where con nscience meets corporate
Meetings turn from impressing the affluent to helping those in need
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.”