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Risk and Reward

I’ve worked for myself since 2005. During that time, people have asked me how they can make more money, do interesting things, work on fun projects, etc. It has always been an interesting question, and my answer has changed over the years.
 
From the perspective of having a safe and secure career, having a job working for someone else is probably the best option. However, in exchange for that security, you must accept a ceiling on your potential income. Your compensation will likely be limited to your salary, unless you are in a sales role, can count on tips, or will receive wonderful bonuses based on certain achievements. Otherwise, your total compensation is unlikely to exceed your salary. But that’s a good trade-off for many.
 
For those who aspire to earn more, you must be willing to assume more risk or have (or be willing to develop) a clearly superior skillset, particularly if those skills are focused on generating revenue. One avenue is to start your own company, build out a product or a set of products, hire staff, and handle all the tasks associated with ownership. If you’re so inclined, your income potential and your profitability will be governed by the decisions you make, the money you save, the efficiencies you achieve, etc. But the risk is massive.
 
An alternative approach is to operate a one-person company, as I have done with The Event Mechanic! This ‘scrappy’ option requires rolling up your sleeves and dragging the business in. If you are not prepared to take this on or cannot do it effectively, then short of recruiting a ‘rainmaker’ (see my post on rainmakers) for the business, you are better off working for someone else and accepting the limits of a salary. I write this with a smile, remembering a business acquaintance who recently called me an opportunist, which I considered to be a positive comment. Indeed, you must be able to spot an opportunity and then create and market value to win deals. With those deals and the revenue that you build from them, you can make a living. In terms of my own business, I have earned more year over year than I ever made working for someone else – even when I was in a sales role.
 
But I’m on the JV team in terms of creating massive opportunity and income. Alan Weiss, long recognized as a guru on consultants, has written a book called Million Dollar Marketing. I’d suggest you read it because the alchemy of building revenue and wealth is fascinating.
 
Weiss might rank money-making opportunities in the following order, from least to most lucrative:
  1. Be on call for a retainer – You are available to a limited number of executives for a fixed time period, such as a year. This approach assumes that you have a reservoir of knowledge that is worth a lot of money for your clients to access. Believe it or not, anyone can get to this level with the right skill and effort. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
 
  1. Fixed project work for a specified amount – This the most common consulting arrangement, where you are hired for a fixed amount of time to achieve a certain outcome. Though these are the “bread and butter” of consulting projects, you are always in danger of scope creep. If you have underestimated the time and resources you will need to reach the objective and are bound to a fixed price for the project, they can be very unprofitable.
 
  1. Paid by the hour – These engagements can be quite lucrative, particularly if the hourly rate is significant. But you are limited by the number of hours you work, so there is a ceiling.
 
  1. Commission-based projects – Though these can be quite lucrative, they can also be highly risky. If you can’t close anything, you are investing effort without any payoff. These are the easiest ‘deals’ to get because the risk is mostly your, not the clients.
 
As far as securing interesting and fun projects, once you are your own boss you get to decide what you work on. That’s something I have found immeasurably uplifting.
 
If you are looking for higher income then you must invest in yourself and do better self promotion, even if you stay in a salaried position. The benefits and freedom are immeasurable.

Has Dealing with Coronavirus Taught Our Event Industry Anything?

The answer is both “yes” and “no”.
 
In terms of “yes”:
 
1)  We have learned to be more agile. If you are reading this – and you didn’t lose your job or your company – then you’ve had to become quicker, bolder, more innovative, and more patient in order to survive. Whether it was developing ideas to retain both exhibitor and attendee money, creating new types of digital events, or deciding to shut down certain events given the market uncertainties or government mandates- we have all gained new skills.
 
2) We’ve learned to work together. An example can be found with organizations such as SISO and Freeman, who’ve become more accessible and resourceful in support of both members and the general event public. They’ve helped champion new standards by delivering advocacy and lobbying that can help the industry with future challenges.
 
In terms of “no”:
 
1)  We have failed to create new business models that can help take the pressure off face-to-face meetings. Virtual events have generally failed as a replacement for face-to-face events, though several tech companies have certainly cashed in. Many attendees comfortable with face-to-face events are weary of digital alternatives and many exhibitors will begin to reduce their digital budgets as face-to-face re-emerges.
 
2) The idea of communities has also failed to gain traction. Most event organizers realize that it’s almost impossible to ‘own’ them. For a community to be a vital ‘engagement watering hole’ within an event they require constant attention and activity. Few event organizers have the interest or skills to sustain that engagement. There’s been no business model emerge that takes the considerable weight of managing communities off the shoulders of event organizers. That suggests that organizers are waiting for face-to-face to come back so that they can continue to operate as they did before – without the encumbrances of managing communities.
 
3)  We’ve failed to get closer to our audiences. Most of the surveys taken during the last 18 months about interest in the return of face-to-face events were surveys of event professionals (who quite obviously wanted their livelihoods to be restored.) But most event professionals operate outside the markets they serve and have little real insight regarding whether our targeted attendees want to – and will – return. Could the decline in face-to-face events during the pandemic be a precursor to their broader decline, since some see event attendance as a corporate boondoggle? Of course, exhibitors want events to return, but can we deliver the quality audiences they have enjoyed in the past? Unfortunately, we just don’t know. We will find out if we can or we can’t, soon enough.
 
I believe that COVID-19 has been something that we have survived, rather than tried to leverage as a laboratory within which to test new revenue generators and develop new ways to deliver valuable experiences. We haven’t flipped the script.
 
If I were to grade our industry’s performance, I’d give us a B minus. And that’s mainly for remaining employed and able to read this.
 
But have we missed a great opportunity?

Has ‘Quality is the New Quantity’ Become Today’s “The Dog Ate My Homework”?

If estimates are to be believed, though we may be able to run events this year, both attendance and exhibitor participation will be down. Given COVID-19 and responding corporate restrictions, lower numbers and revenues for 2021 events are to be expected.
 
Does that exempt us from trying to understand attendee and exhibitor needs, given we have the handy excuse that attendance will likely be down? No, we still must treat the last 15 months as an opportunity to learn more about our customers.
 
It’s depressing that the expressions “the quantity is down, but the quality is up” or “quality is the new quantity” have made their return – much as they’ve always done during market downturns. Not that they might be appropriate in certain instances. But my reaction is more to those lazy marketers and event strategists who hope they can convince us that the presence of fewer attendees will necessarily be inversely correlated with their quality – that fewer attendees inherently means they are better attendees.
 
Guys and gals, this is tired thinking, and most of your customers will see through it. It’s much the same as you might have said back in the day when your excuse for failing to turn in your homework was that ‘the dog ate it.’
 
Rather than rationalizing a decline in attendance, what you should be doing is reaching out to the attendees and exhibitors who haven’t returned to past events to find out why. Now is the time to better understand your customers and apply that insight to enhance the customer experience and value.
 
We’ve all worked hard to keep things going over the last year. And we’re stressed out with wondering what the future will bring. Unfortunately, the bad times are not quite over, but we shouldn’t be resigned to accept whatever happens. Let’s ensure that we continue to build our competitive advantage during this downtime, with the knowledge that our customers of the future will be pickier than ever.
 
And I hope the dog never eats your homework…

Your Event has a Brain. But Does it Have a Heart?

Most long running events are viable because they continue to offer value, making enough money (or otherwise generating sufficient benefits ) to prompt their owners to continue onward with them. These events are supported with strong project plans, sufficient revenue, well-managed costs, the right content, competent staff – and they are proven to be profitable. These events can be considered to have “brains” in that they are well-run machines, and probably generate expected outcomes. Typically, these events have a formula of some kind that can be replicated in different locales, spanning different content topics.
 
As we return to running face to face events, we must remind ourselves that our events need more than the intelligent execution of a “brain” that focuses upon the logical reason for the event’s existence. They also need a “heart” that embraces the emotional attraction and ‘pull’ of  the event. It is my contention that of all the events that exist- only 5% represent events that people really want to attend. That’s a mere one event out of every twenty. The others fall into a range of categories: “I have to attend’, ‘I don’t know why I am attending’, ‘this is my first time attending’, etc.).
 
I am fascinated by this topic, because I think it’s one which is frequently overlooked. The focus is ‘pumping them out’ versus ‘why these events should exist”. If you are interested in looking to see whether your event has a heart, then I challenge you to dig deeper in your analysis.
 
Here are some examples of the questions you should ask to determine whether your event has a heart:
  • Do you personally know any of the visitors attending your event?
  • Do you get jazzed up when spending time with your customers at your events
  • Do you look forward to your events?
 
If you answered “no” to any of the above questions above, then it may mean that your event doesn’t jazz up your customers either.
 
If we want to be in this business, we’d be well advised to handle the things that are completely within our control. Disconnection from our customers and our events is one of a few symptoms which may indicate that your event does not yet have the requisite heart. With all the challenges confronting the operation of face-to-face events during the upcoming couple of years I suggest we do our utmost to make sure that people want to come to our events. There should be a connection – with our attendees and sponsors caring about us, the event organizers. If it has a heart, you already know.
 
Without a heart, I don’t see how your event can succeed in the long term.
 
Something to ponder.

Comfort and Fear – How to use one to get more of the other

In the poem, Sad Cure, Graham Greene wrote that “Comfort and Fear – these two alone make Life / But while the Fear too often stood alone…The Comfort always had been mixed with fear.” *

That sentiment characterizes how many now are living: in fear. And because of that fear, they are allowing themselves to settle with what is most comfortable even when there are opportunities available. I must confess some disappointment that, despite the length of time we’ve had to become acclimated to the pandemic, many have failed to grasp the opportunities that have become obvious.

We’ve drifted down the river – rather than steer our own course – paralyzed by television news and social media and hoping for things to return to how they were in the good old days.

In some ways, my industry has acted differently. It has demonstrated a willingness to come together, with competitors collaborating in the hosting of events. There also have been new national advocacy efforts that I hope will champion the power and business value of events as we head into the future. You could also argue that the speed with which many events switched to virtual mode has proven to be a great learning opportunity for the industry.

All the above were spawned by reaction to the pandemic, rather than intentional efforts to innovate and grasp new opportunities. Despite all the positives that have happened, we’ve still tended to retreat due to the fear of failing, taking comfort in waiting until the situation returns to “normal” when we can again do what we did before.

I guess we’ll find out what the new “normal” is when vaccines take hold, the economy opens, and travel and budgets free up.

But rather than just wait, we still have an opportunity to act now. What do I suggest?

To start, I suggest we use the ‘energy’ of fear harness the opportunities of the future. Part of being able to do that will also demand that you:

1) Be friendly and helpful to others, even if you don’t agree with them- this will build future relationships.

2) Continue to listen to and learn from your customers- this will build loyalty and ideas for new products.

3) Constantly test innovation-this will build the business of the future.

4) Trust yourself and your colleagues that despite fear, your gut is usually right- this will build your business


Because of where we are, I see great opportunities available to us. If I am to learn anything from the Graham Greene poem, it’s to use fear as something that fuels an intention to find the next level of accomplishment.


Enjoy the opportunity to do so.

* “Sad Cure” as cited by Norman Sherry in ‘The Life of Graham Greene: Volume One, 1904-1939’


Will your exhibitors and attendees come back?

Hey, event organizers! I have some bad news for you. You are going to have to re-engage with attendees and exhibitors all over again – as if it were the first time. They have gone 12 to 18 months without your face-to-face events. They may or may not have done some of your virtual events, but they’ve had a vacation from the schlepping involved in physically attending one of your shows.

And there’s no certainty they will return.

You’ll have to prove yourselves to your customers all over again as part of the relaunch of your events. In so doing, your attendees and exhibitors will want to know:

• Will you have the top products at your show?
• Will you have the best content and education available?
• Will the right people to meet be in attendance?
• Will their competitors be there?
• What if they were to skip the event and see how the non-attended event performs?

Rather than just roll out the latest version of your last show, to match the success of your last pre-pandemic event will require you to do more. And here’s the bad news: you probably will not succeed the first time. Your first show may only get a small fraction of the pre-pandemic attendance and exhibitor participation. Will that be sufficient to convince both to come back a second time? Will it be enough for you to take the chance of holding the event and will it be profitable for you to do so? 

The goal of your first post-pandemic effort is to do well enough in terms of exhibitors and attendees that it becomes a pathway to your second event – the one that will be the star. 

Notice that I haven’t even mentioned the challenges found in the CDC’s health and safety requirements, as outlined in a March 12th article in Successful Meetings. My favorite line in the article is “Are there any ways to reduce the number of attendees?” That’s hardly the goal that would typify most traditional event managers. The point is we can’t afford to coast, with a “the past equals the future” attitude in terms of attendance and exhibitor buy-in. 

Your customers have had a lot of time away from your events. Will they feel the need to return? You better develop a plan to ensure they do.