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(Andreas Rodriguez/Photos.com/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Andreas Rodriguez/Photos.com/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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Catching curveballs a way of life for mega-event planner Add to ...

Jean-Paul de Lavison admits to wincing a bit while watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, knowing all too well that the more extravagant and complex the event, the more chances there are to slip up.

Imagine orchestrating 15,000 participants – from musicians, dancers, actors and comedians to the Queen herself – all before an estimated worldwide audience of four billion. “I think everybody in our industry who watches these events cringes inside because we really know the amount of work and rehearsing it takes,” says Mr. de Lavison, president of JPdL International, a Montreal-based event and destination management company.

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If you’ve ever attended a large conference or corporate event in Canada, chances are JPdL was there, too, managing the details – online registration, airport transfers, exhibitors, sponsors, marketing and communications, on-site logistics and technical support and staffing. Founded by Mr. de Lavison in 1982, JPdL employs about 80 project managers and certified meeting professionals in seven offices (Quebec City, Mont-Tremblant, Ottawa, Toronto, Niagara Falls and two in Montreal).

The meetings-and-events business is such that it can take years of research and nurturing business relationships before an organization will invite certain suppliers to bid on its large events. JPdL had set it sights on Microsoft’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference, to be held in Toronto in July of 2012, and it sent some of its people to the 2011 gathering in Los Angeles to “take notes and figure out how we could get the future business,” Mr. de Lavison says.

With more than 15,000 delegates from 130 countries set to attend the Toronto conference, JPdL was hired to manage 50 special events including two golf tournaments, charitable activities and the closing party at Polson Pier attended by 6,000 guests.

“For the size of our company, I like to think we have a pretty big profile. But that’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the part of myself, the partners and the staff,” Mr. de Lavison says.

He has set up his business so that while he holds majority ownership in most of JPdL’s seven offices, his minority partners run the businesses locally. “We’re like a cluster of small companies. We’re a network that shares costs very efficiently, like databases and certain services,” Mr. de Lavison explains.

That’s crucial in a business that has become much more complex in just the past decade. Online registration, social media, mobile apps and the expectation that every meeting room will be wired for free Internet service are taken for granted today, but they didn’t exist only a few years ago.

Also, the meetings industry hasn’t fully recovered from the 2008 economic downturn, when “the destination management business really went through the floor,” Mr. de Lavison says, because organizations either dramatically downsized their conferences and events, or cancelled them altogether.

Event budgets are about half of what they used to be, Mr. de Lavison says. For example, an organization that might have spent $200 per attendee to cover venue rental, decorating, food and beverage, entertainment and other expenses typically budgets only $100 per person now, he explains. However, the events are expected to be ever more dazzling and memorable while not appearing to be too extravagant.

“It’s easy to look like you’re blowing money, and things can go viral really fast. It’s a very tricky situation for an organization. You have to be very careful on the optics, and managing that is a big portion of our work,” Mr. de Lavison says. “So we try to outdo what we’ve done in the past. We have to make our client happy, and we also have to make the participants happy.”

That means understanding that the entire community, not just the host and the venue, has a stake in the success of a large gathering. For example, as many as 3,500 delegates are expected to attend the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal next year, including scientists, researchers, advocates and as many as 700 people who are living with Parkinson’s disease.

JPdL will hold information sessions beforehand so that every participant understands how to help those delegates with mobility or communications needs, says Eli Pollard, executive director of the New York-based World Parkinson Coalition.

“We’ll do some very basic Parkinson’s 101 training for all the front-of-house staff, from hotels to restaurants to shuttle bus drivers, on all the things they might need to know about working effectively and positively with people with Parkinson’s,” Ms. Pollard explains.

Another factor is last-minute changes, which are endemic to the meetings business. The coalition just added a day-long summit to its Montreal event that will bring together international health ministers and senior civil servants. JPdL has been asked to quote on handling the logistics of this additional aspect.

But Mr. de Lavison is used to such curveballs. In fact, he’d be hard pressed to name a conference that didn’t have dozens of changes before and during the event.

“To say there were only 150 changes in planning an event would be a cakewalk. Clients are throwing curves at us from the minute we wake up to the minute we go to sleep and they expect us to catch all the balls,” Mr. de Lavison says. “It’s an ongoing process to continually innovate. That’s the fun of this business.”

Facts about JPdL International

• Manages between 300 and 500 events a year ranging from simple meetings of a few dozen people to dynamic and complex programs attended by as many as 15,000.

• Has combined annual revenue of about $15-million.

• Employs 12 staff members, including Mr. de Lavison, who holds the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation, an industry standard.

• Mr. de Lavison was recently inducted into the 2012 Meetings & Incentive Travel magazine Hall of Fame in the Industry Innovator category.

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