Meetings, and their value, are under intense scrutiny from Canada’s business leaders.
By Robert Thompson
How the meetings world has changed since the Great Recession of 2008/09, which brought an extraordinary amount of public and political attention to off-site meetings. Who can forget the infamous ‘AIG Effect?’ (Mere days after the U.S. Federal Reserve rescued the foundering insurance company with an $85-billion bailout, in September, 2008, an AIG subsidiary hosted independent insurance agents at the luxurious St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, in Dana Point, Calif. – at a cost of $443,000).
Since then, executives occupying the corner suites are, by necessity, bringing a razor-sharp eye to evaluating meetings—their value, purpose, and the return-on-investment they bring (or, as the case may be, don’t bring) to their companies. This heightened level of scrutiny, however, means that senior execs have to be fully convinced of the value of external meetings (for instance, sales and professional-development conferences and key industry gatherings) to which they send their employees, before signing off on them.
This, of course, directly affects the planners responsible for putting these conferences together, and raises the bigger question: Are planners and the decision-makers ‘on the same page’ when it comes to meetings and conferences? Are planners having to ‘jump through hoops,’ for those controlling the purse strings, to prove the worth of meetings and their contribution to companies’ business objectives and, ultimately, bottom line?
In the following pages, we sought out the opinions of Canadian business leaders, to gauge their candid opinions on the value of meetings to their organizations.
Ben Cowan-Dewar knows the changes that have occurred in the business world, where meetings are concerned. Cowan-Dewar, along with Chicago business partner Mike Keiser, created a resort in Inverness, N.S., called Cabot Links. The resort, which employs nearly 300, opened this year to headlines in the likes of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Cowan-Dewar, the facility’s managing director, travels to conferences all over North America, specifically seeking marketing perspectives from outside his industry. On top of that, once or twice a year, he sends his senior-level managers (he has 12, in all) to local conferences, usually in Halifax, three hours away by car. Typically, these are informational conferences with focused agendas—for instance, social media, for his marketing personnel, or women-in-business conferences.
Each year, he re-evaluates the return, in terms of the money and time spent, on sending his executives to these meetings, and each year, determines that they do bring value, for their networking value and for their ability to build the knowledge base of his senior-management team. Result: increased productivity and performance.
Indeed, in a post-2008 business world, where every dollar spent at many businesses is scrutinized to see if there’s a return on investment, sales conferences, incentive travel and even external client meetings are being carefully considered. Do they warrant the investment? Does it make sense to send an employee to a conference to learn the latest tricks in social media? Is there value in face-to-face meetings?
While it is certainly clear that Canadian industry leaders are cognizant of the money spent on travel to conferences, annual meetings and external gatherings with clients, it is also clear those personal connections and experiences might actually be more valuable now than ever before. They might expect more out of those conferences—but it doesn’t mean they’ve stopped attending.
Wayne Kozun knows this first hand. Kozun is the Toronto-based senior vice-president of public equities for Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, which has $117-billion in total assets. Kozun, who has a staff of 40 that reports to him, recently attended a conference held by the Pacific Pension Institute. Kozun attends a handful of these a year—travelling lengthy distances to hear international perspectives from the financial industry. His staff also travels throughout the year—often to meet with money managers around the globe.
But Kozun says it is hard to put an ROI on the conferences he or his staff attend, though he has no doubt there’s value developed.
“I find them a good way to get a sense of the local market and the opportunities that could be there,” he explains. “I want to get a sense of what industries are there. You can’t get a sense of that on the phone. You want to know what locals are talking about—or even find out what’s going on in China. It is more about the value I get out of the conference.”
One thing is clear—when it comes to employee travel to conferences or sales events, Canadian executives are carefully weighing the ROI and giving significant consideration to which employees are sent.
Steve Marshman, president of Catalyst Sponsorship Consulting, in Oakville, Ont., says conferences remain an important part of the marketing industry, but he wants to be sure there’s a good balance of education, case studies, speakers and networking before he’ll send any of his staff.
Marshman, whose company has 15 employees, with clients that include Royal Bank, CN Rail, and Manulife, says he wants a return from his employees as well.
“The expectation is that the employee attending learns something from those events, brings themselves up to speed on the latest developments, but also comes back to share best practices,” he says. “Conferences too focused on the social activity and boondoggle factor are expensive investments, when you consider the costs of flights, hotels and such without the return.”
One of the key factors for this sort of travel, Marshman says, is the perceived lag between how the sponsorship business works in Canada, versus the U.S., where some may argue the industry is more mature. U.S. companies are often more aggressive and he wants Catalyst to be on the cutting edge of the industry, not lagging behind.
Beyond that, Marshman also wants to know that the employee can derive something tactical from the conference, which can then be used when interacting with clients.
CONNECT WITH PEERS
“The key is to ensure there’s a matchup between the employee, their skills set and what I’m expecting out of the conference,” he says. Marshman says his goal in sending employees to conferences is to allow them to connect with their peers.
“There is often a reaffirmation factor for the employee, when in a setting of their peers,” he says. “Like any successful employee, benchmarking yourself against others in the industry is only done by physically interacting with those that share similar job description or responsibilities. It allows leaders to practice leading, and core staff to be exposed to a meeting of the minds.”
On the sales side, conferences can yield revenue boosts, says David Caron, the publisher of Toronto-based ECW Press, a leading Canadian independent book company. Caron, who personally goes on upwards of 15 events and conferences each year and whose staff attends numerous others, says he’s witnessed a significant sales jump from attending certain sales conferences. Specifically, he points to a sales conference with a distributor in England that bumped revenue from $60,000 annually to more than $250,000.
“All we did was send one person to have that personal contact with the staff [in the U.K.] and really be able to detail what books are key for us,” he explains.
Graham Henderson is a noted entertainment lawyer who currently runs Music Canada, the lobby group for the music industry.
Henderson, who travels to more than 20 conferences a year—with his staff attending additional events—says he’s more carefully considering the travel he does. But it isn’t as much about the expense of the trips, as the value created at them.
“A lot of times, issues that are important are being raised, and our peers will be there,” says Henderson, president of Music Canada, whose members include the likes of Universal Music and Warner Music. “I’m looking to have a presence and be part of the discussions that are taking place. I also need my executives to be current.”
But staying current also means recognizing when an event is on the wane. Henderson says he’s been carefully considering whether to continue attending Midem, once one of the entertainment industry’s leading conferences, held annually in Cannes, France.
At one time, Midem was mandatory for anyone in the entertainment sector, but Henderson says that’s changing and he’s carefully weighing the costs of attending what is an expensive conference from a travel and accommodations perspective.
“At its peak, Midem was a marketplace for the world,” he says. “It still has designs on remaining as such, but attendance is declining. Whereas the trade show once occupied the entire ground floor of the Palais du Festival, it is now a shadow of its former self—perhaps a reflection of shifting priorities, perhaps a reflection of the decline of the music industry. Will I return? This year, yes. But as to the future, I need to think carefully. And the decision about whether to continue is as impressionistic as much as anything else. Am I getting the meetings I need? Are the issues fresh and current? Is it an event we can use to build relationships that matter for us in Canada? For me, the jury is out.”
Another music-industry conference, South by Southwest (SXSW), in Austin, Texas, is also on his radar.
“On the other hand, SXSW is a conference that has not only increased in size, but in relevance, expanding into the film and digital space in a way that integrates music,” he says. “I had stopped going a few years back, but it is starting to fall into the must-go category. This has everything to do with relevance and who is there. Right now, EVERYONE is there.”
Brad Pelletier has taken a different perspective on travel and training. Even after the economic slowdown of 2008, Pelletier, the former managing partner of sports marketing giant IMG Canada, who is currently vice-president of the Okanagan region for real estate and resort developer Wesbild, says there’s value in connecting employees for professional-development events. But Pelletier, who recently brought in the former CEO of WestJet to speak with his staff, has increasingly paid to have experts come to see his employees, as opposed to sending staff away on trips.
TAKING A RISK
That doesn’t mean he’s cut travel costs for staff to attend conferences. Pelletier says that, like companies that cut marketing expenses and then find sales lagging behind, those businesses that feel conferences and sales travel are an unnecessary expense are taking a big risk.
“I really believe in training and trying to enhance the employees you have through professional development,” he says. “With challenging economic conditions, I put a premium on professional and sales development, as we typically need to accomplish more with less, which means you need to equip those with the right tools and training. It also demonstrates to your key team that we are prepared to invest in them, in order to achieve corporate objectives.”
And how does he determine how often to send employees to professional-development conferences?
“I believe you need to be careful in frequency and numbers of people in attendance at meetings,” he says. “Meetings should be held more frequently for planning/strategy and, if executed effectively, there should be less need for larger operational meetings.”
For his part, Henderson says he’s increased his organization’s business and conference-related travel by “1,000 per cent,” since taking on the role of president in 2004.
“I think there’s no substitute for face-to-face engagement, and I realize we can’t always do that, but so many of them at my level are important to have that connection,” he says. “If you are a CEO, I would think if you’re not meeting with people, you’re missing out.”
As Cowan-Dewar notes, “that personal touch is still important. I saw the changes coming four or five years ago. Companies were being more careful, and conferences and such were changing. But the reality is, if they still have value, executives are still going to go.”
—Robert Thompson is a freelancer writer based in London, Ont.