Jul 31, 2019 by zkipster Editorial Team

Sparking Change Through Events: The Toronto Edition

In round two of our Sparking Change series, we interviewed some of the top event planners in Toronto about what makes events spur people to take action.

In our Sparking Change series, produced in partnership with BizBash, we’re exploring the nuances of this question and the methods top event planners use to solve it.

Each installation explores a city known for its impactful events, through conversations with a select group of people behind some of the best events their city has to offer. Our first stop was Washington, D.C., and this time, we’re heading up north to one of Canada’s top cultural beacons: Toronto.

We talked to six event professionals doing work ranging from organizing events for the largest sports and entertainment company in Canada to one of the leading organizations fighting for kids’ health, but their tips and tricks can help any events professional pull off a great event.

Duncan Fraser | Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment

Creating Events Worthy of Championship Teams

When Duncan Fraser, of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s Event Experiences Team, thinks about the scope of events he works on for teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, he sums it up very concisely: “Every single night is a new experience.”

The largest sports and entertainment company in Canada, MLSE was founded by hockey legend Conn Smythe in 1931. And while the company has changed over the years, one thing remains the same, according to Fraser: “MLSE has always been at the forefront and always at the upper edge of the stadium experience. When people come to a game, they knew they were going to get an amazing experience.”

In recent years, that has meant a shift towards giving back to their city — and attempting to spark change. “As the business continued to grow, they wanted to start doing more things for the community, more things for the city — making sure fans were having an amazing time, and also doing great things for our partners and our supporters,” Fraser says. He sat down with us to share his best tips for using events to energize and grow a passionate audience.

Celebrate loyalty

Without question, one thing that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has working in its favor is a devoted fan base. The popularity of the Maple Leafs and the Raptors has only increased in recent years — and is sure to only increase after the Raptors’ recent championship win — and that helps to energize the events that Fraser and his team put on. “I believe that with events, there’s the power of social relationship for sure. These teams become your best friends,” Fraser notes. He continues, “I don’t know these players, they’re not my friends, but there’s a loyalty that you have to these teams that doesn’t make sense. It’s an irrational obsession with these teams, and we try and really live off that. We love that.”

An audience full of loyal followers will also help to create a more successful event — one that will be truly engaged in what’s happening, according to Fraser. “Speaking as a millenial, we are so distracted by everything. We all have our watches on that buzz all the time, we all have three screens open. But when you’re at an event, you’re there for one reason. And it’s that captive audience that we really look for,” he says.

Every fan has their cell phone out in their hand and they’re filming every single little interaction. And so you have to have that in mind — you can’t ever be off.

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Adapt with the changing times

“One thing that has really changed — when you think about your floor plan or the way that people would experience the event, it was, oh, what’s the big wow moment that they get when they walk in the front door?” But according to Fraser, social media has totally changed that, and events need to catch up to the times. “Every fan has their cell phone out in their hand and they’re filming every single little interaction. And so you have to have that in mind — you can’t ever be off.”

Fraser advises considering both the pros and cons of this shift, and advocates taking that into account as you attempt to build a brand. “If people have their phone out the entire time, we need to make sure whatever they’re sharing with anybody across the world is an amazing moment on behalf of our brands,” he notes, adding that the stakes are high, making it all the more necessary to rise to the occasion. “I think as we continue to try and build our brands globally, that’s probably the most impactful way.”

Include as many people as you can

While being in the arena might be the ideal experience for most fans, it’s not always possible. And keeping that in mind, MLSE sought to design a space that include even more followers: Maple Leaf Square, a development co-owned by MLSE that has restaurants and retail shopping but also serves as a gathering space for fans due to a 30 by 50 foot video screen installation. “It’s supposed to create a bit of a community. It’s just supposed to be your one stop spot for entertainment, whether it be really nice food, sports bars. We thought this would be an amazing place to really create a fan experiences,” Fraser says. “People want these types of experiences because they don’t always have access to get inside the building, and the next closest place is right on the outside. So that’s really what the square was built for — just to be a part of the city.”

And that creates an interesting challenge that enables Fraser and his team to reconceptualize the way they think about the events they put on. “There is no invite system. There is no RSVP. If you’re coming to the Square tonight, we’re building this experience for you — come experience it with us. And that’s really what we’re trying to drive. It is a free experience. Just come down and be part of something that is really special and a lot of fun,” he says.

Want to hear more from Duncan? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Erin McGuire | SickKids Foundation

Doing Well And Doing Good Through Events

The stakes are high for any event, but when the event is raising money to build a new hospital for children, the stakes are a bit higher. As the Associate Director for Special Events at the SickKids Foundation, Erin McGuire does that every day. “It’s the foundation that supports the hospital and really the top priority needs of the hospital through major gift planning, events, and third party events which are run by members of Toronto that are connected to the cause and want to give back,” she says.

For McGuire and her team, that means a level of dedication that goes above and beyond — both as individuals, and as a group. “We’ve got this all in mentality and it’s something that is communicated across the board that we want every person in foundation to be. And that means that you’re engaging with this event in some way, you’re donating to your colleague who’s going to walk, you’re walking yourself, you’re volunteering for the event.” Keeping that spirit in mind, McGuire sat down with us to give her best tips on dedicating yourself to your event — and keeping the ball rolling after.

Develop a signature event

For an established organization like SickKids, annual events are a great way to develop loyal donors — and potentially a great way to engage with the city at large. “Our largest signature event is a walk,” McGuire says. “It’s a march through the streets of downtown Toronto and it ends in a music festival. The event, aptly named Get Loud, had over 4,300 participants last year, according to McGuire.

Another signature event for SickKids is Scrubs in the City, an annual event that brings the culture and flavor of a new city to Toronto, from Rio to Nashville. “It’s going into its 18th year, it’s a big party, really a fabulous event,” McGuire says. “You’ve got a very engaged committee that goes out and secures sponsorship, and every year’s a new theme.” The combination of the familiar and the new is a great way to keep patrons coming back year after year.

This was about joining a movement and inviting those who listened and saw to join us in this epic campaign.

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Be thoughtful about expanding your audience

While it’s great to have attendees return year after year, it’s also important for organizations to attract new attendees — something that SickKids has done a lot of thinking about recently, McGuire notes. “Families are important. We’re a children’s hospital. We need to keep that family component but we needed to broaden our horizons and also make it interesting for millennials, make it interesting for people without children.”

Recently, SickKids has made the effort to target new patrons in that demographic. “We want to shake things up, we want to break through the noise, but we don’t want to alienate our current donor base either. It’s that kind of delicate balance to make sure that everybody’s happy,” McGuire says.

For McGuire and her team, that has meant thinking outside of the box when planning new events to reach a new audience. New events like a ball hockey tournament target a predominantly male audience, one that SickKids was struggling to reach previously.

And those moves have made an impact. “Our demographic has maybe not shifted. It think we’ve kept the core contingent quite well, which is great. But it has opened to, let’s say the 17 to 30 year olds that we weren’t getting before. And that was to answer a need,” McGuire notes.

SickKids’ Scrubs in the City event. Photo: SickKids Foundation

Be willing to shake things up

That desire to reach a new audience and the brainstorming around it generated a lot of creative buzz within SickKids just as they were thinking about a new goal. McGuire says, “We knew the need was there to build a new hospital. But we knew our message, it was working but it wasn’t breaking through to markets beyond those that we were already reaching. Truly what we needed was to shake things up.”

The team did just that: they began the Versus campaign, which represented a departure from the tone of past events. “It was a very different message. It’s not pulling at your heartstrings. It wasn’t making you cry, which a lot of our messaging before really had done.”

Instead, the team tried something new. “This was about joining a movement and inviting those who listened and saw to join us in this epic campaign. From a marketing standpoint, the Versus platform really allowed us to get down to a personal level, a sick kid versus the greatest childhood illnesses and how we battle those.”

“It allowed us that flexibility to be able to speak to people on this level that they’d not really been able to connect to before. It made it personal.”

Want to hear more from Erin? Listen to her full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Matt Vaile | Shopify

Creating a Community for Entrepreneurs

For Matt Vaile, Offline Marketing Producer at Shopify, working for the e-commerce giant doesn’t necessarily mean working on the big projects you might expect. “What Shopify wants to do is level the playing field,” notes Vaile. “For anyone that wants to sell anything online or in person or anywhere in between, anywhere your customers are, is where we want to enable you to sell. The reason that I love working at this company is because we help small, medium, large businesses actually be competitive in the space against some of the behemoths.”

And part of Shopify’s strategy for accomplishing that is through events. “Our platform works for so many different people, and when we think of our audience, we really want to create custom events for each of those audiences so they feel that they’re supported by us.” Vaile sat down with us to give us his best suggestions on creating events when you’re seeking to empower your audience.

Design your space intentionally

When Vaile puts on event for Shopify, details matter. “We really want to communicate how we look and feel and how our office looks and feels, which is very, very custom,” he notes.” That instinct for customization is one Shopify applies to designing spaces for events, from pegboard walls to show off different products to a touch pad buyable experience featuring local merchants’ products.

No detail is too small to consider, according to Vaile. “I really want to make sure that the height of the stage itself is not too high, that you don’t feel disengaged from the audience. For conferences, we’d like to have the stairs run across the entire front of the stage so it feels like anyone from the audience could actually get up and be on the stage, regardless of if they are going to or not.” The reason is simple: “It’s telling you that these stories are your stories and at any moment, your story could also be featured on the stage.”

Choose the right guide

With your stage is set, it’s essential to turn your attention to who will be on it — first and foremost, your event’s MC. “The audience needs a guide, and whoever is going to be that MC needs to be present in the room and needs to be the one connecting people,” according to Vaile.

That not only helps the audience follow along with your event, but also creates a better experience for guests. “Anytime the audience doesn’t know where something is going, they don’t have faith in the person to get them there. But if at the beginning of something you say, hey, I’m going to talk about these three things, that actually helps the audience feel confident that you are a subject matter expert,” Vaile notes.

We really want to create these events in these cities to actually foster those communities of merchants that actually end up support each other beyond the event itself.

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Work in the communities you want to impact

Vaile says that the most successful means of engaging with a community is actually engaging with it — going to them, not making them come to you. In Shopify’s case, that means putting on a series of local events where their audience actually have the opportunity to operate their businesses. “One of my all time favorite events that we do is actually called Shop Class, where merchants can sign up and we bring people in for classes and education,” he says.

The series goes to cities across North America and has also done a run in England, and the intention is to foster community building. “We let people tell their stories about what they’re selling online, why they started a business. It’s appealing to anyone that has that ambition to make a change.”

Building community is one of the ways in which Shopify seeks to spark change — for businesses, but also for the people behind those businesses. “I think a lot of the journey of an entrepreneur — and having been one myself – you’re always on your hustle. You’re always in your own space. It’s a very lonely activity to be an entrepreneur,” Vaile reflects. “We really want to create these events in these cities to actually foster those communities of merchants that actually end up support each other beyond the event itself.”

And that change can be lasting. “In follow ups with merchants, I see that they’re more energized about the business and about what they’re doing and how they’re changing their own part of the world — but they’re doing it with community now, which they might not have had access to before,” Vaile says.

Want to hear more from Matt? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Candice Chan & Alison Slight | Candice&Alison Events Group

Building an A-List Events Business From Scratch

Despite over 20 years in the events industry, for Alison Slight, pulling off a big event is still cause for celebration: “I think there’s a few events that just sort of hit this magic formula where all the stars align,” she says. “The weather was perfect. The room was really full for the whole duration of the night. There was a great surprise, something that really kind of grabbed everybody. I would say I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.”

Some of those events have come out of Slight’s own company, cofounded with Candice Chan. Since 2009, Slight and Chan’s collaboration, CANDICE&ALISON Events Group, has offered full service event design, management, and production, from upscale galas and weddings to launch parties. The company has worked with clients from international brands like Chanel and H&M to local organizations like the Toronto Blue Jays. Slight and Chan sat down with us to discuss their best tips for creating an event that makes an impact.

Photo: Candice & Alison Events Group

Take people outside their expectations zone

If you’re planning an event that does something new, show it. Don’t try to blend in with the crowd. An elegant way to make a big statement is by thinking outside of the box when it comes to the event space itself, Slight suggests. “I think one of the most exciting things about working in the event industry is your ability to change people’s perception of a preexisting space,” she says. “Maybe they’ve been to a space before or maybe they have some precedent about what they think they might be walking into.”

Chan agrees. “Our approach from day one has always been to design events from the perspective of the guest – not only the client. Be appreciative that they’ve taken the time out of their busy day to attend our event,” she says. “Make sure they feel like their attendance is greatly appreciated, every step of the way and that there isn’t even one opportunity for them to wish they were somewhere else.”

When you’ve helped transport someone, they’re taken out of their day to day, and start to really take note of what’s happening around them. That’s what leads to strong impressions and stronger buzz afterwards. “Previously, creating a buzzworthy event meant getting an event onto the society pages and seeing the pictures of all the beautiful people who attended,” Slight says.

And in the age of social media, it’s easier to measure the impact of an outstanding event quickly. “Now, I think it’s really about the immediate impact of the events,” Slight notes. “You get an impression right away of what people thought and how widely it got spread and shared. The buzz is definitely the top of the conversation.”

There’s a growing level of access, and I think the types of events that are catering to a variety of different people are really growing.

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Use new platforms to your advantage

Social media platforms are also important in terms of expanding your audience when it comes to putting on events that inspire and generate change. According to Slight, “There’s a growing level of access, and I think the types of events that are catering to a variety of different people are really growing.” She continues, “I think there will be bigger productions and the way we do events will change in that the basic elements will always exist, but I think how we do it will be more sophisticated and more exciting as a result.”

Although event producers dictate the direction of events in part, equally it’s dictated by what guests respond to. And platforms like Instagram organically create new norms, expectations, and behaviors that shift how people interact with social occasions.

For Slight and Chan, the prevalence of social media has helped them to grow their business — and also opened their events to a wider audience. “I think for our industry, that’s an asset. I think it’s really expanded and exposed people to events they may or may not have been a part of before. They may have heard of something, but they didn’t really get that access,” Slight says.

Check in early, check in often

“We’re always touching base with our clients,” Slight says. Chan notes, “It’s important to work together with the mentality that we’re a team. Every decision should always be made in the best interest of the event and its success — nothing else. Clearly defining those goals from the get go also allows for a more cohesive relationship.”

Establishing rapport goes a long way toward giving a client peace of mind and allow you to focus on meeting — and surpassing — the objectives of the event. “We believe that clients should feel so comfortable in advance of the event that the day of the should be an opportunity for them to enjoy it and engage with their customer. They shouldn’t have to worry about any of the elements that have gone into the planning or the production,” Slight says.

That communication shouldn’t end when the event does. Slight and Chan advocate for debriefing with clients as soon as the next day, when memories are fresh and it’s easier to assess which elements of the event were successful — and made an impact. “I think that kind of debrief and capturing that information in real time is really important because if you talk about it two weeks later, you’ll miss it. You really need to revisit it immediately,” Slight says. “That’s the biggest priority to ensure — that there’s an immediate regroup of the pros, the cons, how we can make it better the next time. The successes and the things you can essentially adjust.”

And that feedback will help ensure that your next event is a success too. “Addressing the really great things and the things that were surprising to you is really important to capture right away,” Slight says.

Anthony Sargent | Luminato Festival

Bringing Vision to a Growing Festival

Although Anthony Sargent is a transplant to Toronto, he’s been impressed by the city’s artistic offerings since he arrived in 2015. So impressed that he found himself asking a surprising question: “You might think in a city like Toronto that’s so rich in culture year round, why would you need an international arts festival?”

Luckily, the international arts festival in question is a special one — the Luminato Festival, a month long festival dedicated to performance, media, and visual arts, the one that Sargent came to Toronto to lead. “I think the answer is that they add a kind of critical mass of energy and when they work, they give you things that for the other 11 months of the year, you just can’t imagine you would never have experienced,” he says. Sargent sat down with us to discuss his best tips for putting on an event that gets people thinking — and keeps them thinking for the other 11 months of the year.

Foster connections between attendees — and to the event itself

First, Sargent highlights one of his favorite aspects of the Luminato Festival: “The most common thing that happens as a result of festivals is people who you would never normally expect to meet one another meet,” he says.

For Sargent, a festival represents an opportunity for individuals to connect — and to understand and engage with a city in a way in which they might not otherwise have the opportunity. “Going as an artist, being a guest in a festival, you know you’re going to meet other really interesting artists. You’re going to see a town with a kind of heightened sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness and excitement in a way that you don’t if you just turn up,” Sargent says.

That excitement can also change the relationship long term residents have with the city. “What I’ve found is that these festivals have become a fictional character that people look forward to every year and they have a more intimate relationship with the festival than they do with their best friends,” he notes.

Genuinely, you start with a fresh sheet of paper and the only test is, will this blow people’s socks off? Is this extraordinary and unimaginable and thrilling?

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Take risks that have the potential to solve tough questions

An important consideration for any event is taking into account the environment in which you’re hosting. For Sargent, the backdrop of Toronto is an important component for the event: “Toronto is a phenomenally energetic, lively place all year round. We don’t just have to add energy to a city that doesn’t have any — the city has energy to spare, my God!”

Given that energy, Sargent believes it’s essential for Luminato to constantly innovate — and to make sure the festival is a good match with the times. “What would be the test for us is are we doing something new or current or that speaks to the issues of our time in some way. It means our bar is going up all the time,” he says.

And that means thinking outside of the box, and being willing to take risks. Sargent notes, “Genuinely, you start with a fresh sheet of paper and the only test is, will this blow people’s socks off? Is this extraordinary and unimaginable and thrilling?”

For Sargent, that means asking a series of questions that can be helpful to consider when putting on any event: “Does it connect to people? Is it relevant? Does it add something meaningful to the discourse of our time?”

Photo: Benson Kua

Select a theme — but stay flexible

One way to add to that discourse is to choose a theme that is current. But given how far out many events are planned — especially an event like the Luminato Festival — that can be a tricky task. “There is the case where we’ve started with a particular focus. But there are other times when as you put things together, you begin to see patterns building up that you might not have intended,” Sargent says.

Some years, the theme is clear. “Some themes are genuinely and seriously preplanned — climate change for us next year is absolutely one of those,” Sargent says of the upcoming 2020 festival. Giving serious thought to global events and trends is an important step when you’re planning an event that you hope will inspire attendees.

But ultimately, Sargent notes, the key is to stay flexible. “Sometimes it’s slightly more serendipitous. What’s lovely is the public doesn’t see any of that. The public just see when you announced the program — what they have no idea is this bit was really carefully planned three years in advance, this bit we just noticed six months in advance that we could make a theme out of that. All the public gets to see is as finished result, which I think is nice.”

Want to hear more from Anthony? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Issa Jouaneh | Independent Events Advisor

Empowering Global Event Teams with Event Technology

For Issa Jounaeh, when it comes to events, the thing that really matters are results. The independent events advisor has had a lot of experience. The former Global SVP for Meetings & Events at American Express, Jounaeh led the transformation of events into a growth engine at the company, which more than tripled in size during his time there. Now, as he works on his own projects, Jounaeh still keeps this perspective in mind. He notes, “I came from a consulting and an IT background and I think what really drives and motivates meeting professionals is the outcome. They see the results, they feel the results.”

And those results can be essential if your goal is to inspire your employees. “When you’re working as part of a team and as part of an organization that’s driving that on a larger scale, that’s the kind of rewarding work that people love to be part of,” Jounaeh says. He sat down with us to discuss his main strategies for overcoming the challenges of creating lasting change through events.

Align technology adoption around clear strategic goals

As the meetings and events landscape changes, one key driving force is the potential — and potential pitfalls — of using new technologies. For Jouaneh, the advent of these changes is a great opportunity — as long as you have a plan. “I think a common mistake that I’ve seen is a commitment to technology without a strategy,” he says.

“It’s critically important that there is alignment between the vision in the strategy and the mix that you have from a talent perspective in the meetings and events team,” Jouaneh advises.

New tech should not be used just for the sake of using it, but should have a purpose, ideally streamlining your process, according to Jouaneh. “My definition of the purpose of technology is to make what was complex trivial, “ he says. “It’s got to be invisible for the most part, and it has to be effective.”

As Jouaneh looks ahead, he is optimistic about the changes technology may bring, saying, “I think there’s significant opportunity to expand the reach of meetings and events and the ability to repurpose content and to expand the audience of all of those. I think with new technologies, we have an opportunity to better integrate them within the meetings and events experience.”

I think there’s significant opportunity to expand the reach of meetings and events and the ability to repurpose content and to expand the audience of all of those.

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Foster opportunities for multidisciplinary solutions

With that in mind, Jouaneh does see significant opportunity for improvement in the meetings and events space. Of these challenges, he suggests beginning by asking an essential question: “How do you create an advantage through your meetings and events investments? That’s where I think there’s tremendous opportunity.”

And a lot of that comes into play when teams are built with diverse skill sets and backgrounds that can inform solutions from a wide variety of perspectives. Jouaneh continues, “Where we have to be truly focused is on the outcome and the clients and their objectives and requirements and how do we create compelling, longstanding experiences with the attendees? Is it art or is it science?”

For Jouaneh, events can — and should — be a combination. “I think it’s a bit of both, and that formula changes depending on the meeting type, the event type, the objectives of the event, the number of attendees, all of those factors,” he says.

Ultimately, however, Jouaneh believes the desired end result is clear: “We’ve spent quite a bit of time looking to build specific metrics around experience or engagement. But from my perspective it very much starts with the engagement of the attendee.”

Introduce scalable collaboration systems

While Jounaeh emphasizes the importance of using the newest technologies to your advance, there’s one other component he is a clear advocate for: collaboration. “For me, collaboration is incredibly powerful,” he says.

But Jounaeh is quick to note that when planning events, you need to bring the same strategy you necessary for incorporating new tech: “It starts with a vision and it starts with leadership, and the meeting planners can certainly be enablers of that strategy.”

As an event planner, it’s critical to make sure that you help to facilitate that collaboration, and that you keep the desired end result at the forefront. “Where you have that vision and that leadership, I think that’s where you see the most powerful outcomes because the meetings and events professionals can truly understand what that vision is and then they’re able to execute it,” Jounaeh says.

Want to hear more from Issa? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.