This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic world.
Name: Jon Collins
Company Name: Hope Air
Job Title: Chief Development Officer
Years of Experience: 15
How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I have been in non-profit most of my career. I'd planned some conferences as part of our 'mission delivery' efforts in early roles and felt I had a decent understanding of how the many parts came together to form a meaningful event. Eventually, I transitioned into the fundraising side of events, where I took a true interest. All of the detail that went into making a memorable experience for stakeholders still mattered, but a) the results were measurable... we either met our budget or we didn't, in terms of impact, and b) I valued the marketing side that peer-to-peer fundraising begins. These things are attainable in roles in the broader events sector, but for me, they weren't as focal as they were on the fundraising side of the organization. Working here, I had a full picture of how the event day experience and participant recruitment, engagement, and retention all came together to drive outcomes.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
With Hope Air, I lead a staff team focused on a full array of events: peer-to-peer fundraising and community activation, corporate golf tournaments, 'brand' events like our annual general meeting and other celebrations, and participating in tradeshows as a benefitting charity.
How do you compare planning your first in-person event post-pandemic, to planning meetings/events pre- Covid? What was different and unique? What was similar?
What challenges have you faced in your work as a meeting and event planner, when working with suppliers or sourcing a venue and how did you overcome them?
There were huge differences for us. Specifically, with our large fundraiser, we were planning a coordinated, multi-location initiative across provincial borders. With shifting provincial guidelines and mandates, managing the various requirements was a huge challenge in 2020 and 2021. It ultimately led to regionally focused events to keep the number of variables minimal. In 2022, we were still mindful of Covid but were free to move around. Our events all relied on overnight accommodations, and we were fortunate that our hotel partners were understanding of changes and were even able to hold rates for us in most instances. Looking at events more broadly, I think what has happened in my roles and what we've done across the sector has been quite intriguing. Essentially, the pandemic forced us to think differently about how to coordinate events and how to make magic with experiences both in person and online. Now, you're seeing people craving the opportunity to come together again but smart organizations are keeping the best innovations from their online journeys in place - either as a physical or virtual element.
I think our biggest challenge has been the shifting landscape that hotels and other travel partners face. For our events, and more broadly for our overall business Hope Air relies upon the generosity and availability of airline, accommodation, and other travel partners. With their businesses in significant flux, long-term contracts and relationships were harder to secure. Some partners who once offered discounts, donations, or committed long-term rates were unable to do so because of the unpredictability of their business. Some others have changed routes entirely based on post-pandemic realities. Having said that, we've been fortunate to have committed partners to adapt with. More than that, to adapt to changes in our business. So much of our travel is booked on a short turnaround now because of changes to the healthcare system, and hotel and airline partners have been able to accommodate our clients for the most part. In some situations, room blocks can't be made available, and we've had to rely on short-term booking on travel aggregator sites as a significantly higher expense.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Ultimately, we're driven by availability and the best rates. Proximity to the hospitals where we send patients is a priority, and when we concentrate a significant amount of business with a hotel partner, we're hoping to find someone who is ready to give a little as well - marketing benefits, hosting fundraising events, a committed long-term rate, or offering to participate in our meal voucher program for guests (or ideally, all of the above).
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
As noted earlier, I think the pandemic forced a shakeup in our way of thinking. The standard fare wouldn't work with events when we were forced online, and we don't have to go back to bland hotel event rooms as the only way of delivering a meeting moving forward. I'm excited to take the learnings that we developed through the course of the pandemic and carry through both the thought process and some of the tangible elements of the event day itself as we try to surprise and delight participants.
Plan ahead, and prepare to be creative. Again, we're on a short turnaround for many of our bookings, so making sure that we have contingency partners and also new ways of managing our business (discounted volume rates vs. room blocks or a commitment to fundraise instead of a donated room) have been important for us.
Due to the pandemic, our events community had to evolve, adapt, and grow. Many planners started to embrace new technologies as a result of the pandemic. What new tech are you using today in your planning process as a result?
I'm sure this is fairly common, but our focus has been on making sure the online experience matches in person as best we can, and to be honest, it rarely does. Finding the right A/V partner that can ensure that participants at home have the same experience as those in the room has been critical for us.