Jessica Levin is a well known Engagement Expert, and since I am fascinated with the relevance of attendee engagement and innovation, I asked her to guest write this column. Hope you enjoy her thoughts as much as I did!
Over the last few years there has been a strong movement to make events innovative. The rise of this movement was largely sparked by the fact that event professionals are connected by social media and that we now have vast platforms to discuss change. Like any movement, there are loud voices who tend to sway the masses in a specific direction. Topics such as educational design and adult learning theory; the infiltration of technology and events; and dietary evolution have largely filled the streams of Twitter and the pages of Facebook. As someone who is part of this active community, I have spearheaded some of these efforts. I have advocated for using social media to enhance communication. I have brought new program formats to events. I have sipped the event innovation Kool-aid. And now, I ask, do we really need innovation?
I have worked on almost every side of the events world. I have been producer, planner, educational designer, menu selector, sponsorship salesperson, marketing strategist, exhibitor, speaker and attendee. I am jaded. I have experienced some of the most creative conferences out there. I have snacked on culinary creations beyond imaginations. I have danced on stage with Vanilla Ice during a conference. If you want to impress me, it’s going to take a lot of work.
Attendees are not the same as Events People
But here is the thing, the majority of attendees are not event professionals like us. They go to one or two conferences a year. In general, they want a few simple things: Good Education (or enough to meet their professional certification requirements); Networking Opportunities; and to be served enough food so that they are not hungry and they don’t suffer an allergic reaction.
When we think about innovation, we need to think about how we impact these fundamental needs.
- Are we giving them the right amount of education so that they can actually take advantage of it in their lives outside of the event?
- Are we providing the right networking opportunities with the right people for the right amount of time?
- Are we asking the proper questions about dietary restrictions and then working with your venue to provide sustenance for our attendees?
- Are we selecting the right type of technology that enhances the attendee experience and doesn’t detract from it just because it’s the latest and greatest and has a wow factor?
Are we providing the WOW factor for the right audiences at the right time?
Innovation for the Right Reasons
Of course, we need to innovate. Every industry, every person does in order to evolve and grow. But, we need to do it in a way that is strategic and most relevant and important to our key stakeholders. Keeping in mind that this may include your exhibitors and not just your attendees. We need to have discussions with all departments of our organizations, with our advisory boards and with those who financially support our event. Only through ongoing communication and idea sharing can we accurately assess what type of innovation we need to make our events successful.
We don’t need to innovate for the sake of innovation. We need to innovate to meet the needs of our constituents who live in an ever changing world.
Jessica L. Levin, MBA, CMP, CAE is the President and Chief Connector of Seven Degrees Communications. With a background in marketing and event planning, Jessica has a passion for connecting people and creating experiences based on strategic goals. She is the author of Perfect Pairings: The Art of Connecting People, to be published February 2015.
In some recent posts I’ve mentioned the different roles – the different “guys” – who are involved in the creation, management, and execution of events. Each type of role has something to contribute to the success of a particular event. But when I look beyond an individual event at the broader trends within the business, that sense of common contribution changes.
For example, when one looks at who is looking ahead and trying to advance the industry with online commentary about the issues and potential within the trade show and conference industry, it’s the “idea” guys and independent consultants who seem to have taken on that responsibility. Do you really see interesting thinking from the financial managers – the money guys – of the event industry? Not much, if any, at all.
Why might that be? If you think of about the people who comprise that role in relatively simple – arguably simplistic – terms, the answer might seem obvious. The “money guys” are numbers-oriented. The success of a particular event in terms of profit and loss can be expressed with numbers, but thought leadership (like this blog aspires to) is a communications effort and that’s a medium driven by words. Words don’t necessarily convert into P&L numbers – or they don’t do so easily.
But let’s try. I see a big gap – what I might even call a chasm – between the idea guy and the money guy. And it’s not just a matter of numbers and words. It’s really a matter of perspective – how one looks at the industry and sees the current state and how that state can be a foundation for the future. If you cannot reconcile those different considerations with a common sense of purpose, you won’t bridge the gap between the present and future.
And I believe that is why the day to day operation of certain events often is compromised by a focus on profitability – short term profitability – that hinders how the industry can move forward and thrive. It is why new technology initiatives (e.g. social media, virtual events) can struggle – perhaps even fail – to get traction because the longer term potential benefits are ignored in a short term calculation of the cost impact on the event in the present. When it’s not clear what the positive financial impact of a new idea will be, then ‘trying something out’ becomes just a cost item in the budget.
From the perspective of a consultant who usually champions the creative approach, I believe that the adoption of new ideas always should be done with the idea that they can increase the potential longevity and profitability of the event. The impact may not be immediate nor a contributor to the net profit of an event within the next event cycle, but worth exploring.
One of those things is ‘event engagement’ or ‘raising the attendee experience.” A purely financial perspective can cynically interpret that as meaning adding more parties with an open bar. Seen that way, event engagement costs a fortune and has uncertain positive financial impact. But you can make it work both to innovate and make money, and here’s how:
- Ensure your event will connect the buyers and sellers (or paying buyers with each other if no sponsors/exhibitors).
- Ensure this engagement is fun and different, noteworthy and valuable to those who attend.
- Determine financial metrics for your goals such as % increase in rebooking, future buyer attendee commitment, etc.
- Be practical and smart – start small in terms of costs.
- Have someone on your event team responsible for the results- before, during, and after
- Measure how you did against your financial goals.
- Get feedback and refine- make enhancements with an eye toward next year’s event.
- Expand your engagement program.
The event business is a service industry. In product industries, businesses look at their spending in terms of whether they are OpEx (ongoing operating costs – aka spending) or CapEx (capital that has longer term impact in terms of the expected payback – aka investing). While the event business does not really involve investments in factories or equipment, it really doesn’t hurt to look at certain costs as making an investment in the future where the payback is over time.
Now I am not an accountant, but I’d say that any conference or trade show manager that does not have some spending on activities that might be considered “philosophically CapEx” in their intent is really not looking to the future. And because of that, they are unlikely to reach that future.
In an earlier blog post, I reviewed the three styles of an event manager and I promised to help you determine which one you are and how you might acquire the characteristics of the others. Having the attributes of all three styles can be important, as all are contributors to the origination, development and execution of successful events.
To review, in short, here are the three types:
- The Worker Bee
Worker Bees get things done. Typically representing 60% of the event staff, they are efficient executors, but you would not look to them to create the direction of an event or to change the course of an established event in response to market needs. This type represents 60% of the people in the events business.
- The Idea Guy
Though they are likely to be the originator of the event’s concept because they can identify a market need, this is not person you’d look to manage the details or the financials that can ensure that an event becomes a reality, and more importantly a successful reality. I estimate that they comprise 10% of the business.
- The Money Guy
Looking at an event as a business opportunity, this person takes the event concept and leverages the execution capabilities of the Worker Bee to maximize that opportunity. This represents about 30% of the people in the business.
So how can you become one of the other ‘Guys’?
Becoming the Worker Bee
This one is relatively easy to understand. You’ll need to roll up your sleeves and do much of the grunt work required for one specific area of an event – or perhaps take on a number of them. This might include the front end work of writing a marketing plan, putting together event materials or doing the work to find a venue. Or it might mean making cold calls to sell exhibit space and/or sponsorships, or attending to the on-site detail work such as negotiating an A/V contract, catering vendor selection, and other associated administrative elements.
Why consider learning these skills? Because they are the people that your sponsors and your attendees remember; they are the day-to-day contact points. The favorable experiences of a particular event are often delivered by these people. And knowing how to deliver that experience – which often means delivering results beyond expectations – is something to learn, partly because it will inform how you manage the event in one of the other roles.
Key traits to have for this role include being detail oriented, having both patience and a sense of humor, and possessing a knack for problem solving. And, as suggested above, it is also important to appreciate the value of great customer service.
Becoming the Idea Guy
If you are not creative by nature – as well as being research oriented – you’ll likely have to put in some work to take on this role. My suggestions are:
- Understand how others have developed successful events that have stood the test of time (which I would judge as spanning at least three successive years). As you look at those events, consider these questions:
- How have they conceived the idea for that event?
- What other content supporters were contributors to the event?
- How did the person develop the revenue model needed to support the launch?
- How did they create and the business case that convinced the Money Guy?
- How did they support the incubation and launch of the event?
- What role did (do) they play thereafter?
- Read a lot. I don’t necessarily mean reading online content on topics with which you already are familiar. Consider getting books on ideas that might be outside of your current business area that are of interest and potentially event-capable. That can be an important way to gain exposure to new ideas and possible event topics that otherwise you might not consider. Sometimes creativity is hampered by a narrow focus on topics with which you already have experience. Exploring new areas may allow you to apply your experience in interesting new ways.
- Spend some time during your day (perhaps as brief as 10 minutes) away from your desk to think creatively. Taking that time – a change of pace – can be a productive way to explore new ideas.
- Volunteer for new projects, even if logic might say that you don’t have the time. Get yourself out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons.
Key characteristics to have to successfully adopt this role include the ability to develop viable concepts, build relationships and think outside your – or often others – comfort areas, the proverbial “outside the box” approach. And, it means being able to develop a solid working knowledge in new areas that allows you to communicate effectively and enlist others as you look to launch a new concept.
Becoming the Money Guy
Well, having a trust fund helps. No really, taking on the “business” role requires attention to the near term financial details, as well as a real consideration of the long term plan. Though a bit of a balancing act, it means:
- Understanding the difference between revenues and profits, with the ability to create both.
- Having the resources to commit to and support an event in ways that enables you to make the key decisions (again with the goal of accommodating both near and longer term goals for your event).
- Having the experience with “make or break’ decisions and the personality to make them with confidence and conviction.
- Having the ability to see the big picture for an event or brand and commit to it for the life of the event, with the ability to adjust and/or recalibrate as circumstances requires.
- Having the willingness to “cross train” in other areas of your event to see things from a different perspective and appreciate how they impact the appeal, reputation and financial viability of an event.
Key traits here include the ability to see ‘big picture’, to be decisive when considering multiple choices and the willing to be accountable for success or failure.
My career in the event business has afforded me the opportunity to take on all the roles described above. I started as an Operations/Conference Content person, then migrated into sales – both as Sales Representative and then as Sales Manager. As an International Business Development Executive and then later, as a Vice President, I have had to conceive, develop and execute the responsibilities that helped determine an event’s success. Having done all the tasks, I know that it takes focus and patience to make the different steps, but if you want to truly embrace the business and succeed, it is a worthwhile effort.
Good luck to those of you who choose to embark any part of this journey! Contact me if you’d like to benefit from my experience. After all, paying it forward is how we all benefit.
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:
Agreeing heavily with Stephanie Selesnick on this:
I would add that you need to know who your customers are before you can serve them. You’d be shocked how few organizers go beyond a spreadsheet to know their key attendee constituents….
I have a habit of buying business books then putting them in a pile to read later. I have considered a Kindle, but actually enjoy having a real book in my hand. For last week’s trip to Atlanta/Austin I brought with me Purple Cow by Seth Godin.
Here’s an article for those who interested in seeing a summary of the book:
So what? The essence of the book (for those who don’t want to read the book/article) is that it takes more than ever to be seen to have a remarkable product, and so many events are similar to others so you can’t differentiate one from the other.
How would I create a Purple Cow event?
- Get deeply into the markets you serve so your company can actually feel the issues of the market and have the ability to transform your event(s) into either a forum for others to find solutions or but programming that hits the hot spots and come up with solutions(or both). As opposed to being aware of the trends but not willing/able to react quickly enough to put into your events;
- Figure out what you need to do to get people who come to enjoy your events(networking, hands on labs, access to experts, trips to the local ball park/museums) so they can spread the word
- Invest in top class event staff who care as much about the above as you do
- Experiment on innovation in all areas(a new event app, a new format for sessions, unconference portions of the event, virtual/digital events, etc).
- Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone(or meet) and speak to your attendees/sponsors and find out how(what) they are doing.
Let’s stop ‘mailing it in’ on our events!
I was ruminating about the three levels of success in the conference/trade show business. They are in order:
1) an event which attracts a quality audience of the right quantity;
2) an event does the above and makes a profit;
3) an event which does all of the above and people(sponsors, attendees, visitors, press) want to attend.
In my mind, the third category is the 95th percentile of events, and very hard to keep up over even the medium term given the variables of market shifts, audience preferences, competition and other factors. How can you do it?
- By being ‘part’ of the market place not just serving a market place
- By anticipating the needs of the market
- By being a place where people connect, not just events where people show up, see some things and go back home
- By having smart, caring, committed customer oriented staff who can do all of the above
- By understanding the value of your event and effectively monetizing it(and making the value easy to understand)
- By being ‘in touch’ with all of your stakeholders in the manner, frequency and time frame that they desire
I have been fortunate to have been the caretaker of such events(meaning that most of the above was already created before my arrival, I just needed to keep it going) and also to have created such events even on a small scale.
My challenge to you? Can you metamorphosize your existing events to the top 5% and do you have the commitment to do what it takes to keep them there?
In Massachusetts, today is a work holiday for most people, which is nice considering it’s a quiet work day for me. It’s also 90 degrees in April, which is about 25 degrees hotter than normal, getting me to ruminate about Summer plans. I am planning to start up the interview series I did a few years ago for SISO, only this time make it part of The Event Mechanic! newsletter and resources.
I will not only interview trade show and association executives but also their customers, either members or conference or expo attendees, as proof of my Target Personas ‘pudding’. Topics covered will be: mobile technology, how to revive ailing events, attendee experiences, unconferences, virtual/digital events and more.
If you are interested in catching up with all of the interviews, please make sure you sign up for my mailing list.
Happy Patriot’s Day!