Build a Wall or Build a Bridge?

How the Canadian Meetings Industry Can Grow Exponentially with the Cross-Cultural Advantage


Being a professional speaker since 2009, I’ve seen first hand how the Canadian meetings industry has rapidly changed. Keynote speeches used to be 60 to 90 minutes in duration. With the increased usage of social media, conference attendees have shorter attention spans (‘squirrel”!) so I’m often asked to deliver a 40-minute keynote. The usage of technology at conferences runs rampant including event apps, live polling, a virtual presence and live Twitter feeds. Even the clothing that presenters wear is changing. Millennial and Gen Y speakers often wear cuffed jeans, sport tattoos, swear more from the stage and have perfect ‘messy hair’ that costs over $200 to mess up.

The Canadian meetings industry has potential opportunity to grow exponentially, especially now, given what is currently happening south of the border with travel bans limiting potential conference attendees. From a global meetings industry perspective on the impact of the travel ban, more than 6,500 Canadian academics have signed a pledge to “not attend international conferences in the U.S. while the ban persists,” and more than 43,000 academics have signed another petition condemning the executive order. A group of astronomers behind the “Science Undivided” initiative have pledged not to attend conferences in the U.S. “until they can be attended by all, regardless of citizenship, and invite academics from all fields to join them.”

Yet, even though I speak nationally as well as globally, I have yet to see association executives, meeting professionals or conference organizers capitalize on amazing opportunities. There are a number of initiatives that the meetings industry in Canada can implement in order to grow the meetings industry in Canada. Here are four strategies that association executives should start implementing:

  1. Understanding the Difference between Collectivists and Individualists

According to the work of Geert Hofstede, a psychologist who identified cultural dimensions, most of the world’s populations are actually collectivists, meaning they are family and community oriented. Decisions are driven by ensuring group harmony is maintained.

Collectivists are highly referral-based and adamantly loyal. The majority of the top source immigrant countries coming to Canada currently are collectivists, including India, China, Pakistan and the Philippines. Furthermore, all of the countries banned under the travel ban are collectivist, limiting their attendance (and interest) in US-based conferences and meetings. As long as association executives understand some simple strategies to include and embrace collectivists at their meetings, by default, collectivists will begin to see Canada as an ultimate destination for global meetings.

  1. Catering

Catering, including food and beverage served at conferences, has certainly changed. From pastries, juice and coffee at morning coffee break to smoothies, homemade granola and vegetable crudites at the nutrition break, it’s a welcome change. Though most conference organizers will ask for dietary requirements, which often includes vegetarian and gluten-free options, many do not include halal options.

Most Muslims eat Halal. In short, Halal is Arabic for permissible. Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Koran. The Islamic form of sacrificing animals or poultry after which a Muslim will recite a dedication or a tasmiya. Even if pork, which is not eaten by Muslims, is not the main entrée, it does not necessarily mean that the main entrée is Halal unless ordered as such.

If conference attendees do not eat, their engagement and energy will decrease and ultimately their overall evaluation of the conference might, in turn, be negative. However, many hotels and other event venues have the capacity to prepare Halal entrees if pre-ordered. In fact, in Alberta, association executives and meeting planners have a huge opportunity to embrace the farm to table movement as meat processing is regulated at the provincial level and there are potential protein opportunities such as serving goat meat as an entrée option where beef, chicken and poultry are not as popular in some countries. The food can be sourced at a local level and in accordance with Halal guidelines. With the beautiful Rocky mountains an hour from Calgary, there is immense opportunity to attract global and national conferences.

Calgary-based Grey Eagle Resort and Casino is definitely capitalizing on the changing demographic in very unique ways that appeal to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Jayme Mitchell, Sales Manager, notes that the majority of their business comes from the Aboriginal meetings market. As a direct result, the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino customizes menus, and ensures cultural components, such as smudging, are incorporated into meetings. Smudging is where incense is burned to rid negative energy from the mind, body and soul. The hotel contracts an Elder to perform the ceremony. Catering options include elk stew, fresh bannock, and Saskatoon berry compotes for dessert.

Though Canadians are individualists in nature, Mitchell recognizes Aboriginals are collectivist so Aboriginals are very relationship oriented via word of mouth. They are well-respected, connected nationally and are influential. Therefore, the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino attracts international conferences that are Aboriginal focused with Aboriginals from all over the world.

Mitchell says, “You might be out of your comfort zone, but it’s what the client wants. Everyone gets what they need and no one was offended. It’s assisted our resort in attracting non-Aboriginal conferences as well as they like some of the Aboriginal components we’ve added such as drumming circles and Aboriginal fare.”

  1. Audio-Visual Requirements

Many speakers do not use audio-visual. However, when English is a second language for over 25% of Canada’s population, visuals such as videos, images, Powerpoint and Prezi are integral to ensure key messages are not ‘lost in translation.’ Presenters should be encouraged to use AV throughout their keynote, plenary or breakout to ensure conference participant engagement is high.

  1. Participation

Conferences often offer interactive breakout sessions where group work and partner work is encouraged. However, participants with English as a second language as well as introverts will often find group work quite daunting. Additionally, though everybody wants the opportunity to ask questions, those with English as a second language, strong accents or introverts will find ‘open mics’ too daunting to utilize therefore decreasing their involvement and engagement. By offering interactive polling, Twitter hashtags, and agendas in advance it encourages everybody to participate.

The golden rule is “treat people the way you wish to be treated.” However, in the conference and meetings industry, in relation to inclusive innovation and growth, apply the platinum rule, which is, “Treat people the way they wish to be treated.”


Tina Varughese is a keynote speaker and trainer specializing in crosscultural communication, work-life balance and inclusive leadership. She encourages others to lead, laugh and inspire each day. Her signature keynote is “50 Shades of Beige: Communicate with the Cross-Cultural Advantage”. She will be launching a *new* speaker video in April 2017. To find out more please visit