In What are the Characteristics of a Top 5% Event

I’ve had the fortune to run a world-renowned event – Macworld – and have managed several others that have come close to ranking amongst the upper echelon (the top 5%) of events. They are the types of events whose presence commanded attention – and attendance.

We are now experiencing significant pent-up demand for in-person events, regardless of the history or prestige of a particular event, that follows the Covid-induced dormancy of the past couple of years. But at some point, we’ll return to a pre-Covid norm where there are few events considered so well-regarded that their success is not dependent on a strong marketing and management effort. Of course, the reality is that no event is a success on its own. The best events are so well engineered and operated by top personnel that they are assured of the quality, both in strategy and tactical execution, needed to remain amongst the best and most successful.

But if your event is amongst the remaining 95% – let’s call them the “good, the bad, and the ugly” – are you resigned to that status or is there a formula that can get you to the top? I think there is. 

The goal is for your event to be a magnet within its particular industry, such that it’s easy to market and easy to sell both to sponsors/exhibitors and attendees. The industry press for the market your event serves is uniformly positive and considers the event an important venue for industry news, for interacting with market participants, and for discovering new trends or validating existing ones. 

Among the characteristics of this Top 5% event are:
1) The event strongly represents the market segment it serves. It covers the reality and challenges of today and provides education for tomorrow.
2) All the right people are there. And because they are, everyone else wants to be there, as well. The market’s heavy hitters, biggest customers, and industry experts consider your event as the place to be.
3) The FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) level is a 10. If you’re not there, you’re missing out on making a key business contact, closing a sale, and finding out what’s happening next. Miss the event and you’re a step behind everyone else.
4) Marketing the event is easy– little more than announcing the details of the event. No arm twisting is needed. Prospective attendees are seeking information and standing by to register. You just need to provide them with the information at the right time, medium which suits them.
5) The sales pitch to your targets is “you want a piece of this.” The Exhibit and Sponsorship staff only have to state, ‘this is the place to be’ and ‘inventory and best opportunities are going quickly. Sign up before you get what’s left or, worse, miss the opportunity entirely!”
6) The Execution (Operations) of the event is first-rate. As an attendee or an exhibitor, things seem to run like clockwork in advance, during, and after the event. Of course, the reality is that problems rise, but any issues aren’t visible to customers. And even if they are, they are dealt with quickly, honestly, and fairly.
7) Attendees look forward to attending the event. They are counting the days, setting their schedules, and can’t wait to be there.
Sounds like a dream, right? It’s not. You can probably think of events that fit the scenario I’ve described. But most of us don’t have direct experience. Would you like to know how to make it happen?
Getting into the top 5% requires relentless and resilient behavior, and the ability to keep a lot of plates spinning. You have to really want it – and take the necessary steps to get there.
Here is my guide for how to make it happen.

1) Make sure you have well-paid, hardworking, smart, and qualified staff who love what they do, and – perhaps more importantly – love people. Perhaps you are inclined to go ‘cheap’ with staff with little experience. But the effort you will require from the staff means you should want the best employees. Getting them may cost you, and it will be worth it.
2) Make sure you understand the audience you want to attract and cater to its needs. Everyone says they are doing this, but very few are successful at it. Each of your customer-facing staff needs to have a visceral feel for their audiences. That means not just sitting behind a computer screen doing analytics, and certainly not hiding in the staff office.
3) Make sure you have secured industry support. Do you represent the top association(s) in your market? Do you have the present and future “movers and shakers” involved? Do you listen to their input? Can you get the top buyers to show up?
4) Apply the lessons learned in understanding your audience to write a marketing plan that has the means, messaging, and timing captured correctly. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for staff to be unable to write a marketing plan that includes the resources to be used, the milestones that trigger certain actions, and the budget that allows for pivots if the plan’s expectations are not being met.
5) Make sure you can reach your addressable audience. I had this covered this in a previous interview. But if you are not messaging to your entire potential audience, you are going to have audience gaps that your competitors can conquer.
6) Be realistic about what you can and can’t afford to do at each stage of the building of your event (i.e., make this part of your annual planning). Building the best events is not accomplished with one try, your achievement will be based upon a constant, consistent plan that obeys budgetary and other restrictions. So be conservative – or perhaps better stated “pragmatic” – as to how you move forward, while still seizing opportunities.
7) Get salespeople who can paint the picture for exhibitors and sponsors at the start of this quest to get to the top and where you are heading. You might have the foundation for a 5% event already, so you need talented staff who can get exhibitors to see the future and fund what’s needed to invest in the items (and the people) that will get you there. Make sure they are convincing and riveting in their presentations.
8) Have an operations team that doesn’t give up when things are hard. Getting to the top will be challenging. Make sure your operations folks are smart with budgets, can negotiate with suppliers in an environment of rising costs, and, at the same time, can organize themselves to get all of the necessary items done, without burning themselves out.
9) Create content for the event that helps your market successfully get to the next level. Make sure the content of the event leads the way for the industry. Hire the smartest consultants to envision what that is, and bring it to the event with the rest of the team.
10) Continue to do these year after year. It’s all about spinning plates, but also knowing what to do and, conversely, what not to do. You have to commit to being consistent, relentless, and resilient.
11) Be nice to your customers and give them the benefit of the doubt. Without customers, you have no event. Show a smile, and be good to them, even if you have a business to run.

I was fortunate to run to Macworld when it was already well-run and extremely successful, so my job was more keeping it successful as one of the world’s most esteemed events. I recognized the elements that made the show successful and ensured they continued to happen (much as I’d like to take credit for its success).

That experience – and others – made clear to me how hard getting to the top is and I tip my hat to those who are currently doing it. It can be done if you have the willpower. Good luck!

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