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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?


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.

 

 


The Traits of an Indispensable Event Person

There’s been considerable discussion in recent years regarding the imminent replacement of many elements of the labor force with robots. The proposition got me thinking about times in the past when I managed a staff of seventeen people who executed four reasonably-sized events in a year. Now, I would have to do the same number of events with just half that size staff.

 

Phil Fersht, in this recent blog posting on Horses for Sources, writes about the trend of businesses within the IT market to proactively downsize – with no urgent, imminent need. Automation is conspiring to make people less and less necessary. It’s a trend that used to be concentrated in manufacturing and other “blue collar” industries, but now is making inroads within the service sector.

 

Given the threat of this new paradigm, what attributes are needed to become indispensable at work? Or, should things happen and you were to end up out on the street, what’s needed to get back into the game?

 

Here are my thoughts:

 

  1. Project the right attitude. In my mind, this is the number one asset any person can have. What’s the personality and style that will convey that you can get things done: Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh) or John McLane (from Die Hard)?

 

  1. Have an eye for the numbers. Do you know what it takes to make a profit? Can you create revenue? Can you build something from scratch? Do you know how to spend just enough to make something great while not wasting money?

 

  1. Be someone who listens. Do you have your head down, oblivious to what’s happening, or are you alert so that you can pivot in response to outside feedback or changes in the market?

 

  1. Persist – and adjust – in the face of difficult circumstances. Can you change direction midstream? When things are going badly, can you positively influence others and alter the dynamic? Are you aware enough to know what must be changed – or stopped altogether – when the numbers are bad and flexible enough to take the requisite action?

 

  1. Be attuned to the inevitable politics. Can you avoid the pitfalls, while dealing with the inevitable challenges that are found in every company? Or do you risk being the fall guy because your focus is exclusively on the work and not other influences?

 

  1. Act with a sense of urgency. Can you accelerate the pace of activity and deliver results more quickly, as needed? Can you close a sale today, thus freeing up tomorrow to sell to someone new? Can you get the ‘meat and potatoes’ stuff done early, so you can develop something new?

 

  1. Have the network. Have you mustered the resources to ‘break your fall’ if such a fall looms ahead of you? Could you secure another position, one with comparable compensation, were you to be let go today?

 

  1. Know the value you deliver. Do you know the financial value of your contribution to the company? This should be easy for sales people. Are your calculations based upon past success or do they reflect what you are delivering today? Can you make your case clearly and confidently?

 

I’m sure that all of us can find something in the above list deserves attention. I know I can. If you want to stem the tide of obsolescence and ensure you do not become dispensable, consider focusing on the areas where you are weak.

 

Or await your fate.


To Cancel or Not Cancel Your Struggling Event: That is the Question

Recently a number of my industry colleagues have had to make decisions about whether or not to cancel their events which were struggling. In my twenty-six years in this industry, I can count on one hand the events that I’ve had to cancel after launch, so I count myself lucky on mostly avoiding the scenario.

What are the factors that should determine whether you should cancel event, once you are rolling?

 

1) Have you done your research?

The biggest reason to prompt an event’s cancellation is not hitting your numbers.  If you foresee a financial loss that could not be tolerated or if running an event risks a greater loss than what would be incurred in terminating it, a decision must be made.  This situation usually stems from the absence of detailed surveys of both potential sponsors/exhibitors that gauge whether they will support your show financially. If you can’t accurately forecast your exhibit revenue before launch, you’re in for a harrowing, white knuckle ride.

Likewise, on the attendee side, have you done response testing to see the interest level? Are you right about conference/expo fees to charge – or not?  Do you have an ‘event resume’ that summarizes the event and its value on a single page? Do you know the acquisition cost of each attendee and established the appropriate marketing budget?

These are just a few of the things to consider. Check out a past article, inspired by Sean Guerre, for more insights on this area.

 

2) What is your rebook rate?

At a former company, we achieved a 100% rebook rate on most large events, primarily because we were selling many shows 24 months in advance.  Rebooking was our metric of success. But if your rebook rate is below 50% it‘s that your event is churning and burning exhibitors. Do you know why this is happening? Remember that rebooking current customers frees your time during the year to focus on getting new ones.

 

3) What do your analytics say?

Are you getting between 10-20% open rates on each event email you send out? If not it could a lack of interest in what you’re doing. What do your website page views look like? If your analytics are on the downswing, it may be a sign it’s time to pull the plug.

 

4) How many financial milestones have you missed?

This is a hard and fast rule for Sean, as noted in the mentioned article. You must be tough on yourself. Once you’ve missed three or more important financial milestones, it’s time to look carefully whether to pull the plug on your event.

 

5) How many attendee milestones have you missed?

What is the ‘tipping point’ in terms of the number of attendees needed to satisfy your sponsors and your financial expectations? If your goal is to get 400 buyers to your event, will you be OK with just 250? If you think you can hit your tipping point number, it may be best to keep on going.

 

6) Can you absorb the financial costs of cancellation?

Is there a large hotel or facility contract that you must swallow if you cancel? Do you have labor or other fixed costs that you can’t recover? Or have you bootstrapped things in a way that allows you to back out gracefully without losing your shirt?

 

7) Can you afford reputationally to cancel or not the event?

Once you cancel an event, it’s quite hard, if not impossible, to resuscitate it. That said, consider your reputation if you run an event with sparse traffic in the exhibit hall and empty seats at the keynote?  You must consider your relationships with key stakeholders if you do or don’t cancel.

 

8) What is the opportunity cost in continuing the event?

Sometimes the best reason to cancel an event is that it frees you to pursue other opportunities or invest more effort on the healthier events in your portfolio. What is the best decision?

 

Canceling an event is something I hope you never have to do. It’s extremely painful and the fallout can last for months, particularly if it’s handled poorly. The best antidote to canceling an event is doing your homework beforehand. Before a new event kicks off, do pre-launch attendee and exhibitor tests and think seriously about the opportunity costs and the upside/downside of moving forward. On an existing event, do the evaluation – financially and otherwise – before deciding to continue.

Let me close with a tip of my hat to those who have cancelled an event for the right reasons: when it saves the time and money of speakers, sponsors, attendees and others who will pay the price if you continue with something that is just going to be bad….

 

For extra credit reading from Lawrence Dvorchik on this subject:

http://dev-eventmech.pantheonsite.io/index.php/2015/07/15/when-to-turn-off-the-lights-what-you-need-to-know-before-canceling-an-event/

and a few from me:

http://dev-eventmech.pantheonsite.io/index.php/2016/10/11/event-wellness-check-weeding-potential-problems-kill/

http://dev-eventmech.pantheonsite.io/index.php/2016/04/15/2-huge-mistakes-will-kill-even-strongest-event/

 


When to Hire an Outside Consultant

A couple of questions I am frequently asked by event organizers are “How do I know when to bring a consultant/contractor in to help?” and “Isn’t it a sign of weakness if I have to go outside the company to do this?”

 

Both are good questions. To answer the second, I would say that, as the boss, you sometimes have situations where you wish to take advantage of an opportunity, but don’t want to hire a full-time person to do so. Or, even if you were willing, you lack the time to find the right person with the skillset you need. Neither situation indicates weakness in your organization.

 

In terms of the first question, here are the reasons why you should look to hire an external consultant:

  • When you lack the specialized expertise. You are in a certain market, but you’ve never run an event in that market before and don’t know the ropes. Or perhaps you have tried previously and lost your shirt. You’ll want to make sure you have experts who can deliver a successful, well-regarded event that is relevant, on time and on budget.
  • When you don’t have the bandwidth. You want to launch something quickly to take advantage of a market opportunity and don’t have the requisite staff to sell, market, program or execute the event. In this scenario, trying to launch the event will hurt both the launch and any existing events because your staff just can’t handle the workload.
  • When you are working in a new market segment. You see a new opportunity, but need some help grasping the specifics of how to successfully establish an event. A ‘hired gun’ industry expert might either take complete responsibility or complement your existing team.
  • When you need a temporary resource for a specific function for a short period. I’ve seen companies hire temporary sales, marketing, operations, or programming resources to address temporary leave situations or to staff the responsibilities of someone who has left the company, whether voluntarily or otherwise.
  • When an event is in trouble and you need a fresh set of eyes for the perspective necessary to determine how to turn things around. Frequently if one is too close to a situation, it’s hard to know what to change (the “forest for the trees” syndrome.) An experienced professional often can find the cause of the problems and assist in turning things around. But I’d caution you to not wait too long to bring someone in. Delays can mean issues that are hard to fix, even with the right expertise.

 

The good news to know is that any of these event resources are available to you, if you are well networked. Even if you’re not, you could connect with me and I may be able to make an introduction to the right person.

 

Bottom line: these resources are available, usually quickly and affordably, and could make the difference between growth, stagnation or death of your event.

 

I wish you a healthy and happy holiday season, as well as a successful 2017. Until then!

 


The Grit That’s Needed When Things Are Unknown

The recent completion of the launch of a client’s new event has given me the opportunity to reflect a bit.  As with any new project, there was plenty of uncertainty that required educated guesses, as supported by the best possible research done prior to the launch.

 

The Launch
At first, there’s the excitement of the planning and scheduling, together with the sobering commitments in terms of hotel contracts, staff hires, etc. Then, you begin to execute the first parts of the plan.  At this point – before the ‘rubber hits the road’ – everyone’s on board.


The “Rubber Hits The Road”

But inevitably things begin to slow down. Perhaps there’s a missed milestone or two that prompts your staff to look to you for a smile and encouraging word that will keep the momentum going. The conference program is completed and you begin the marketing effort. In my case, that took place in the darkness of winter.
At some point, doubts emerge when it becomes clear that you’re not going to hit your stretch goal. You wonder whether you’ll even hit the key point of demarcation that distinguishes a good event from a bad one.  It’s not the first time you’ve seen how the sausage is made, but familiarity and experience do not make it a comfortable situation.

 

What to Do Now?

You trust yourself. After all you did the research and the research indicated that you would be successful. It projected that you could attract an audience, even in a crowded field, and make some money. You have complemented that research by hiring an experienced staff that’s better at their jobs than you.  You trust them and yourself, given your 20+ years of addressing challenges, regardless of the situation.

 
You have to stay the course with your plan, but also be attentive to whether things really are not working.  If so, you need to be smart enough to make the right adjustments in the right places.

 
As the leader, you must smile in public, although that does not prevent you from venting in private. You offer reassurance to everyone that success is achievable.  And you offer the necessary energy to ensure that everyone continues to make their best efforts in pursuit of that success.

 
In times of distress, I return to the famous Tom Peters blog about the recession of 2008. It’s as applicable as how to behave when things with an event as it was to surviving a major economic downturn.  I encourage you to read it.


Just remember: never give up.

 

The Outcome

Oh, by the way – the event went great!

 


Seven Ways to Build Successful Staff at Your Events Company

Any one of you could probably have written this post, but I am going to offer my own thoughts given the strong affection I still have for DCI, the company at which I “cut my teeth” in the events business. DCI certainly had its faults, but after my ten years at The Event Mechanic! I recognize how much of what I now do recalls those years in Andover, Massachusetts earlier this century.

Here are the seven ways:

Make sure that new employees come into contact with customers as soon as they arrive

I should explain that most new hires at DCI were just a couple years out of college. Very few people were hired with a specific job in mind, except perhaps for sales vs. non-sales roles. New staff worked in a ‘bullpen’ area until a specific opening ‘downstairs’ became available. The average bullpen tenure was about 3-6 months as DCI was experiencing heavy growth. Bullpen responsibilities included making collections from conference attendees, as well as fielding inbound customer service calls. From Day One, all new employees were exposed to DCI customers, irrespective of whether they were destined for a marketing, conference, operations or sales role. Obviously working in the bullpen also required quick familiarity with all the DCI events, given the range of questions that one had to answer, making this set up valuable in a number of ways.

Ensure your employees understand that cash drives the business as soon as they arrive

As mentioned above, bullpen staff was required to make collection calls. Knowing the origins of corporate cash, and where it goes in the business, really schooled me on the importance of focusing on profitability, not just revenue building. That led to me having to understand which shows worked and to identify “why” they worked from a financial perspective.

Include cross-train opportunities for your staff

A key moment for me at DCI happened after three years as a conference manager, when I was actively lobbied by the Sales Team to join that part of the organization. I believe I was the first to make such a transition at DCI, but that opportunity made my career.

Include the chance for sales opportunities during their time with you

See the item above and contrast my DCI experience with a prior period when I worked at Lufthansa. At Lufthansa, I was informed by a senior sales person that I would never make it in sales because I was too shy (a characterization that no-one who knows me now would believe.) At DCI, I discovered a knack for getting to the core of a problem and solving it. Once I began ‘selling’ my solutions, I learned the value of relationship-oriented sales vs. a more transaction-focused approach which catapulted me upwards in the company (from bottle washer to eventually the VP responsible for 80% of DCI business).

Make sure your employees get a chance to network outside of the company as part of their growth

I learned this despite DCI’s failure to embrace this philosophy. DCI management were petrified that employees who went to SISO or Expo! Expo! would be poached by the competition. In contrast, upon joining IDG, one of the first things my boss did was to pack ten of us in a van to attend the SISO Executive Conference in Providence (about a 45 minute drive). At such industry events I learned how to find solutions to event problems from my peers, an invaluable resource for me.

Assign each employee a mentor and allow the relationship to be two-way

Though not something done formally there, I managed to ‘slip under the wing’ of several senior people at DCI. Those managers helped me get to the next level.  At IDG, as a manager myself, I learned that getting advice from those whom I managed helped to improve my perspective and gave me insights that I otherwise might not have gained from just being ‘top-down’.

Make every employee know the basics of building new events

In its time, DCI was one of the hottest acquisition prospects in the market. This attraction was attributable to DCI’s first mover advantage, launching new events before competitors had gotten their act together. This was not just a few shows a year. DCI launched dozens of shows, accelerating the financial growth of the company. This was possible because most people at the company knew both how to create new events and what made them profitable. Now this knowledge is a core competency within The Event Mechanic! as this business grows.

 

The above recommendations are among the seven ‘killer’ traits that I find in successful executives in the conference and trade show industry. If you build just one of them into your approach in growing your teams, you will shortly find your staff becoming more valuable and productive-benefiting your bottom line.

 

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

 

 


You Need a Creative Guy in Your Organization or You Are in Trouble!

I came back from Expo! Expo! in December thinking that many event companies which either don’t:

  1.  have a lot of money to acquire shows or
  2.  hire ‘ringers’ to build new events

are in trouble. Why?

Because, there is hardly anything new being produced in our event ecosystem that isn’t a knockoff of an existing event, a niche of an existing event, or the same event in a new location. So what?

Is there any organic creation of events anymore? The creation of an idea, which leads to something that brings buyers and sellers together, or provides education which can make a profit? Look around. Most companies don’t have the talent to do this. They certainly have the Money Guys at the top who keep the organizations profitable. They have the Worker Bees who do the selling, producing, marketing etc. But, they do not have the Creative Guy, the guru, who can bring a community together, come up with a value proposition as to why an event should happen, and perhaps the opening steps in making it profitable.

Most companies would give their ‘eye teeth’ for someone who could roll new market leading events off the assembly line for the future profit of the company. In my mind, the number of Creative Guys are few and far in between. Are you lucky enough to have one? Is it you?

If you don’t have a Creative Guy, your Cash Cow events will soon turn into Loss Leaders, and where will you be then?


Music to my ears-get event help from outside resources

Just got back from Expo! Expo!(more on that later) but waiting in my email box from Monday was this article about why associations/event organizers should take advantage of outside resources to make improvements:

 

http://www2.pcma.org/news-room/2012/12/03/how-a-third-party-can-empower-meeting-planners

 

Love it!