Welker says people heard about Meetings Making Business being launched in the U.S. and realized a Canadian counterpart was needed. Now, the Canada group is an affiliate of Meetings Mean Business Global and continues the advocacy nationwide. “We needed a Canadian organization that would be a proactive force in order to communicate with government and other economic sectors,” says Welker. “Our organization communicates how vital business meetings are to the economy on a multitude of levels — and how they’re critical to economic growth.”

The numbers speak for themselves. A recent Oxford Global Economic Impact Study (2017) found business events accounted for more than $33 billion of direct spending and 229,000 jobs in Canada. That includes everything from conferences to tradeshows, exhibitions to incentive travel.

Clark Grue, vice-chair of MMBC and president and CEO of Calgary’s TELUS Convention Centre, says this sort of advocacy is crucial because many people undervalue the role of convention centres. “When you think about it, convention centres are often quite invisible because of the way they function in our communities,” he explains. “Often, they’re viewed as just a facility, when actually they’re the engines of economic revenue and turnaround. They’re a key cog in economic diversification, growth and change — especially when you think of the breadth of industries they affect.”

Grue notes convention attendees are often flying in from international destinations, carrying a corporate credit card and are staying longer than the leisure traveller. That means a business traveller to a new city gets a virtual free ticket to explore — and spend — where their meeting is scheduled. Multiply that by thousands and the economic impact is exponential.

“The opportunity to bring in thought leadership in various sectors — whether health, agriculture, natural resources, technology and so on — is critical to the long-term economic footprint they leave,” says Grue. “That’s where the gold lies”.

While Grue and Welker have travelled to each province to promote business meetings, he does say there may be some challenges for smaller communities to attract these kinds of events. “A smaller community can accomplish it, but often the convention might occur in a building that serves a dual role,” says Grue. “For example, a community centre might be in regular rotation with local communities and only serve the purpose of a convention a few weeks a year.” He also emphasizes that business meetings will most likely be arranged in places with close connections to airports and be dependent on hotel capacity.

However, Grue says he’s often seen convention attendees — who become familiar with a new Canadian city, province or region for the first time — return for a second visit (with family in tow) for leisure. It’s also not uncommon to have a company realize the convention city needs its own office or outpost.

“Microsoft is a perfect example,” explains Grue. “They came to Toronto for an internal meeting of around 2,000 attendees. Following that meeting, after having exposure to the great city of Toronto, they said ‘we need to have an office or a division in this city’.” That was in 2016. Now the Toronto outpost of Microsoft employs hundreds of Canadians — all because of a single meeting.

Just this year, Meetings Mean Business Canada took its message to Parliament Hill for Lobby Day. The event, led by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), showcased Welker, Grue and coalition supporter and TIAC board member Nina Kessler promoting the critical role business meetings have in Canada’s social and economic landscape. The three MMBC representatives advocated to various MPs, including Alaina Lockhart, Parliamentary secretary for Tourism and Rob Nicholson, MP for Niagara Centre, and had meetings with various government departments, such as Global Affairs Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

“It’s important to remind our government partners that business meetings drive tourism rather than the reverse,” explains Welker. “We do a great job of talking to ourselves within the industry about it. But MMBC exists to communicate our successes to the community at large so it truly understands what business and meeting events are all about.”

Since MMBC wants to reach the average, non-business citizen as well, it’s currently creating a series of videos (due out this fall). The videos include storyboards that detail the direct impact business meetings within a city have across the community. “This is a grassroots initiative,” says Welker. “People can’t advocate to their MP for business in their city if they don’t directly understand the impact a convention can make on their bottom line — whether they’re in retail, foodservice or the hospitality industries.”

Laura Pallotta, regional vice-president, Sales and Distribution at Marriott Hotels of Canada and a member of MMBC Advisory Council, says she’s passionate about the group. “MMBC is absolutely critical to Marriott’s success,” she says. “Business events generate $19.3 billion in direct GDP.”

She’s joined the organization, in part, because people often forget about the impact of face-to-face meetings in our digital age. “Face-to-face meetings are proven to boost collaboration, creativity and brainstorming,” says Pallotta. “Digital platforms and Skype don’t always appropriately convey body language or tone — and we can miss crucial elements to conversations that can positively or negatively impact a business.”

She notes face-to-face meetings need to be prioritized in an organization’s budget and companies need to be mindful that the return on investment is significant. “One group that gets particularly engaged by face-to-face meetings is millennials,” says Pallotta. “This segment of the population is typically highly collaborative and prefers to meet, learn and grow through face-to-face activities in order to develop their professional expertise.”

Pallotta says many people might think millennials prefer digital communication, when the opposite is actually true when it comes to business. “In my experience, this demographic is one of the most passionate segments attracted to the face-to-face encounter,” she says. “And don’t forget millennials also love to spend money eating out.”

That said, Pallotta notes companies do need to be mindful of what they want to accomplish within a business-meeting context, determine who needs to be there and how they can ensure high engagement. “There should be a measure of both hard and soft returns,” says Pallotta. “Remember, business meetings also help build and strengthen relationships and aid with decision making. Many new customers are cultivated through meeting in person and most business deals are typically closed at face-to-face meetings.”

Written by Jennifer Febbraro


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