What is the Future of Business Events?

Canada’s visitor economy is on the road to recovery, but still faces challenges as we head into a new year. During the opening plenary session at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s 2022 Tourism Congress, a panel of business events experts tackled everything from long-term outlooks to how to attract more international conferences to Canada.

Tourism Industry Association of Canada, Congress, 2022

Panel Participants (l-r): Greg Newton, General Manager, BMO Centre at the Calgary Stampede; Jill Kivett, President, CAEM Board and Regional VP, Marketplace Events; Bradley Sutherland, National Manager, Business Development, Air Canada; Laura Pallotta, Chair, Meetings Mean Business Canada and Regional VP Sales and Distribution – Canada Region, Marriott International; Scott Beck, President & CEO, Destination Toronto (moderator)

Here are some of the key points made during the session:

Short- and Long-term Outlooks

Laura Pallotta: As soon as [COVID-19] restrictions started to ease, Marriott saw an uptick in demand in the short term. Business is strong into 2023 and we feel good about most markets in Canada. What’s really on our minds right now is beyond 2023. The booking horizon for international congresses by large associations and even corporate groups, in most cases, is more than four years. The decisions that we make now, the investments that we make and the work we do now… are very important for long-term success.

Greg Newton: In Calgary, it’s about changing perceptions. When you say you’re from Calgary, the immediate reaction is, ‘that’s the oil industry.’ But there’s more to what we’re doing. We’re amplifying our story on diversification and regenerative tourism. I say to my team all the time, ‘you know, we’re not curing cancer with what we do, but maybe our clients are.’ How do we take everything that we are as Canadians and amplify that to a global audience? It’s time for us to push the agenda of Canada’s intellectual property, and that happens through business events.

How the business events ecosystem will help rebuild the economy

Jill Kivett: When we started to get shuttered in March 2020, we quickly realized that all levels of government and the health authorities really had no idea what trade and consumer shows are. They are business events and the exhibitors rely on these shows to generate income. So that was our moment when we realized that we have to educate government [about our industry]. The Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses really helped shine a light on our industry and the challenges we were facing [and the pandemic period became] the first time we’d ever been recognized as an important tourism economic driver by the federal government.

Scott Beck: Over the course of the pandemic I think we all felt that our industry finally got recognized. Governments realized how impactful we are on the communities we work with.

Bradley Sutherland: As we look at business events and how to drive our economy, we need international visitors. Business travellers… are a big piece of the puzzle. Coming out of COVID, we’ve seen bleisure [business + leisure tourism] take hold. When you break that down, you need the business events in order to drive the leisure tourism component. It’s so critical to ensure that business events are not just happening for 2023, but further down the pipeline so that we can continue investing in new routes and making Canada more accessible [to international visitors].

Investing to Attract International Business Events

Greg: I think every primary destination across the country is facing the same issue, which is that we’re seeing hotel development in the 200 or less room counts. We’re not seeing the big box hotels, with 600 to 1,000 rooms, being built here like they are south of the border. We need that development so that we can attract [large] groups into our cities and to make room blocks easier for planners.

Laura: Marriott is working very closely on the ground to try to do exactly what you’re talking about. I do think a public–private partnership of some form or fashion would make a lot of sense. We’ve just got to work together and figure out how to do that.

Scott: I sense that these conversations about destination development and growth are happening on an organic level, not just within the destinations but at Destination Canada and I see it in the tourism growth strategy that Minister Boissonnault is putting together. Bradley, as we look to the future of air service, what is the most important public policy that our government can do right now to help?

Bradley: There are probably two things and I think they’re tied together. I hear all the time that there’s a bit of a hangover effect after COVID with Canada’s reputation internationally. People [from outside of Canada] are still asking about the ArriveCAN app and random testing for COVID. This is a hindrance to doing business in Canada. I think we need to do a good job of telling the story that Canada is open, we want business back and that we’re welcoming. Tying into that is the visa process. Canada needs to make it easier for people to get visas to come here for business events. It’s such a missed opportunity and we have to get it right because of the competitive landscape. If other countries are making it easier to [travel], they’re going to get the business.

Strategies For Forward Growth

Greg: Outside of infrastructure development, it’s upping our game. We need to be more proudly Canadian. We need to start bragging more and be unapologetic about what we do. We are a great country with great people and great resources. We need to tell those stories.

Laura: We were very lucky over the past few years that the federal government gave a big injection of funding to Destination Canada, which in turn made a large allocation [to promote] business events. I believe it’s paying off, but we need the government to extend that funding so that we stay competitive internationally. We need to work with government to create incentives for international organizations that would bring events to Canada, and we need to undo some of the reputational damage around our airports as well as misperceptions around the costs of travel to Canada.

We need to get in front of that and make sure everybody understands that it’s easy to buy Canada. We need a communications plan that includes government so that they understand what we do and all of the economic impacts. That’s an area of focus for Meetings Mean Business Canada.

TIAC’s Tourism Congress took place November 22-23, 2022 in Ottawa, attracting more than 460 tourism professionals from across Canada. The plenary session was sponsored by Meetings Mean Business Canada, Convention Centres of Canada and the Canadian Association of Exposition Management (CAEM).