Meeting Planner Profile: Kim Pickering, Manager, Meeting and Conference Management for Manulife Financial, Canadian Division

Kim Pickering, Manager, Meeting and Conference Management for Manulife Financial, Canadian DivisionPresent: Manager, Meeting and Conference Management for Manulife Financial, Canadian Division.

Past: 20 years conference services and event management experience in the hospitality industry.

Expertise: Customer service – understanding the goals and objectives of my clients and being able to deliver a program that meets and exceeds their expectations.

Specialty: Creating unique and interesting experiences for the attendees. My team and I are always looking for that WOW factor – the one event that will have our attendees asking “How can Manulife top this?”

How did you get to where you are today?

Starting with my part time job at McDonald’s while in school, I always suspected I would be in the “hospitality” industry. After graduating from Humber College in the Hotel and Restaurant Management program, I went back to McDonald’s and went through their Manager Training program. No better place to learn how to deal with conflict resolution than at a busy fast-food restaurant – quick turnaround and on occasion an irate customer waiting for their food. I learned a lot, but most importantly, how to manage many tasks at one time and appear calm while doing them.

After a few years, I landed a job as a front desk clerk at the Valhalla Inn, Toronto. I had no experience but learned quickly and fell in love with the hotel side of the business. Working my way up to Assistant Front Office Manager, I decided it was time to try a different department and moved over to sales and catering. Although sales was not my thing, I had certainly found my niche on the catering side of the business – I was hooked.

After 13 years at the Valhalla Inn, I had an opportunity to move to Niagara Falls and be part of an opening team for the new convention centre at the Sheraton on the Falls. It was a great opportunity, but after a short time, I was ready to head back home to Toronto, where I was offered a job at the Toronto Airport Marriott as an Event Manager. Marriott was great for me. I not only met the love of my life, but during my time there, I did a number of programs for the Manulife team. When a position became available on their team, I took a leap of faith and gave it a try. I am so glad I did!

It’s been a long and winding road. Along the way, I’ve had many mentors who helped me develop into a strong and confident individual. I had always been able to connect with clients on a personal level and have been able to develop many friendships. Through these relationships, opportunity has definitely come my way.

Tell us about your work.

Although I started at Manulife as a Senior Conference Consultant, responsible for the planning and execution of large meetings and incentive conferences, I was promoted to Manager of the team two and a half years ago and I now oversee a team of eight dedicated meeting planners, who are responsible for approximately 250 meetings and conferences each year.

Why are you good at what you do?

Having spent many years on the hotel side of our business, I have a strong knowledge and understanding of hotels and how they operate. This helps me to understand limitations and develop compromises that will benefit both parties. I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone that works in this industry. Understanding the hard work, long hours and personal sacrifice that is needed to be successful in this business ensures that I always treat people with the respect they deserve.

What are some of the challenges you face?

The first challenge is budgets: They certainly don’t seem to be increasing. However, our number of attendees and their expectations keep growing. How do we continue to out-do ourselves, while staying within the same budget as the previous year? I guess I should be happy that our budgets have not been cut significantly, but it is still difficult.

The second big challenge that comes to mind is adapting to a changing workforce and team dynamic. We want to encourage young people into this business, but it is important to have a balance of high-energy, enthusiastic, young people, with limited experience, while still engaging the seasoned planner who has been with the company for 20+ years. Their knowledge and experience is extremely valuable to the team and the company. It is about finding the right balance.

Is there anything you would change in our industry, given the chance?

I guess I would say the perception that meetings and conferences are a “nice to have” and not a necessity. In this era of technology, video conferencing and even Skype, anyone in business will tell you there is always more value in a face-to-face meeting than just a face on a screen or a voice on the phone. Face-to-face meetings are still the most direct way to truly engage the people you are in business with.

Walk us through a typical day at work.

Meetings, meetings, meetings! As the manager of my team of eight, I do spend a significant part of my day meeting with my team, whether one-on-one to discuss their progress and development or full-team meetings to talk about overreaching initiatives within Manulife. In addition to the meetings with my team, I am also meeting with clients to discuss upcoming programs and I begin the sourcing process for a number of our larger programs.

What have been some of your biggest achievements?

Certainly with every successful program we deliver there is a sense of accomplishment. In 2011, for the first time we brought three conferences together in a WAVE pattern. Although we faced many challenges, it was a highly successful program and I was proud to be part of the team that took our conference to the next level. Over the years I am pleased to look back at people I have trained and mentored and watched them grow and become extremely successful in this business.

What do you like best about the meetings industry, particularly in your region or city?

What is not to love about this industry? Meeting planning is one of those jobs that fulfill a number of “wants.” It allows us to be creative when developing a program, it is rewarding when a program comes together and you are there to enjoy the final product. Plus it can be very stressful at times. Okay, we know it isn’t brain surgery or rocket science, but in the end we are largely responsible for our attendees having a wonderful experience at our conferences….no pressure, right!

How do you deal with the challenges of work-life balance?

It is definitely challenging balancing the demands of the job and the desire to maintain a life outside of the office. With the amount of travel we do, it is important to me to take time off during the down time, which can be difficult, but I do my best and always encourage my team to ensure they are booking time off as well. If we take the time to book it off we are more inclined to actually do it. I make it a priority to go to the gym three mornings a week. In the beginning, it was always the first thing to go when things started to get busy. But now I realize I have to allow myself one hour a day to do something that is not only good for me physically, but mentally helps me focus for the day.

What are some of your most memorable events and why?

My most memorable event was our 2010 National Educational Conference held in Grand Cayman. It was the first large incentive conference that I had been responsible for from start to finish. I was fortunate enough to have a great team to work with on site and although a little stressful, I enjoyed every minute of it. We kicked the program off with a wonderful reception on the great lawn of the hotel and even brought some Canadian talent with us to give it a touch of home. That was the start of a fantastic four-day program.

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