Industry Watch

A fresh perspective

How staying atop trends and adding services has fueled events specialist MetroConnections

When it comes to event planning, it isn't just that the devil is in the detailsit's that the sheer number of details is devilish. For improperly staffed organizations hoping to put on an event, this presents a problem. But for MetroConnections, which has grown from modest beginnings to handling nearly all aspects of major events, it's been nothing but opportunity.

Focusing primarily on transportation services when it started more than 20 years ago, the Bloomington-based company now operates four divisionsconference, event, production, and transportation services. It also runs an office in Orlando, Fla., which opened in 2007 in response to growing demand.

By capitalizing on current trends and maintaining a fresh perspective on event planning and management, MetroConnections has continued to grow and is now a single source for creating and managing the entire event experience, from conferences and meetings to stage productions and transportation.

Sam Thompson founded MetroConnections in 1984 after seeing the Minnesota tourism industry grow with the addition of the Minneapolis Convention Center and Mall of America. Drawing from his background in tourism, he set out to create his own event services company.

Today, MetroConnections plans, designs, and implements events throughout North America and around the globe for clients that range from small groups and midsize companies to large corporations and national associations. Among its clients are Target, EcoLab, Lifetime Fitness, Cargill, Best Buy, US Bank, and Microsoft.

MetroConnections specializes in conferences, conventions, and employee and stakeholder events, helping organizations that might not have the internal resources available to strategically implement their event goals and objectives. "We come in as an extension of [the organization's] team and are able to bring their vision to life, creating an engaging attendee experience while collecting valuable ROI information that can be used to help plan future events," says Tom McCulloch, the company's VP of marketing and conference services.

Responding to trends

Beyond its event planning and management services, MetroConnections also aims to partner with its clients on a strategic level by translating business goals and key messages into informative and memorable events. McCulloch sees the company's role as a strategic advisor, helping to create a fully branded experience for event attendees. "This is something that has been missing in the event arena for years," he says. "There are a lot of event service providers, but what most of the corporate clients are looking for is strategy and focus."

This ability to offer clients a complete array of products and services under one roof is what helps MetroConnections stand out in its industry, says McCulloch. Whether a client needs event planning or transportation services or both, the company can efficiently customize its offerings to meet the client's needs. And because of its ability to offer a suite of customized services and products, MetroConnections has been able to overcome challenging economic times without losing its experienced staff.

"In 2007 and 2008, a lot of event and conference companies closed," McCulloch says. "We actually grew through the economic struggles. And because we are innovative and creative, we got through an economic period without losing employees."

One thing that has helped MetroConnections thrive is its habit of staying on top of trends. "We talk about it often," McCulloch says. "In fact, our monthly newsletter that we send out is all about being fresh and innovative."

When it comes to innovation, the company's first area of focus is, not surprisingly, technology. "That's the big moving trend," says McCulloch. The company is constantly looking at what technologies are going to make attending conferences easier for its clients' customers.

As a result, MetroConnections developed Attend-eSource, a suite of web-based solutions that helps manage the attendee process. Allowing clients to plan meetings faster and manage logistics more easily, Attend-eSource includes a combination of individual components such as online registration, session tracking, pre-program marketing via websites, graphical emails, and mobile device solutions.

Realizing early on that mobile would play a major role in the conference arena, the company developed a mobile solution and added it to Attend-eSource. Now the registration technology links to the mobile phone. Attendees can choose sessions, look at their personal agenda, pull up a map of where the breakout rooms are, and rate the sessions all on their phone.

In the production services area, MetroConnections has started working on ways to integrate social media, such as Twitter posts, and live streaming into the stage environment. "The conference arena is really about how you can move the attendee into a world they feel comfortable in and make sure they have information at their fingertips," McCulloch says.

A positive approach

In addition to continuously monitoring industry trends and testing out new technology offerings, McCulloch says the company's clients are some of the best sources of information for staying fresh and innovative.

"When they come to us with a challenge or concern, we are continuously thinking out of the box to develop a solution to meet their needs," he says.
For nearly a decade, MetroConnections has been providing registration and housing management services for Tastefully Simple, an Alexandria-based company that sells easy-to-prepare foods. MetroConnections works on the company's annual leadership and national conferences, multiple regional conferences each year, and a large incentive trip that includes 650 to 750 attendees per year.

"There are many companies that can do these same management services, but what I appreciate about MetroConnections is their hands-on, personal, and positive approach to everything," says Claudia Bursch, a site and contract manager at Tastefully Simple.

Her company takes advantage of a variety of MetroConnections' services, such as building registration websites, running multiple reports for event data, and handling calls from event attendees. But in addition to the suite of services they provide, Bursch says MetroConnections maintains an attendee focus by accommodating hotel requests and providing a representative to be on-site during many events to make sure all questions are answered and that the registration and housing process runs smoothly.

"Because of our long-standing relationship with MetroConnections, our attendees know them and have developed a trust that all the details will be taken care of," Bursch says. "Knowing this, it frees us as planners to work on the many other aspects of putting together a successful event."