avoiding event disaster


An Open Letter From A Decision-Maker Attendee To A Show Organizer

To open the New Year, I am thrilled to get Michelle Bruno’s perspective on the experience of a decision-maker attendee. She’s a good friend and straight talker, so with pleasure, here’s her open letter to all of us:

 

Dear Show Organizer:

 

You’ve convinced me to register.

 

When I Googled your event website, it was great that you optimized your content to make it easy for me to find you.

 

But I had to read a lot of irrelevant information before finding out quickly what was in it for me and there was no phone number to call to speak with a human. Nevertheless, I figured it out for myself and signed up anyway.

 

When I registered, you made no attempt to understand who I was and what I wanted through surveys or session choices. But since you had already hooked me, I went with the flow.

 

I don’t have time for serendipity.

 

When I go to your event, I feel as if I’ve become one of the hundreds or thousands of other attendees who took the bait and suddenly I’m on my own.

 

I’m really busy. Taking time away from the office is difficult for me to justify. Yet, no one reaches out to answer my obvious questions—Who should I meet? What companies should I visit? What should I learn? There are no attempts to help me get the most out of the event in the least amount of time.

 

You track my every move with technology, but you don’t do anything with the information other than feed it into your marketing machine with the intent to lure me back next year.

 

If I’m really interested in a session, you make me work for the information—take notes, snap photos of slides with my smartphone, go to a website to get a copy of the presentation. Why don’t you capture the information for me and just send it to me automatically?

 

After the event, show me you know me.

 

I understand that maybe it’s hard to meet with me during the event—there are only so many of your staff and just three days. But after the event, you’ve got a whole year to continue our relationship.

 

Stop sending me information for the following year as if we’ve never interacted. You have data on me now. You know what I’m interested in. Let’s start there.

 

Change your relationship with me from transactional to (long term) relational. Pick up the phone and/or meet with me. I’ll know that you’re truly interested in addressing my needs and I’ll likely attend your event again.

 

Make it really easy for me to come back the following year with my team members. A good experience for me is worth sharing.

 

From this point on, don’t only contact me when you want to sell me.  Remember what I want and send me good ideas and information year round.

 

In case I haven’t made it clear, here’s what I’m trying to say.

 

I’m a human, not a data point. Get to know me and deliver a personalized experience to me all year round. Put yourself in my shoes and let’s get to know each other.

 

Sincerely,

 

Your Most Loyal Decision-Maker Attendee (maybe).

 

 

 

As a former supplier and conference planner/trade show manager, Michelle sees the technology and evolution of the live-event industry through a unique lens. She chronicles change through articles in event-industry publications, event-tech company blogs and at EventTechBrief.com. Reach Michelle at michelle@brunogroup.com

 


Success Requires Getting Burned

Although my business is now successful, in December of 2005 I was at a crossroads. After six months of R&R that had followed the end of a difficult events job, it was time to get back to work. I chose to open my own event consulting company, a perilous decision given that 8 of every 10 new businesses will fail within 18 months of their founding.
 
Yet I survived and am now thriving. Why? Am I significantly smarter than the 80% of entrepreneurs that do not? Probably not. To what do I attribute the difference? Because I have been burned.
 
That’s “burned” as in having failed, as in having had to grind for years, hustling and scrounging to get to where I now am. But mostly I was burned. In what ways?
 
  • I got my start in sales, but within months I was put on probation for having missed my sales quota – even though I had the worst territory amongst 18 sales reps. Think Glengarry Glen Ross. That burned!

  • At Lufthansa, I was told I’d never succeed as a sales rep. That burned!
 
  • For an assignment in the Netherlands, I was told that the project for which I had flown 3000 miles would be a failure because I lacked direct experience and was only 22 years old. It burned!
 
  • While working in Boston, the major sponsor of my biggest event commanded that I produce a solution to a problem that they had created, and do so by 6 AM the following morning. I remember feeling my scalp get scorched that time.
 
There are countless other occasions – personal and professional – when I have tried things and not succeeded. There were jobs I wanted, dates I sought, grades in school for which I worked, etc. And not getting them left me feeling burned.
 
If you have failed at something, yet got back up and tried again and again until you succeeded, then you know what I mean.
 
You can’t truly savor victory until you have been burned by failure. That experience is the best fuel to becoming better than the next guy, making your quota, or launching an event and hitting a home run with it.
 
Currently, I carry a part-time sales quota of $1 Million – and I’m launching successful events every year. Neither situation would be possible without the failures I’ve listed. And I anticipate – even welcome – possible future failures, recognizing that they will similarly propel me forward.
 
Burn, baby, burn! Keep it going and try new things. For those that do so, I salute you!

Transcending the “Culture of No”

Recently, I was thinking about two different types of change that I’ve observed in the world: progress and innovation. Both forms of change represent advancement, but in very different ways. Progress typically happens in a linear fashion, where the new is often an extension of what already exists. It represents advancement, but advancement that is measured in increments. Progress represents doing something better than the current way, but generally not doing something fundamentally different.

 

Innovation is disruptive and, thus, non-linear. It is the exception and it’s why those cited as being market disruptors (Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, Apple) stand out. The disruption of innovation is scarcer and, in most cases, not predictable from what has already happened – or already exists – in the current environment. It approaches an existing situation with a totally new approach or sees new opportunities and acts on the possibilities.

 

Dealing with the ‘Culture of No’

What is the source of friction that makes change, whether it be progress or innovation, difficult if not impossible? I would argue it’s attributable to the ‘Culture of No.’ The incumbents, those who have achieved some degree of decision-making power, don’t want to absorb the risks of changing how things are done. There’s little to no incentive to change and incumbents would rather keep doing what they are doing until it doesn’t work anymore. After all, they benefit from the status quo; with the status quo, they are in charge.

 

Evidence of this kind of philosophy can be found in statements like:

  • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • “Keep your head down, after all we (the bosses) know best.”
  • And my favorite, from a past boss, “Your goal is to always to do the least and make the most.”

 

Note that I’m not the first to consider the ‘Culture of No’ and its impact. If you search online, you can find reference to it here.

 

The Drivers of Innovation

Innovation requires a different motivation, an impetus to change the “what” or the “how” of things in ways that are profound. It comes from an innate motivation to do things differently and more importantly, better. There must be an incentive to make a change and a willingness to try when there is no assurance of success. In most cases, the motivation won’t come from entrenched incumbents. It will come from those who are not predisposed to the current ways of doing things, but rather are open to trying new things. In some cases, they are compelled to try them.

 

Let’s flip the model on its head, much like Netflix and others have done. If no one is doing anything new in your market, consider that as an opportunity for someone else (a disruptive entity, perhaps like yourself) to try a new way. The result might be incremental progress (doing something better, faster, cheaper, more profitably) or something truly transformative in its innovation, perhaps with a new community developing around it. But neither result will happen unless there is an impetus to try new things and a willingness to accept that they might not work. After all, there is little significant reward without an appetite for risk.

 

I’d like to provide a brief shout out to Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose for their interesting book, Killing Marketing. It offers a nice blueprint for how to seize the opportunity for disruptive approaches in the marketing space.

 

Consider your own situation. Are you entangled in a ‘Culture of No’ or do you represent Those Who Will?


Warning: Event Launch Disaster Ahead 1

 

I recently read an article in Convene which captured the mistakes that were made during a two-year effort to launch a content marketing event in Europe.  For those who have not read the story, the conference manager of LavaCon – a successful, though relatively niche, US-based event – had been urged by a number of his exhibitors to try to replicate that success in Europe, where it was assumed that it could attract a new set of attendees.

 

In 2016, the conference manager tried to do so in Dublin, but failed. Undaunted, but presumably having learned from that first year’s experiences, he ran the event again this past May (again in Dublin, but in a different venue) only to falter a second time. Why did two successive efforts fall short of expectations? Simply put, he had some bad luck with an unexpected competitive event, but compounded the problem with some rookie mistakes.

 

Despite the lack of success, I still take my hat off to him. First, he had the courage to launch something new. Second, though it didn’t work, he still agreed to share his experiences in ways that could benefit others. How many of you would be willing to do that?

 

What factors contributed to the poor results?

  1. A lack of local market knowledge, such as an understanding that “bank” holidays in that region are not exclusive to banks, so should be avoided when scheduling a conference.
  2. The fact that a significant presence of target companies situated close to a conference location does not ensure that the right level of employee – senior decision-makers – work at those offices and are likely to attend.
  3. A misjudgment about the price potential attendees in Dublin would be willing to pay.

 

Why did those factors hurt his event?  In his own words, “because of the market research I didn’t do, and still haven’t done yet.” I believe that he’s correctly identified most of the problems and he has my congratulations for finally getting it – after two white knuckle rides. There is nothing worse than suffering the stress of a launch, then failing, and then suffering the same fate the following year.

 

Are there lessons you can learn from this?

  1. Hire someone from the target market area (or who knows it) for initial and ongoing advice about the feasibility of launching and sustaining an event. For example, Ireland is not Europe. Effectively there is no “Europe” as far as events are concerned; events are, if not local, then certainly regional.  That should guide decisions about location – and expectations about attendance.
  2. Ensure you do market testing and P&L analysis to understand the financial risk involved and the likely outcomes, given the many contributing factors. Approach any opportunity with a model that includes an understanding of what “success” is.

 

In addition, other questions I would ask to qualify an event opportunity are:

  1. In terms of attendee research, has any testing been done to see whether you can draw an audience to make the numbers work?
  2. What is the size of the target email audience on the attendee side and can it be expected to support the paid attendee number in your model? For example, I believe you need 100 names for each expected paid attendee, all other variables being accounted for.
  3. Were speakers and exhibitors engaged early on to help get attendees?
  4. Was there a budget with best- and worst-case P&L’s scenarios established prior to the decision to launch?

 

As I mentioned, this particular event manager is courageous and honest; I salute him for that.  But the things that I reference above seem common sense guidelines to me and reflect the advice I give my clients prior to a launch.

 

Are you equipped on your next launch or are you heading down a potentially rocky road?


Does Your Event Have a Dark Side?

The recent revelations of misbehavior by different individuals and organizations has got me thinking about human nature more broadly. For each of us there’s a public side that we want others to see. It reflects our positive attributes and generates favorable responses from those around us, both personally and professionally. But there’s also another side – a darker side – which we hide from others. This dark side often is the home of those naked ‘drivers’ of behavior that we prefer to hide or disguise. It is that dark side behavior that the press craves to uncover amongst the famous and powerful.

Within the events market there’s a less nefarious form of this behavior. Event managers promote their conferences and trade shows as venues that will engage buyers, deliver wonderful experiences, and generate return-on-investment (ROI) for both sponsors and attendees. The assumption is that you’ll want to return year after year because the events offer value.
 

Do You Deliver to Expectations?

More often than not, however, event organizers promote a vision that the reality does not deliver. Many events fail to fulfill the promises made by their organizers, leaving both attendees and exhibitors disappointed. Why is this?

Because meeting the needs of every attendee and exhibitor is a difficult task and it may not be in the organizer’s control. Or even in their interest, given that events must find an economical “middle ground” that delivers value while making a profit. But another, less defensible reason is that some organizers will do whatever is needed to promote a particular vision for an event, with little intention of meeting the needs of the ‘buyers’, as long as the vision allows the organizer to make money. In effect, they’re cheating the very people who make running an event possible, and profitable in the long run.

Some examples of this are:

  • A well-known event grew so large that it compromised the experience of attendees who struggled to get from one hall to another, were jostled by the crowds, and were required to wait in line for everything.
  • An organizer saved money by eliminating a convenient exhibitor lounge with proximity to the show floor that allowed staff to rest and have lunch (on the organizer).
  • Organizers who cancel conference tracks because prospective attendance is down, but disappoint those attendees who’ve registered and booked flights based on the original – marketed – agenda.
  • Shows that cram extra booths into low traffic areas that will deliver poor results to the exhibitors.

 

Clearly, event organizers must hit their numbers. And that can mean cutting expenses. But too often the motivation comes from the dark side of the business – greed. It’s truly short-sighted thinking that compromises the future in deference to exploiting the present.

The bad news for these types of organizers is that event attendees have become more sophisticated than ever in judging value. Those organizers who fail to recognize that sophistication and fall short of delivering that value will pay the price.

 

Are you in danger of going to the Dark Side?

 


Reactive or Proactive: Are You A Follower Or A Leader?

 

Most people in business are followers. They are the people will neither create anything nor be the first to jump opportunistically on a new market or innovative theme. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but without innovation or creation, nothing new or transformative will emerge. It takes someone with a creative spark for innovation to occur.

But it takes more than that spark; creation is not without its costs. The way forward often involves you in a zero-sum game, as the time and attention invested in current activities can preclude a similar investment in what is new and unproven. Few among us have the resources to be fully committed to both the existing, as well as the new. You therefore must find a workable mixture that combines both approaches, or commit to one or the other. The process of creation and adoption of new things is outlined in Geoffrey Moore’s seminal book: Crossing the Chasm.

 

What is the threshold of market adoption? 

The threshold for market adoption of something new is when the majority embrace the innovation. Sometimes, as with Uber or Netflix, it can happen quickly. In other circumstances, it is more gradual, as with Amazon.com. The tempo of adoption often is a matter of how strong and entrenched are the incumbents and what barriers to adoption lay ahead of the innovation. But the process is usually the same; either new things are adopted or they fall by the wayside when the creator runs out of the patience needed to support growth – or the money needed to fuel that growth runs out.

The art of creation is both difficult and risky. If it weren’t, we’d be awash in innovation. But we are not; challenges abound. Given those challenges, most choose a ‘wait and see’ approach. While that’s often a fair, defensible position (given that profit and loss are at stake), it also limits your ability to capitalize on the advantages of being a creator).

 

Could you be a Value Creator?

Let me pose a question:  What would you create (what innovation would you champion) were profit and loss, as well as time and resources, not at stake? Do you even know what you would try to do?

I believe that there’s a connection between being proactive and being creative. Being proactive in terms of an event requires anticipating the future. Tactically, it’s identifying issues and addressing them before they become threats.  Strategically, it’s figuring out the need for something new, perhaps before your prospective customer knows they want or need it (e.g. Apple’s development of the iPhone.) Creators often don’t have the constraints of budgets, thus are free to imagine different approaches – or entirely new and different products – because they are not burdened with the obligations of profitability, at least in the short term.

 

Are you a Follower or a Leader? 

I’ve frequently said that growth requires proactivity and creativity. Simply following others can be a long-term recipe for failure, though it may be the easier choice in the near term.

Is your organization capable of creating?

 

 

 

 


Ready to Jump on the Customer Grenade?

I recently came across an article about a long-time exhibitor, Mile High Comics, and their decision to drop out of the San Diego Comic-Con event, ending a 44-year run as a customer. I mention the situation, not necessarily to beat up on San Diego Comic-Con, but rather to ask a question of all my readers. Do you run from customer disasters? Or, like first responders, do you head toward the problems and at least attempt to fix a potential disaster?

 

In terms of the Comic-Con organizers, I found no articles that addressed the issue from their perspective, nor did I attempt to contact them to get their perspective . But the withdrawal did generate a lot of publicity(and all one-sided):

http://www.cbr.com/mile-high-comics-no-san-diego-comic-con-exhibit/

https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/07/06/mile-high-comics-breaks-san-diego-comic-con/

http://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-shocker-mile-high-comics-pulls-out-of-san-diego-comic-con-2017/

 

On a more personal note, I remember a situation   twenty years ago involving an event in Rosemont that competed with one that I managed. Together with two of my sales team, I attended the event, seeking to talk to the 50 or so companies who were exhibiting. Unfortunately for the show organizer, there was no floor traffic during the actual conference sessions, leaving the exhibit hall empty for 90% of the time the expo was open.

 

And where was the event’s sales staff? They were hiding in the show office with the doors locked. At least, they were in hiding until the exhibitors ganged up on the organizers and forced them to adjust the conference/exhibit hall schedule to try to stir up some floor traffic…Chalk another one up for the “Ostrich Gang”.

The results? My team was able to generate more than $300K of sponsorship/exhibit revenue for our show, while the competitive show, with its cowering sales staff, never took place again.

 

No one likes having to deal with customer problems at their show. But are you the type who hides and hopes the problems go away or do you do everything possible to help resolve the issues, even if it means getting yelled at when you do? I have to admit that I probably started off as the former. But I now take the bull by the horns as much as possible, even though having to do so still makes me shudder in extreme circumstances.

 

When you run a massive, world-renowned event like a Comic-Con (or Macworld, as another example) you can absorb the loss of an exhibitor like Mile High Comics. One of the linked stories indicates that there was a waiting list of potential exhibitors, suggesting that space was probably filled quickly. It also sounds like Comic-Con is making a lot of money. So, who cares if someone is upset?

 

Someone should care. Each issue, resolved positively or otherwise, contributes to a reputation, and if these sorts of situations keep happening, who knows what the impact will be? There have been bigger shows than Comic-Con that have been cancelled, when enough sponsors abandoned a previously successful event because their concerns were not addressed.

 

Are you going to be next? Or will you steady your nerve, steel your resolve, and run toward the challenge when others are running away? Your event’s future may depend on what you decide…..


Copying Your Competition − The First Step on the Road to Event Failure

An interesting column in last month’s Convene advocated working with your competition or co-opting them as competitors so that everyone can benefit. The piece included a link to a Harvard Business Review article that has a great quote:

‘It’s not who your competition is, but what it is.’

This means that you need to consider your competition as encompassing any alternative ways your prospect might follow to solve their problems instead of attending your event. If those competitors can succeed in persuading your prospects that they are indeed a better alternative to you, then they will persist as a threat and your event may suffer.

 

What is Competition?

This led me to think about the meaning of “competition” in terms of an event. In my mind, competition validates the presence of demand for events in a particular market segment and such demand represents an opportunity to make money. However, there are many events (including some big industry ones) that merely convey the idea that they are valuable (like an Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome) than actually are delivering. Eventually their customers wise up and we’ve all seen examples of this if we’ve been around.

If you are spending considerable time focused on your competition, consider that as time that you are not spending trying to figure out the needs of your customers. And without a focus on your customers, you are unlikely to anticipate the future needs of the market or the competitors that await you in that future.  Without a forward-looking perspective, even if you are a dynamite promoter, your time will eventually come. Or perhaps better said, the end of your time will eventually come.

 

Do you know what influences your Customers? 

I believe that few event owners truly know what drives their customers, often because it’s both difficult and time consuming to find out. Chasing the competition is far easier than charting your own course. But it risks leaving the fate of these events at the mercy of decisions that competitors make, rather than pursuing a path of their own choosing.The quest for value an how to spend your limited time continues and the bar is higher than ever, given the demands of everyone’s time.

 

Be Proactive with Building Customer Relationships

My simple prescription to combating [what I call] a “me, too” event is:

  1. Care about meeting the demands of the attendees, visitors, exhibitors and partners of your events;
  2. Come to know people in each category. And know them in person, not just as a voice on the telephone or a digital message on a computer screen;
  3. Get creative about new ways to meet the demands of your customers and don’t be afraid to try those new approaches;
  4. Build a community of people outside of your company who can help you achieve the above tasks.

 

Follow these steps and, rather than following your competition, you’ll be able to see everyone else in your rear-view mirror, struggling to keep up….

 

 


Launch, Acquire – Or Die….

Before I started The Event Mechanic! there were two types of companies for which I worked: 1) an event generator and 2) an event buyer. In both situations, the owners of those companies realized that revenue growth and profitability required a pipeline of new products. Such offerings could be added to the ‘cash cow’ events upon which they relied, as well as stem the revenue loss from those events that showed signs of declining.

 

My experience in this business has found that event generators are rare and far more valuable over the long term. The assessment of value is attributable to the fact that these generators are in complete control of the events they choose to launch, rather than having to wait for a property owned by someone else to become available to purchase. Of course I certainly acknowledge that an event buyer has some options available to them to initiate events: they can choose to clone existing events and execute them in new markets or do niche events that are marginally different from those that they already operate.

 

I believe the failure to frequently launch or acquire events is a recipe for failure for event companies.

 

For those interested in avoiding that failure, you should attempt to invest in a number of creative people who can conceptualize new events and help build the business case needed to support their launches as part of your organization’s strategic plan. In a recent article, Eventbrite provided guidance on the way to correctly launch an event. Their instructions include advice on how to:

  1. Find your audience,
  2. Develop a unique and effective value proposition,
  3. Get your pricing right,
  4. Set a realistic budget,
  5. Build momentum by creating an early support network,
  6. Set up your web page for success,
  7. Promote your event with great online marketing,
  8. Deliver a world-class onsite experience for your attendees,
  9. Go from strength to strength after your first event.

 

Obviously, the toughest steps are the first two. For further insight about the need for creativity in the process, check out some of my previous postings, including one about the “3 Guys” needed for events and another on the importance of the “creative” role.

 

The challenge you’ll face is the scarcity of creative types (which is why you should cultivate your own). If only 5% within the event industry qualify as ‘creative’ and that person is not on your current staff and you can’t seem to hire any, what can you do?

 

I’d suggest:

  1. Look at your current event portfolio and investigating whether you can hire or contract with someone who can conceive a new event.
  2. Challenge someone on your current staff (likely someone younger whose experience will not hinder their creativity) to develop your next concept.
  3. Continually network outside your comfort zone to meet and engage people who may have a new twist on an idea that can be developed into something that could make you money and hire or engage them.

 

Pick one of the above, or find your own way. But remember “failure to launch” is an assurance that your company’s final days will be sooner, rather than later.

 

 


How Not to Engage Your Attendees

Many years ago, I was hired as a ‘secret shopper’ by a large conference company that did not feel it was ‘gelling’ with its audience at a particular event and sought help in figuring out why. What I discovered during that experience was a set of behaviors that showed me what not to do if you want to engage your audience for the long term. I’ll recount some of what I found, though I’ve omitted the names to protect the guilty.

 

What I found was:

  • The event team spent little time speaking with attendees and more time either ‘running the show’ or holed up in the show office during the event;
  • The team spent little time at conference sessions listening to the speakers, hearing their ideas, gauging either the reaction of the audience or the richness of their questions. Though they had spent twelve months crafting the content of the event, the staff spent little on-site time monitoring the results of those efforts or appreciating their own work;
  • During the different event receptions, the team spent more time with other team members, leaving the attendees to interact with each other;
  • The staff knew few of the speakers nor most of the attendees by name other than to eyeball their badges if necessary;
  • When I asked attendees about their experience at the event, they indicated that they felt somewhat rootless, walking from one session to another to the exhibit hall with little sense that the staff cared whether they attended the event or not.

 

Now an admission of my own. My first ten years in the business proved to be fun times, going to new cities, experiencing the exhilaration of being on site at six in the morning for five days in succession, working 12-15 hours each day. But over time the repetition, together with additional responsibilities, began to transform my experience. The events became more of a grind, as I perhaps lost sight of their purpose: to generate revenue by bringing people of like interests together so that they could learn and do business with each other.

 

That mission is a magical thing. It’s easy to become jaded when you do this kind of work, because it’s hard and stressful and there are no “do overs” available to you the week after everything is done. I rediscovered the magic once I realized that to be energized by these things we call events requires that we are connected to them. That means being part of each one in a way that delivers an enjoyment and value even if we, as the event managers, are not the main players.

 

The problem with the client who sought my secret shopper insights, and indeed the problem with my own experience years ago, was the lack of energized awareness which only comes from being truly connected with your own event. Considering the many man-hours spent and the money risked as part of launching and maintaining an event, such ambivalence is a shame and especially dumb if you are trying to build a valuable asset. Can you expect your attendees to be engaged with you when it’s time to register if you are not engaged with them at your own event?

 

If you have an engagement problem with your event, is your detachment due to having forgotten the magic you originally saw, or is it truly gone forever and you are trying to fake it, hoping that no one figures it out?

 

I hope it’s the former rather than the latter because your attendees will always figure it out. And sooner or later, if it is latter, they’ll abandon you. If it’s the former, I challenge you to re-discover the magic of why you do what you do. The tactics on how to re-engage will soon become obvious to you if you truly seek them.

 

Enjoy your re-discovery or suffer the consequences…