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Flying high: National student business conference focuses on airlines

NATIONAL BUSINESS CONFERENCE: (Left to right) UTSC management students Jonathan Kumar and Ivan Ha of the organizing committee are pictured at the conference gala with business challenge contestants Roshni Patel of UTSC, Cindy Chan from the University of Waterloo, and Joisyline Jeyarajah from UTSC. Renee Janes-Reid (far right) of the management department congratulates the players. (Photo by Peter Yung.)

by Karishma Mohan-Ram

More than 150 undergraduate business students from across the country attended a conference in downtown Toronto recently that was organized by undergraduate management students from the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC).

The fourth annual Leading Innovative Visions to Execution (LIVE) conference was held on Nov. 19 and 20 at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel. Organized in cooperation with the Management and Economics Students’ Association and U of T Scarborough Management Co-op, the 2009 conference was designed to bring ambitious undergraduate students together to “Connect, Compete, and Succeed.”

Participants hailed from as far away as British Columbia and Alberta, as well as from Ontario universities such as Brock, McMaster, Western and York. Conference co-chairs Bilal Khan and Jonathan Lim, both UTSC students, said that the goal of the 14-member student organizing committee was to design an event that was both practical and relevant to the current business climate.

During the competition, students applied their classroom learning to a simulated management environment, applying their knowledge with a twist of creativity and a passion for business. This year’s business simulation contest focused on service challenges to the North American airline industry, whereas in previous years the focus was on product development, said Lim. “In the end, the participants described it as an unforgettable experience,” Khan said.

The conference opened with a talk by inspirational speaker Jeremy Wright, head of Netmobs, a business strategy agency. That was followed by an icebreaker social event prior to the business competition, which featured a new type of challenge in each round.

A Corporate Connections evening provided an opportunity for students to meet business leaders, enabling students to network with management leaders from some of Canada’s top companies, and bridging the gap between the academic and professional worlds. This event took place in the Andrew Richards Designs Building, a popular business conference venue on Adelaide Street. Conference participants were able to network with executives from Canada’s top companies.

The evening’s keynote address was delivered by Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct Canada. The executive mentors from business were: Patricia Tiralongo, vice-president of relationship management at TD Asset Management, Inc.; Alan LeFort, managing director at Telus Security Labs; Karen White of human resources and professional development at PCL; Michael Leitch, district manager at Schindler Elevator Corporation; and Dean Toplis, vice-president of Business development at AXA Assurances, Inc.

The conference culminated with an awards gala featuring paper airplanes as table centerpieces to tie in with the airline services theme. Mervin Hillier, the President and CEO of the Certified Management Accountants of Ontario (CMAO), delivered the keynote address at the gala.

The hands-on business simulation and competition – the core of the conference -- tested the teams’ business acumen in a variety of areas, including finance, production, marketing, accounting and strategic marketing, through various rounds, with a focus on service related to the airline industry.

This year’s teams represented various North American-based airline companies. The companies were challenged to enhance service as they expanded into regions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in order to capitalize on international growth, Khan said. The challenges incorporated bidding, negotiations, strategic decisions, presentations and press conferences. Teams also had to complete a surprise brand equity case and public relations case.

“The depth and breadth of the competition created an intense environment where teams always had to be ready for curveballs,” said Khan. Judges for the challenge were representatives from various companies and conference sponsors, including Certified Management Accountants, Export Development Canada, XEROX, Microsoft Office, TD Bank Financial Group, Certified General Accountants, and Scotiabank.

Participant Aditaya Sharma from the University of Guelph-Humber said the conference was incredible. “I liked it so much last year that I’m back again this year. Although it was a business conference, it didn’t skimp on the fun parts. The social aspects were well planned, and I enjoyed myself even while being challenged.”

“I didn’t expect the competition to be so entertaining,” said Prem Kalevar, a business and engineering student at the University of Waterloo and a member of the second-place team. “I found the surprise challenges really fun — it was cool to have things coming out of nowhere, and we didn’t have much time to plan. We just had to react fast!”

The winner of the business challenge was Team Vertigo from York University, sharing a $1,000 cash prize, individual prize packages valued at $1,500, and one-on-one mentorship opportunities with business executives. Team members were: Linda Chen, Michele Cheung, Maxwell Serebryanny, Leon Wu and Cheryl Zhu.

“There are very few conferences like LIVE,” said Lim. “We're one of the few undergraduate business conferences that always change things up. We introduced the bidding round this year, where delegates were bidding for airport locations against other teams in a fast-paced, electronic format.”

The conference organizers learned a lot, said Khan. Planning ahead, prioritizing, and creating a healthy team dynamic were all cited as the benefits of the experience by the co-chairs. Participants gave extremely positive feedback at the end of the conference, they said.

“It was a surreal moment seeing everything we worked on come to life,” said Khan. “It was a high-stress environment but also one of the greatest moments of the entire experience.”

“There’s really no way to explain the emotions we felt after 14 dedicated individuals worked for nine months on this, and it all came together over two days,” said Khan.

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Karishma Mohan-Ram is a management student at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

© University of Toronto Scarborough