Have We Failed to Innovate in Our Events? An Insider’s Perspective from David Saef

I met David Saef at the recent Exhibit Sales Roundtable and was impressed both by his presentation (though not necessarily agreeing with everything) as well as his overall point of view about our industry. David is the SVP of Strategy at Freeman. In that role he helps Freeman’s many clients with their marketing strategies, including pivoting given the new business world we all now operate within. David has been in the business for more than 20 years, having held positions with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur and GES before he joined Freeman.


Our conversation following his presentation sparked my interest in having a further interview which drilled down on some of his thoughts. Here’s what we discussed:


Warwick Davies (WD): Would you agree that the industry is at a crossroads? What can we do about it?

David Saef (DS): I am not sure I would say “a crossroads.” We are at an inflection point – where people are yearning to get together and embrace meaningful engagement. We need to address our legacies – our legacy databases and emails which need a total refresh, our event design and attendee experience which need new approaches, and our selling and delivery models which need to be more agile. Most of all though, we need to understand our target participants (attendees, exhibitors, staff, etc.) in deeper and more meaningful ways to attract and engage them in our events and communities.


WD:  I feel that the events industry missed a great opportunity to innovate the last two years. Do you agree?

DS: A sense of fear and disruption affected many people – but not all. There were a number of organizations that invested and innovated these past 2 years, and I think their efforts paid off in many ways – new solutions, new teams, and new ways of thinking and operating. AUSA for example, launched a weekly lunch series online during COVID which was a huge success, attracted many new participants and led to new opportunities to host and engage its wider community that is having a positive effect on their ongoing in person event program.


WD: Why do most event organizers have nearly no engagement with their audiences? What can be done about it?

DS: Organizers always marketed to audiences, but just broadcasting “WE ARE HERE!” is no longer sufficient. Attendees need to know that the organizers really understand them – what are their business or professional priorities, what do they wish to learn, connect, or undertake to improve their businesses or practices. We also need to know where audiences want to convene and how they want to engage. And most of all – participants are time- and budget- constrained. So, the most important aspect is the WHY – why they should spend their time and money taking part in your event versus any other online or in-person gathering.


WD: Many event organizers were making 65%+ margins pre-COVID and have had no motivation to do much innovation other than cram their face-to-face events into virtual events and pray for the in person events to return. But Pre-COVID conditions are gone. How should event organizers react?

DS: Listen. Innovate. Be Agile. The number one investment today should be in truly and deeply understanding your audiences and updating contact databases. By a long stretch – if audiences grow more rapidly, it solves so many other challenges. Second: innovate – the participant journey needs to be digital first in order to be able to learn and capture information and share with peers back in the office and innovate the onsite experience to make it interactive, immersive and inspirational in so many ways that people have no choice but to make your event the top investment they will make in themselves in their career for the year. Take the National Broadcasters Association – during COVID the team invested in deep audience research which led to insights and the launch of a new online platform – Amplify – to enable NAB to connect with their audiences year-round. This engagement strategy led to many innovations, from launching new events based on emerging sectors to revamping the show halls and creating Experience Zones to draw and engage attendees. NAB opened a whole new show segment in West Hall based on identifying emerging sectors of their business. The listening and innovating paid off as the show as a huge success this year.

Finally, be agile – circumstances will continue to change so it’s never been more important to test and learn new ideas by using insights to inform experiences and priorities, and to tap on-demand talent to ramp up the most promising opportunities.


WD: Many organizers have pages of “to dos” but don’t seem effective at getting things done. How should they proceed?

DS: Two pieces of advice: first, establish no more than 2-3 major objectives for the event and organization. Those objectives should have clear measures of success. Then look at the “to do” list – prioritize only those actions that will drive these top objectives. Be brutal in prioritizing – literally ask “will this action lead to these 2-3 outcomes?” If the answer is not clear, or not compelling, then de-prioritize. Second exercise – ask staff to list “5 things we should stop doing NOW.” Review and then act. Last note – many people will say they don’t have enough time “but we have to do X, Y or Z.” If those items are truly critical, I would look at whether enough time has been freed up for folks to address those items, or hire on-demand, temporary resources to get those tasks done.


WD: You’ve told me that events should have a combination of Experience, Networking, Commerce and Learning. Can you explain why you think this?

DS: At Freeman we analyzed decades of surveys and research and realized that participant motivations come down to these four drivers – we call it the XLNC (pronounced “excellence”) framework. Each event type has a different degree of each of the four pillars. Our clients love how we use this tool to help tie back to participant needs and create a compelling experience design.


WD: Focusing on Experience seems like the lazy way to go, since it’s the easiest one to accomplish than the other three. Why is Experience important?

DS: Experience may be the most differentiated of all the pillars. It drives how you feel or perceive the overall brand and event value. It’s the WOW factor. Take a car show – we go look at and test drive lots of cars. But it’s that WOW factor – with our families and our kids that influences that next visit for an online quote or to a dealership. Another example is Sirona’s Dentsply World event for dentists. They create a dynamic experience in Las Vegas with a big wow factor and entertainers in addition to the other elements of learning, networking, and talking about their products. The price to attend is multiples of other dental meetings – and it continues to grow because of that X-perience factor. One other note – Xperience can be achieved myriad ways from delivering an immersive experience like Visa’s powerful interactive to support United Nations’ efforts around climate change to sparking new meaning and joy in our country’s love of baseball by recreating a real-life Field of Dreams ballgame in Iowa.


WD: One of the biggest failures of trade show organizers is engaging their audiences. Now it’s a necessity. How do you engage with the audiences of the future?

DS: Listen and understand. I cannot emphasize this enough – and it’s not about just conducting surveys. Our clients love the ethnographic studies we have done – when we have someone go to the conference and adopt a persona so they can have authentic conversations with other attendees. Also test and learn – try new environments or experiences that enable attendees to undertake the journey that is most meaningful to them. Final note – build in budget and time to listen and talk to audiences at your event (and contact non-attendees afterwards!) to help inform future efforts.


WD: The new competition of for attendees is not other events, but time, opportunity cost, workload and convenience. Given that how do we continue to earn our attendees’ business?

DS: Our clients focus on one simple question: what keeps you up at night professionally? Answer that question and you will have a loyal following for life.


WD: What is wrong with post-event surveys?

DS: Aside from Net Promoter Score, we are asking many of the wrong questions. We need to obsess on a couple of critical questions, such as whether we address their priorities, whether we provided relevant and meaningful tools to impact their work and life, and whether our gatherings are their top 1 or 2 priorities for the year. Our clients also love to benchmark against critical metrics like density, buyer influence, and audience quality. But current surveys focus way too much on satisfaction – which is a nice metric internally but doesn’t get to the heart of the participant mindset. One last note – we often survey about items that we either cannot control or don’t plan to change, which is a total waste of time and effort.


WD: Is there a need for event organizers to invest in more product development? Where should the research for new “products” start?

DS: New product development starts with and should always include participant insights – it should be at the heart of everything we do. This should include many of the strategies I have shared in earlier questions – understanding what keeps participants up at night, what their professional priorities are, what they are seeking to learn and how, and how they want to learn and interact. Then use an agile process to develop concepts that can be tested. The most important part of this is having a team dedicated to understanding and exceeding participant expectations – and developing products suited to those audience needs. That team should have a combination of industry, analytical, and insights skills. New product developers should be entrepreneurial and willing to take risks.


WD: Where do you predict we’ll be in the next five years?

DS: The events sector will be strong and focused. Participants will feel we understand them better, that experiences are designed to their needs, and that companies can demonstrate ROI because organizers are providing better intelligence and evidence of the payoff. Also, we will see new experiences in spaces and places we have overlooked – pulling like-minded people together and utilizing the full campus as an integrated journey and experience versus the separation today between “keynote, exhibit hall, and classrooms.” Last note – today is the time to disrupt and innovate – and those innovators will be accelerating the pace of change for the better.


Thanks David! You have made some great points. I appreciate your sharing them.

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