By Issa Jouaneh
Meetings and events are about bringing people together. This is an industry that combines art and science to create unforgettable experiences, and relies heavily on talent within to manage the seamless execution of those experiences. To succeed, it takes a special kind of person with the right training, a firm grasp on new technology, passion and integrity.
My team at American Express Meetings & Events has explored the future of talent in the meetings and events industry, and what it will take to bridge the gap between post-secondary training and the needs of the industry. In cooperation with Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning we assessed the current state of talent in the industry, and looked at what is needed to secure a strong, well-prepared talent pipeline for the future.
A changing industry meets a changing workforce
The meetings and events industry continues to grow and gain recognition within organizations as a key area of investment, a driver of growth and a critical component of a balanced sales and marketing strategy. Modern meeting attendees are also evolving and have come to expect a customized experience proving to be worth their time and the associated costs of participating. Additionally, according to our 2017 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, we will likely see a decrease in larger meeting types (including tradeshows, product launches and incentive and special events) this year, as meeting owners are looking to tighten budgets and focus on meeting and event quality over quantity.
Hospitality once meant folding napkins and working the front desk – those days are long gone. Today, there are many opportunities for individuals interested in working in the meetings and events world, but the skill set needed to succeed is diverse. In addition to all of the necessary soft skills, such as time management, creativity, problem solving and relationship management, organizations expect meetings and events professionals to have the capacity to manage risk, regulate compliance, measure return on investment, facilitate comprehensive reporting, and more. And the increasing use of technology throughout the entire event lifecycle adds to this complex set of requirements.
As the meetings industry grows and looks to attract new talent, there is a lot of discussion about Millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000) in the workplace. Millennials require a different approach for engagement and for retention including real-time feedback, flexibility, learning opportunities and a culture of inclusivity. The good news for the meetings industry is that the nature of its positions promises the variety, flexibility, fast pace, and strong team environment that appeal to this generation. Increasing awareness and visibility of the industry relative to those attributes can help attract new talent.
The role of institutions
There are an increasing number of post-secondary hospitality programs that provide training specifically in the area of meetings and events. Attracting students to these growing programs is a priority, both for the industry and for the universities.
Professor Colin Bartley, Hospitality Programs, Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, shares that “there are many event management programs for students to choose from in Canada. One factor that differentiates programs is providing real world experience and offering courses that create and simulate the event process from envisioning and planning to execution. Additionally, through ongoing industry involvement, having faculty members who are up to date with current trends, technologies, and industry advancements is critical to student success and engagement.”
To attract students to Humber College’s School of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism, the School hosts open houses, visits high schools, and offers one-on-one meetings with faculty members to educate future students on what they can expect from a career in event management. The school also works close with industry partners, including American Express Meetings & Events.
“We value the input and relationships we have with event professionals,” says Bartley. “They know the needs of the industry better than anyone else and have an invaluable line of sight to trends and changes. Their input allows us to keep our finger on the pulse while offering practical experience.”
In fact, 40 per cent of Humber’s program is dedicated to providing hands-on experience to ensure students are job ready. As part of the program, students are required to host a real-life event where program professors have collaborated and designed their lessons with one unified goal in mind. This way, students get to see the full event spectrum and understand what’s required to market, budget, sponsor an event, and more. As an added lesson, a real-life issue is presented to teach students the skill of flexibility, adaptability and thinking on your toes.
Keeping curriculum current
In a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex industry, in terms of technological innovations and reporting requirements in particular, it is imperative that educational curriculum keeps pace with industry needs. Hospitality education programs will need to continue to hone in on the needs of prospective employers and deliver content to students that will equip them with the skills they require to be successful. To this end, Humber is constantly evaluating its program offering to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students and the industry.
To do so, Humber conducts regular research by interviewing current and alumni students and corporate hospitality organizations to identify the exact skills students require to successfully enter the workforce. At American Express Meetings & Events, we look for hospitality students with a strong business acumen. For example, when looking for new hires, we look for individuals that know how to work within a budget, evaluate risk, develop scalable event solutions and identify the return on investment for all stakeholders of the event. Those who have been previously engaged in the industry, whether through part-time work or a volunteer opportunity, are ideal.
Talent trained on industry standard technology, such as attendee management systems and mobile apps, in addition to basic meetings-related knowledge is something else we look for. Identified in the Forecast as a key spending area that will continue to grow, technology is increasingly ingrained in events, whether in-person, virtual or hybrid. Therefore, our team requires the corporate event planning expertise to design programs or individual events for all meeting types. Bringing this knowledge and familiarity to the table has allowed incoming talent to make intelligent decisions during the meeting planning and management process, and reduced the time in training and onboarding.
In addition to hard business and technology skills, it’s also important that event professionals have soft skills, such as the ability to read situations, communicate appropriately, troubleshoot, and make personal connections. Students who possess the ability to build strong relationships are more effective and able to achieve greater success.
The role of the industry and internships
Perceptions of what it means to be in the meetings industry still vary. Faculty at Humber have discovered that many students are drawn to the party planning aspect of the job that’s been depicted on movies or television. This points to another challenge in the process of hiring new students. The new hire envisions the more “glamorous” parts of a job planning events, and not necessarily the full scope of what the job truly entails.
Meetings and events planning is commonly seen as a fun job, with opportunity to travel, try great food, see excellent entertainment, and stay at luxury hotels. While all of these things may be true at one point or another, it is not the primary focus of the work or a consistent experience. Setting the right expectations can help bring in the right type of talent and ensure a match between employer and employee. That’s where internships come into play.
Internship and stewardship programs are very important in the meetings and events industry. Real-life experience allows students to gain the insights and perspective they need to make well-informed decisions about their career path. A human resources expert at American Express Global Business Travel calls internships, “the longest interview of your life.” She explains: “For students, it’s an opportunity to solidify knowledge of a company, industry and career. Students understand that performing well in an internship program can translate into employment after graduation. Organizations also benefit from internship programs. It’s a way to ‘try on new talent’ before hiring.”
Internship and in-office student programs also reveal to employers the exciting energy and creativity the Millennial generation brings to the table. These programs are a great way for students to see first-hand the needs of the industry, so the student is better equipped to determine if the reality and potential of the industry interests them. The student can observe diverse angles of the industry, and see what skills would best prepare them for the future.
Both third-party organizations and companies with meeting planning organizations interested in building a strong talent pipeline for the future can use internships to connect with university meetings and events programs. These connections can benefit everyone in the industry by creating highly skilled individuals with a combination of classroom training and real-world experience.
Bridging the gap
Companies with a vested interest in meetings and events talent have a responsibility to help attract new talent to the industry, and work with universities to ensure their programs are delivering well-prepared graduates based on shifting needs. Likewise, universities have an opportunity to reach out to better understand the needs of a changing industry. There are multiple ways those with a vested interest in a strong future talent pipeline for meetings and events can help bridge the gap.
1. Influence curriculum
To influence curriculum, companies can actively build relationships with universities offering hospitality programs. One way for companies to do this is to look to the future to see what skills will be important to them. This may be a combination of planning skills, business acumen, practical on-site experience, technology and development skills, or something entirely different. Looking ahead and defining what the company’s needs will be help determine the specific skills they require in a new hire, and can help inform university programs.
2. Head back to class
Interested organizations can become engaged in on-site classes by serving as visiting professors or guest speakers. Visibility within the education system is a great way for a company to get exposure to all individuals in their targeted field. It’s also an opportunity to engage various functions and regions to help provide a well-rounded view of the industry and the opportunities within.
This, combined with a competitive internship program, is a sure way to get the best of the graduating class, making the time investment worthwhile. For these reasons, I visit Humber College once a year to meet new students and the current talent pool, and discuss top of mind topics for meeting and event planners.
3. Invest in internships
Educational institutions can be proactive in researching the companies their students have the most interest in, and pursue formal relationships with the Human Resources and Meetings departments creating formal internship programs that the university can use to attract talent, and organizations can use to identify and attract the best future graduates. These relationships can also help ensure university programs are delivering the required training and education as companies provide feedback on interns and gaps.
4. Rely on relationships
As required by The Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, Humber has established a program advisory committee that faculty meet with three times per year to ensure their programs are current and relevant to marketplace expectations. They also employ part-time professors that are currently working in the field and align with industry associations to provide an educational experience that is keeping pace with the needs of the industry.
5. Innovate and create
Partnerships between universities and corporations can serve as an incubator for innovation and the development of new solutions for the industry. Engaging students and bringing a fresh eye to processes, the use of technology and more can spark new thinking that can help move the industry forward, leading to new products and providing a more strategic view of this profession.
Corporations and universities have a responsibility to work to elevate the meetings profession by emphasizing the strategic nature of the role and the growing focus on meetings in organizations around the world. Bringing focus and awareness to the fact that this is a career path with many facets, well suited to growth with long-term opportunity, can also help in recruiting within universities and in meetings-focused roles.
The future of talent for the meetings industry looks bright, given increasing education programs and the alignment of Millennial interests with the nature of jobs in the meetings industry. With the right engagement and commitment, we can align the needs of students and the workplace and be transparent in what is needed for success, and to create career paths that are meaningful and rewarding. A meetings and events professional is a highly valued role in today’s and tomorrow’s organization. The Millennial generation brings skills to the table that no other generation has done before. With some cooperative work between universities and the meetings industry, we can continue to attract and train top-tier talent to our industry.
About the author
Issa Jouaneh is Senior Vice President & General Manager, American Express Meetings & Events. “American Express Meetings & Events” is a service provided by American Express Global Business Travel (GBT). GBT is a joint venture that is not wholly owned by American Express Company or any of its subsidiaries (American Express). “American Express Global Business Travel,” “American Express” and the American Express logo are trademarks of American Express and are used under limited license.