“It is critical that we stop looking only at our event programs. You have so much more to offer than just an event. You are a steward of your community.”
– David Saef, CTSM Gold, SVP Strategy, mdg Advisory Services (a Freeman company)
David Saef presents his ideas about transformation and reinvention frequently at events. He also advises Boards of Directors and executive teams. The first time you hear him, you think, ‘D*amn, that’s one smart dude.” The second time you think, “I really need to pick his brain after this.”
Thankfully David is very generous with his time and loves this industry dearly, so he let us do exactly that for this blog.
“Events themselves are one of the most overlooked vehicles for change,” he shares while we chat. “Think of Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in person, striking a friendship and agreeing to end the cold war. Or how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) made history by issuing a resolution stating that homosexuality was not a mental illness or sickness. This declaration was a major milestone for LGBTQ equality.”
David believes we have the opportunity to crystalize the benefits of in-person. After all, bringing together people with differing viewpoints, the human connection – allow us to begin to understand perspectives other than their own, or at least identify with the human behind the contradictory opinion.
It’s a powerful point.
He recently moderated the Focus on Emerging Models panel at CEIR Predict. The premise was to explore the decisions of leaders who chose to double-down during the pandemic and expand their businesses through digital channels, strategic partnerships, and investment in culture.
I asked what set his panelists’ programs apart. He responded, “Change agents are a particular breed. They identify whitespace and touchstones that will resonate with their community.”
This type of vision takes on particular meaning against the backdrop that our industry has historically created undue pressure by relying on a financial model that banks on 1-2 events delivering the vast majority of revenue for the year. There is an opportunity for a diverse diet of authentic interaction to open new revenue streams.
So, what actions do change agents take that others may not? David breaks it down.
“They look beyond their peers, or their members or even their attendees. They see their audiences in full – allowing them a bigger picture to identify where to create diverse and meaningful experiences that are sound financially and inclusive.”
Let’s dive into the examples shared at CEIR Predict and what made them such powerful examples of emerging business models and relevancy.
#1 Strategic Partnership
One of the most innovative collaborations of 2021 was the seminal partnership between Informa, Tarsus, and Clarion to relocate/co-locate their fashion events in Orlando, FL. “Retailers were closed during the pandemic, so we had to innovate to serve the industry,” shared Desiree Hanson, Executive Vice President, Clarion. “Historically, we were competitors, but it became about collaboration, a customer-first approach, a sense of unity, and an open mind to make it work.”
And it worked.
The Orlando Fashion partnership helped break the cycle of ‘postpone, postpone, cancel’ that had halted our industry. It was instrumental in demonstrating that events could be held safely during the pandemic while delivering a high return on investment to exhibitors. The event was also the first to use rapid testing. At the time, it was a pretty expensive undertaking, and yet it may still prove a model for safe events of the future. (You can read more about the partnership in our blog, “Re-building Confidence: Lessons from the Orlando Fashion Events.”)
#2 Digital Revolution
Nicole Hallada, SVP of Exhibitions and Marketing, Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), recognized the importance of understanding her audience when she began planning for AEM’s Connect 365 initiative.
Her process is textbook:
1. First, become an insight-driven organization.
2. Identify key areas where you can offer unique solutions valuable to your audience (AEM chose learning (engagement), community, and discovery.
3. Set, socialize and agree on the MVP (minimum viable product).
4. Be intentional about capabilities and capacity.
5. Communicate (and then communicate some more).
6. Collect data, and test scenarios (working with exhibitors).
7. Leverage and amplify.
During this process, Nicole has learned an essential tool for fostering productivity, clear roles and responsibilities, and a sense of appreciation, “You have to give people permission to say, ‘I don’t belong in this meeting.'” (If you’re like me, you just tried that one on for size and said it in the mirror. It felt good, right?)
#3 Investment in Culture
One theme that comes up repeatedly through this blog series is the expectation of ‘doing more with less.’ Corporate speak for fewer resources: people, dollars, and time. Just reading that can make you anxious.
The team at Maritz Global Events came into COVID with a people-first culture. When they realized the pandemic wouldn’t be over in days or even weeks, they knew to be deliberate and mindful of their people. Maritz developed a program that focused on culture and organizational health by looking at the whole person, not just their role as employee, exhibitor, or attendee.
Erin Dunstan, Managing Vice President of Sales, Maritz shared, “People perform well when they’re well cared for.”
Maritz created workgroups across functions that would meet monthly to set guideposts and guardrails to ensure they focused on the future and the impact on their people.
The team focused on five dimensions of well-being:
Erin made the point that well-being isn’t limited to our internal teams. External partners, customers, and attendees have all experienced disruption to their personal and professional lives and prefer options that feel good to them. Would they choose a walk, run, or self-defense class over a heavy networking event? (and it’s okay to ask them.)
How would your programming change if you looked through this lens?
Here, David reminds me that this is also a perfect opportunity to rethink your venue with the needs of your audience in mind. That we can challenge the notion of ‘space.’
While I still had David, I asked for a few parting words. He left me with these.
1. Embrace change. Look for white space, and set a vision and a road map.
2. Work on it today – not tomorrow. Build-in capacity to do more, better.
3. De-prioritize. (We try to do too much.)
4. Listen, listen, listen.
The complete list of takeaways from the session was extensive. Perhaps thought-starters for your next team meeting. (Maybe send the top half to the People & Culture department. ;))
Our People & Culture
- As physical shows come back, we can’t put more work on people. Look at all parts of the business and where to outsource.
- Who are the rising stars? Give them a platform or opportunities to get involved.
- There is a need to innovate quickly. People may be uncomfortable with innovation and new skills that may be required. We have to meet people where they are and be flexible. How can you ensure they are prepared and supported and articulate what kind of tech staff is needed to move into the future.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is important during rebuilding.
- Grant people permission to say, “I don’t belong in this meeting.”
- Be intentional about leadership. Honor the past, but let it go.
Best Practices: Insights, Focus & Experimentation
- Look deeper at audience data and how they engage (platforms). Ask, ‘is that creating future loyalty?’
- Organizations need to simplify. Know who you are and what you do. Ask – ‘what do our clients need from us today?’
- Adapt a test and learn mentality – trade shows aren’t used to that. Staff should feel safe to experiment and to learn.
- Be intentional about capabilities and capacity; socialize the team; become an insights-driven organization.
- For collaboration to work, it needs to be a customer-first approach, creating a sense of unity and open-mindedness
- To better serve your clients, have a task force of key stakeholders. Continue learning what other events are doing (and consider it a success when others in the industry use your vernacular.)
- Peloton created micro-communities. Who are your micro-audiences?
- Deepen loyalty programs and create unique exclusive experiences.
In closing, we thought we could take a page from Erin’s comment to ‘look at the whole person, not just their role’ and so we asked David Saef for a list of his favorite books.
- The Pyramid Principle – Barbara Minto
- The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein
- One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
The human connection.
See you next week.