where con nscience meets cor­po­rate

Meet­ings turn from im­press­ing the af­flu­ent to help­ing those in need

Ottawa Business Journal - Meeting in the Capital - - Where Conscience Meets Corporate - By El­iz­a­beth How­ell

Any reg­u­lar watcher of The Oprah Win­frey Show knows that op­u­lence is a sta­ple fea­ture. For a woman who came from nearly noth­ing, it is as­tound­ing to watch her in­sis­tence on noth­ing but the very best for her­self and her guests.

If a makeup pro­ducer ap­pears on stage, a bag of make-pretty gifts will typ­i­cally be placed un­der­neath ev­ery chair in the au­di­ence. When tackling com­mon is­sues such as hair loss, pi­o­neer­ing doc­tors such as Dr. Robert Bern­stein share the stage with one of Amer­ica’s most rec­og­niz­able faces.

Even Ms. Win­frey’s fifti­eth birth­day was a fancy and elab­o­rate af­fair that took weeks of prepa­ra­tion, and played out live be­fore an au­di­ence of mil­lions. Ste­vie Won­der, Tina Turner and Josh Groben all sang, and Jay Leno per­formed a stand-up skit.

And speak­ing of op­u­lence, who can for­get Tom Cruise jump­ing on that couch?

But in be­tween book club reads and celebri­ties, Ms. Win­frey is pi­o­neer­ing a new wave of meet­ing trends in part­ner­ship with Debi Lilly, a Chicago-area plan­ner who runs A Per­fect Event.

“Events are re­ally some­thing that runs in my blood, and that I’m pas­sion­ate about,” says Ms. Lilly, who has worked with Ms. Win­frey for seven sea­sons and planned Oprah’s big 5-0.

That’s a big rea­son why Meet­ings Pro­fes­sion­als In­ter­na­tional Ottawa are bring­ing her to town in April, as key­note speaker for Na­tional Meet­ings In­dus­try Day. Ms. Lilly will fo­cus on the “peo­ple” com­po­nent of cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, to show Ottawa’s meet­ing plan­ners how to use the world of high­pro­file events to fur­ther a com­pany’s im­age while ben­e­fit­ing needy causes and peo­ple.

It’s a topic that’s close to Ms. Lilly’s heart, so much so that she and Ms. Win­frey are part­ner­ing their pas­sion to do some good for those in need. This means hold­ing events where all pro­ceeds might go to Chicago’s Jof­frey Bal­let, or ed­u­ca­tion, or even one of the many hos­pi­tals dot­ting the Windy City.

Ms. Lilly traces the roots of CSR back to the wave of change that swept con­ven­tional think­ing af­ter 9/11.

“We did a tele­vi­sion show with Oprah – I be­lieve it was live – at one of the largest mil­i­tary bases in the coun­try in Ken­tucky. It was called the World’s Largest Baby Show, and we threw a baby shower for this

army base where a large pop­u­la­tion of the wives were ex­pect­ing at the same time,” says Ms. Lilly of one of her first CSR events.

“That was a re­ally emo­tional (and) in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. My en­tire team flew down to Ken­tucky with the show and we de­signed an en­tire stage and set, (with) thou­sands of flow­ers and all of the dif­fer­ent gifts.”

It’s a new and per­haps wel­come re­al­iza­tion for meet­ing plan­ners, some of whom may have grown weari­some of sim­ply “go­ing green” and want a new way to give back. But for what it’s worth, the Ottawa Con­ven­tion Cen­tre’s di­rec­tor of sales An­drew Beat­tie says green­ing a meet­ing is “just one el­e­ment of (CSR).

“It’s looking af­ter our own. It’s what we are do­ing for our com­mu­nity on a global sense: ev­ery­thing from the en­vi­ron­ment to tak­ing care of (less-for­tu­nate) peo­ple.”

The Cana­dian So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Ex­ec­u­tives is one or­ga­ni­za­tions hop­ping aboard the CSR train, which Mr. Beat­tie re­fuses to call a “trend” be­cause he says it makes the idea sound too tem­po­rary.

At its most re­cent meet­ing, he adds, CSPE did a drive for the food bank at the con­ven­tion and des­ig­nated a day for at­ten­dees to go out and vol­un­teer.

Still, CSR has seemed to make in­roads only among a few se­lect or­ga­ni­za­tions; “I haven’t seen it too much on the trade as­so­ci­a­tion side,” Mr. Beat­tie adds.

Ottawa res­i­dents reg­u­larly travel to other cities that have hopped on the CSR band­wagon, how­ever. One ex­am­ple that Mr. Beat­tie cites is New Orleans.

At the beginning of Jan­uary, the Pro­fes­sional Con­ven­tion Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion made a point of putting its sem­i­nars in the trou­bled city, still re­build­ing from the Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2006.

Cer­tain ar­eas of the city still aren’t fit for habi­ta­tion. Mark Nis­bett, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of sales for Ottawa Tourism, has helped out in the city twice since the flood­ing hit.

“On the first day of the (PCMA) con­ven­tion the peo­ple for the con­ven­tion vol­un­teered to help clean up a city park, which was in an area of New Orleans hit ex­tremely hard,” he says.

“Be­cause they don’t have the re­sources in the city, it’s re­ally a way for the or­ga­ni­za­tion to give back to the com­mu­nity that they’re ac­tu­ally meet­ing in.”

Pes­simisti­cally, some say it’s also a way for cor­po­ra­tions to save a bit of money while also ap­pear­ing to save the world.

Long be­fore the re­cent eco­nomic cri­sis hit head­lines, cor­po­rate travel bud­gets were be­ing slashed as re­stric­tions and fares on air­lines in­creased. Telecom­mut­ing was one an­swer to that prob­lem, but it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate the net­work­ing that hap­pens in con­ven­tion hall­ways.

So com­pa­nies who still wanted to host and take part in con­ven­tions – rather than ap­pear to be spoil­sports and stick at home – cut back on costs in other ways, says Mike Mul­vey of the Uni­ver­sity of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Man­age­ment.

Even at the uni­ver­sity, which has been in­volved in CSR events for years, it’s usu­ally the young – and per­haps ide­al­is­tic – who are most en­thu­si­as­tic, some­times con­vinc­ing other stu­dents to not only travel abroad but to teach. Benev­o­lent events such as Shin­erama are a sta­ple for stu­dents and fac­ulty alike.

For com­pa­nies, though, the an­swer was never quite that sim­ple.

“I think with the way bud­gets have gone even be­fore it was a cap­i­tal eco­nomic cri­sis, com­pa­nies have had to sort of re­assess how they spend money on th­ese re­treats and events and meet­ings. Whereas once you had to build morale with the team by maybe tak­ing them ski­ing in Banff, that’s sort of a thing of leg­end now,” Mr. Mul­vey says.

Not to sound like a prag­ma­tist, he adds, but a com­pany stretched for funds would tend to fo­cus on events that are free – and help­ing the home­less, for ex­am­ple, would mask that bud­get pinch well.

“Since the com­pany still rec­og­nizes the im­por­tance of team build­ing and morale, they try to or­ga­nize over some sort of so­cial event, maybe bring some toys to un­der­priv­i­leged.”

Ms. Lilly points out that it’s easy to give money to char­ity when the go­ing is good. But the chal­lenge for CSR in to­day’s econ­omy is be­ing able to keep that money flow go­ing even af­ter lay­offs and cut­backs.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing time right now in our in­dus­try be­cause the econ­omy is such that it’s harder for peo­ple to give. Peo­ple have been laid off and are not get­ting raises and bonuses and this, that, and the other – but at the same time the or­ga­ni­za­tions that are re­ly­ing on fundrais­ing need just as much as they ever have,” she says.

“We are hav­ing to do more with less or just as much with less and at the same time, guests and the event are try­ing to help the or­ga­ni­za­tions as best as they can.

“Even busi­nesses who do char­i­ta­ble giv­ing are not able to do as much as they can have in the past.”

Debi Lilly

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