Meetings and conventions remain a pivotal part of the Canadian hotel industry and, with business tourism on the rise in Canada, the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
According to the 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast by American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), the most prevalent types of business gathering are internal meetings — encompassing nearly one-third of all meetings held in 2019. The least prevalent type of meetings are expos/conventions, which often take up the most room and are considered city-wide gatherings.
According to data from the Union of International Associations, two of the top-five North American cities for international conventions in 2018 were Montreal and Toronto, hosting 108 and 79 events respectively.
And, according to the GBT forecast, the top meeting locations in Canada for 2019 were (in order): Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Mississauga, Ont.
But, city-wide conventions (typically attracting more than 5,000 attendees) do not happen often. According to the GBT study, these account for only 13 per cent of total meetings in North America. And, as Eve Paré, CEO of the Greater Montreal Hotel Association points out, can take several years to plan.
“We often book city-wide conventions years in advance; we already have conventions booked for 2030,” Paré explains.
As for other smaller types of events, such as internal business meetings and incentive events, lead times have become increasingly inconsistent and hard to track.
Scott Beck is the president and CEO of Tourism Toronto and has spent years working on both sides of the industry — in hotels and as a meeting planner. He says looking at events, more specifically city-wide conventions, as singularly beneficial is misguided, with the impact reaching far beyond the hotels they’re booked in.
“The impact is significant and strategic. Conventions have different impacts, city-wide conventions have a triple effect — you have the impact that it creates in the participatory hotels, then those hotels that host the various activities occuring in a city-wide conference and the compression to the larger hotel community,” Beck explains. “You may have 15 to 20 hotels in downtown Toronto engaged, but hotels as far as Mississauga, Ont. will feel the impact of having 10,000 extra people in Toronto.”
When that large of a contingent arrives, the impact is palpable throughout the city — not just in the hotel industry. As Dave Gazley, vice-president of Meeting and Convention Sales, Tourism Vancouver, says, this symbiotic relationship is one that continues to fuel the hotel industry.
“Whether it’s retail, taxis, attractions or food, the economic impact can’t happen if the conventions aren’t happening in town and they can’t happen in town without the hotels being a big part,” says Gazley. “It’s like the tide comes in and all boats rise.”
Meetings and conventions have become essential to the success of hotels in many destinations — this much is clear — but just how vital are they? Mylene Gagnon, vice-president of Sales and Convention Services at Tourisme Montréal, posits the hotel industry would collapse without meetings.
“For some of the big hotels, meetings could be 45 to 50 per cent of their business in any given year,” she explains.
“They’re almost 35 per cent of the business we do,” agrees Marion Harper Treskin, general manager of the dual- branded JW Marriott Parq Vancouver and The Douglas, an Autograph
Collection hotel, at the Parq Vancouver entertainment resort. “For our hotels and our success, they’re critical.”
Beck also notes, as a hotelier, large meetings provide the added assurance of more money in your pocket. “I always looked at group business — especially conventions and expos — as a pension plan for the future. Having that base on the books allowed me, as the general manager of the hotel, to be creative with my revenue management,” he explains.
While these large conventions may be viewed as a luxury or bonus for some, they pose a large challenge for many, simply due to a lack of space for them. And, as the old adage goes, ‘too much of a good thing is never a good thing.’
With more exposure and more requests to book large blocks of rooms, hotels are often booked close to capacity, which seems great, until business — potentially more-lucrative business — is turned down due to lack of space.
Harper Treskin says during the hotels’ high season (typically early May to the end of October), occupancy runs in the high 90s, which poses a problem for large-scale meetings trying to book entire blocks of rooms.
“Room availability in Vancouver is going to become a problem shortly because we don’t have any new hotels in the pipeline,” adds Harper Treskin. “We‘ve got big convention centres and we’re going to get to the point where we have groups coming in that require a large room block…but, [with] the demand of the independent and the leisure travellers growing at the same pace as meetings, we’re going to run out of inventory.”
The GBT forecast shows a stark difference in opinion between meeting planners and hoteliers with regard to room availability. Many hoteliers are optimistic, unlike Harper Treskin, predicting availability will increase by 3.6 per cent in 2020 in North America, while meeting planners predict a more meagre increase of 0.8 per cent.
While inventory is a cross-country concern, Montreal is experiencing a different challenge. As Paré points out, even though Montreal led Canada in the number of large conventions hosted as recently as 2018, it missed out on many opportunities — not due to lack of rooms, but a lack of convention space — a key factor she cites as driving business elsewhere.
“There’s a large number of American associations we can’t even welcome in Montreal anymore because the convention centres are too small for those groups,” Paré explains.
Beck echoes the challenge, noting when booking events at hotels for his clients, “If you don’t have space and dates, you aren’t on the table.”
DELIVERING THE GOODS
There are a few requirements every hotel needs to host successful meetings — enough space to house a meetings’ delegates, high-quality audio-visual equipment and stellar connectivity.
And, as Beck stresses, the latter is truly imperative. “Really good Wi-Fi. Period. End of story. If you don’t have it, don’t bother knocking.”
There are also less tangible needs to be met, as experience has become top-of-mind in the industry.
“It’s not just about having tables and chairs in the room, that’s not going to cut it anymore. People want more,” says Harper Treskin.
From guests’ first steps into the hotel, to their last steps into their room at the end of the night, hoteliers and meeting planners alike strive to create an authentic experience that showcases the strengths of the hotel and the host city.
“The word experience is on every lip. Every meeting planner is asking ‘what’s going to be the Montreal experience? What’s going to be memorable for them?’ It’s not just the hotel, but what the city can offer as a whole,” says Gagnon.
Capturing the feel of the city in an effort to draw delegates out of their rooms and into a city they have limited knowledge of can be tough, Beck notes. “To be competitive in this market, you have to be able to showcase the organic authenticity of your destination.
Destination appeal is an important part of it — why would your destination appeal to the client you’re bidding on?”
To provide a unique guest experience, hoteliers often strive to showcase what their property has to offer in an effort to drive return visits and make it top-of-mind when delegates are planning leisure travel.
“Business events are an incubator for future travel. It’s easier for people to come to a business meeting than to use their discretionary time to visit a place,” says Beck. “They come and experience the city through the business event, they fall in love with the place and, ultimately, come back as a leisure visitor.”
It’s a formula that goes beyond repeat customers. As Harper Treskin explains, giving the guest an added experience can encourage them to stay in your hotel after the meeting has ended, allowing them more time to enjoy the city.
“If I have a convention in Vancouver I’m going to come and, ideally, I’m going to come a few days early and leave a few days later to explore the city,” she illustrates.