Meeting the challenge: Three Canadian corporate planners weigh in on the top industry issues

From shrinking budgets to the social media revolution, today’s corporate meeting and event planners are faced with a multitude of constantly shifting priorities and unique challenges. How are some of Canada’s top corporate planners meeting these challenges and devising solutions for their respective organizations? Join the conversation as CM&E checks in with three leading planners in the Canadian corporate meetings industry and gets them to weigh in on some of today’s most pressing issues.

Corporate Planner Q&A Panel:

  • Fiona Marshall-White, CMP, Managing Director of Events, The Fraser Institute
  • Helen Van Dongen, CMP, CMM, National Director, Event Management, KPMG
  • Marianne Thompson, CMP, CMM, Director of Special Events and Meetings, RE/MAX Promotions Inc.

CM&E: What are some of your biggest challenges as a corporate meeting and event planner in Canada?

Fiona Marshall-White, CMP, Managing Director of Events, The Fraser InstituteFiona Marshall-White: Reduced budgets, particularly in the non-profit world, challenge the quality of the program that can be delivered. However, we’re still expecting top-notch quality and speakers within that reduced budget. Additionally, marketing our events in a very competitive world where your delegates’ time is challenged along with their budget for registration fees combine to make a challenging environment.


Helen Van Dongen, CMP, CMM, National Director, Event Management, KPMGHelen Van Dongen: These days, budget and lead time are top of the hit parade. We work with ever-leaner budgets, and are expected to maintain the look and feel of lavish events at a reduced cost. Hotel occupancy is back to 2007 levels, but rates are not. As a result, availability can be a real challenge; even when you find the space you want, there’s heavy pressure to sign quickly, as there’s always someone next in line.

Marianne Thompson, CMP, CMM, Director of Special Events and Meetings, RE/MAX Promotions Inc.Marianne Thompson: Leaving a memorable and positive impression on event attendees, while making the most of forward-thinking facilities and creative cost-friendly solutions, make up the biggest challenge for planners. Other challenges include: an ability to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability – the way we impact people, industry and the planet; inspiring global connections – more integration of ethnic groups; and to continue the search for technology that can simplify the planning process – create a more efficient experience before, during and after the meeting or event.

CM&E: What solutions or strategies can you offer?

Fiona Marshall-White: With technological solutions on the rise to provide good quality programs via the internet, it helps to ease the issue of time availability and fees. I don’t think you can still get away from the value of face-to-face meetings but if you have to find an alternative for many of the meetings both time- and cost-wise, providing the events via a webinar or such certainly helps address these issues.

Helen Van Dongen: The only strategy that’s ever worked for me is to ask my client as many questions as possible, up front, and be straight with my suppliers about what I need and what I have to spend. Sometimes we can’t make a deal, but the sooner we find that out, the more likely we’ll want to try on another occasion.

Marianne Thompson: One possible solution would be to inspire attendees with an event that uses purpose-driven design – events and meetings are about people, not stuff, or tradition, technology, or trends. It has become clear that we need to deeply impact people that care about value to improve progress and encourage success. Content needs to be an experience and show trust and value with stakeholders.

What current trends do you think will continue to have a major impact on the industry and why?

Fiona Marshall-White: I think hybrid meetings are the wave of the future. As we start to resolve issues regarding servers for file size for hybrid meetings via the internet, I think this will be a growing trend. I also believe in terms of food and beverage that attendees will continue to demand lighter meals, healthier choices and more unique options at reasonable prices. I’m not sure that all hoteliers are embracing this and wanting to think outside the box just yet with options, but I do think this trend will continue.

Helen Van Dongen: There’s no question that social media and conference applications will continue to be demanded by participants and organizing committees, even without a full understanding of their benefits; no one wants to risk falling behind. The shift towards ‘edutainment’ seems here to stay; presenters will continue to be evaluated not just on their content, but on their creativity in conveying it. When each delegate has a smartphone in hand, grabbing – and keeping – people’s attention isn’t easy.

Marianne Thompson: Social media is no passing fad. This has become an integral part of events and provides an avenue for igniting your audience on a global scale. Social media also encourages interaction with the event and brand and it shows irrevocable evidence of the power of events. No other medium can have this effect both live and connected digitally and socially. Mobility will also continue to play an increasing role for all business and help integrate real time social content into an online brand experience. Finally, short lead times will continue and remain a challenge.

What things would you most like to change about our industry and why?

Fiona Marshall-White: I understand why hoteliers are not keen on providing ballrooms or larger meeting space to events which require little to no bedroom space. However, I think hoteliers and planners need to try and find a solution that works for both parties. Booking a ballroom for a specialty fundraiser or meeting just six to eight weeks out at a maximum is just not an option for many of us. I understand that the hoteliers have to sell their bedroom space first but I think together we need to find better solutions, especially if we provide each other with repeat business year after year and with a reasonable food and beverage minimum spend for the hoteliers.

Helen Van Dongen: At the risk of sounding like Rodney Dangerfield, I’d like meeting planners to get some respect. No, it’s not neurosurgery, but it does require some specialized knowledge. Simply having planned your daughter’s wedding, or your four-year-old’s Spiderman-themed birthday party, does not entitle you to micro-manage my team members, second guess my decisions, or contact my suppliers directly, when I can’t give you what you want. I recognize that I’m not qualified to do your job; why don’t you recognize you’re not qualified to do mine?

Marianne Thompson: Look for drivers of change that have become big disruptive shifts that are likely to reshape the future landscape. Finding these drivers will not only be found in the planning world but will be relevant to future work skills everywhere. Some “futuristic driver” examples would be: Extreme longevity (increasing human life spans around the world will change the nature of learning and working; new multi-media technologies are bringing about a transformation in the way we communicate – we will literally develop a new language for communication that will enable new ways for groups to come together and collaborate, bringing in new levels of transparency to our work and personal lives.

What do you think are the biggest untapped opportunities that currently exist for meetings and events and how can corporate planners take advantage of those opportunities?

Fiona Marshall-White: Greater synergy between planners which may benefit hoteliers and planners alike. I think hoteliers have the opportunity to be the conduit between both parties and we often may not realize how valuable this can be. Some of us may have the ability to put similar-type meetings back to back to help us save on costs and the hotelier may win more business by just being the facilitator of this synergy.

Helen Van Dongen: If there are opportunities for corporate planners to capitalize on – as you’d think there must be – I can’t say what they are. Every senior planner I know feels like they’re treading water in cement shoes. Between budget constraints, diminishing lead times, hiring freezes, increasing event volumes, spiraling client expectations, and ever-changing meeting specs, it takes all the strength we have to keep our heads above water. If we shift our focus at all, it’s more likely to be a quick look for fins, rather than a lifeboat.

Marianne Thompson: From a practical standpoint, speakers could make better use of technology to deliver presentations through smartphones and encourage interactive conversation by using social media.

What aspects of the industry do you feel are being left out of the current curriculum of event planning educational programs? What other aspects of industry education do you feel are important and why?

Fiona Marshall-White: Marketing of events – building and developing a marketing plan. I recently wanted to find a program to have my coordinators upgrade their skills and I couldn’t find a program locally. I tried to find an online course and this too was not available. Teaching students the value of relationships of suppliers and planners I think is also huge. Building strong relationships is invaluable to those on both sides of the table.

Helen Van Dongen: It’s long been a challenge to find valuable senior level planner education. If you stop growing after learning how to read a BEO, or format a trade show floor, you’d better not be ambitious. Business leaders don’t care about logistics, they care about profit. Show them how adept event management can cut expenses, or (better yet) generate additional revenue, and you’ll have their attention. Advanced development options for planners must centre on serving the organization through meetings, understanding and making connections in the business, rather than talking to each other about the latest venue or trendy dessert.

Marianne Thompson: I would like to see more emphasis on graduated practical experience – during and post education (For example: working in a hotel that is primarily staffed by students.) There is nothing like hands-on training and real-world experience. This creates an appreciation for every position in hospitality and planning. Because you are exposed and understand the various aspects you experienced, you can relate better and your collaboration with suppliers as a planner will be effortless.

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