Archive : November 2010

“Ladies and gentlemen, the recession has left the building.”

Posted November 25, 2010

At the risk of sounding insensitive to those people still out of work and/or struggling to keep their businesses afloat, the event industry is clearly no longer in recession.  (I just knocked my wooden desk for all you superstitious folks who think I just jinxed it).

Everyone is crazy-busy right now.  And I mean everyone.  Literally, I kid you not, every single person I’ve spoken to in the last week can’t seem to catch their breath.  People are jamming in every facet of our industry: corporate, social, non-profit . . . you name it.

Daniele Menache, Global Head of Event Marketing for Alliance Bernstein, is swamped. “You want a quote?  My quote is I’m too busy to give you a quote! 🙂 Seriously, between the actual work of booking conferences and all the year-end performance review for staff and 360, and holiday parties, I’m in the office for most of my 24 hrs!”

Mark Shearon

Mark Shearon, Executive VP of TBA Global, is reporting their best year ever.  On top of mega events for Walmart, Samsung, and T.Mobile, they were just named agency of record for one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Cheryl Kahn Bracco, Director of Catering for the Glazier Group, owners of a dozen different restaurants and banquet venues, says she is the busiest she’s been since 2007. First Protocol reports that their London office is jamming, while their NY office just landed a huge new client.  They too are working in overdrive.

Andrea Figman, former senior planner at American Express and now proprietor of her own firm Andrea Figman & Company, is  “extremely busy these days.  Some budgets seem to be opening up, and, where they are not, companies get creative by partnering with suppliers for funding or having some of their events sponsored.”

Morgan Connacher

Morgan Connacher of Fourth Wall Events says, “we had the busiest October on record.  Programs for several hundredpeople and several thousand people that all seem to have incredibly short lead times. RFPs for large and small programs flooded in our doors.  I’m cautiously optimistic.  Even with budgets coming back, the bottom line is still a huge concern.”

Welcome to capitalism.  Two and a half years ago came the train wreck, and event activity ground to a virtual halt.  Seemingly overnight, event-spend slipped out the back door while no one was looking, and into town rode the forces of the free market.

Suddenly, we had a lot less demand for event services, and way too much supply of planners and vendors.  Economics 101: either we find a way to goose demand back up, or a lot of excess supply has to be squeezed out of the marketplace.  And since our industry didn’t exactly get a chunk of the federal stimulus money (do we need a better Lobby in Washington or what?), it was the supply that had to go.

Fast forward to today, where the spigot for event spending has been slowly but steadily opening up again.  However, with many in-house planning departments now 1/3 or even ½ their previous size, and with agencies and vendors having trimmed down too, the demand is now outstripping supply.  And for the time being, people are not filling the gap with permanent hires, they’re just working harder, so everyone is busy and the freelance market is booming.

So we’re all very busy, but not necessarily very profitable.  (And if you confuse the two, you do so at your own peril.)  Why?

Right now, hiring, salaries, and fees have not increased much, but they will.  The longer this “boomlet” runs, the greater everyone’s confidence will be to raise their planning fees, and hire more staff.  Until then, enjoy the mad scramble to keep up with the work flow; we’ve come a long way from the thumb-twiddling idleness of two years ago.

The Un-Conference: Participant-Driven Agenda + Mashup Networking = Relationship Building on Steroids

Posted November 15, 2010

“What’s this conference about again?” my wife asks me, as I pack my suitcase getting ready to head to Event Camp East Coast (ECEC).

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what are the topics that’ll be covered?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who are the speakers?”

“I don’t know”.

“Okaaaaay.  Can you at least tell me what format it is?  Workshops?  Seminars? Panels?

“I don’t know.”

She then gives me that look.  “I’m not having an affair, honey,” I reply.  But of course it sure sounds like it.  “It’s this new thing, an UnConference.  This guy wrote a whole book on it.” I show her the ECEC website for good measure, but I’m sure some part of her still has doubts.  I make a mental note to be sure to bring home my name tag for proof (I have collected them for 20 years now) but am really nervous this UnConference thing won’t have them.

So there you have it.  I drove to Philadelphia for a two day conference without having any idea what the topics would be, who would be speaking, and what the format would be.  Oh, and I also paid for this privilege.

Before you try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, I should tell you that, it was one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had.  Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Event Camp is an ongoing series of conferences held around the country, with very few ground rules.  Each one is organized by different people, with a different focus and style.  This one, Event Camp East Coast, was designed to showcase the UnConference format developed by Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work. It was well-organized (in their volunteer time – thanks ladies!) by non-profit event consultant Lindsey Rosenthal of Events For Good, and trade show expert Traci Browne of the Trade Show Institute.

1. What’s Your Name?  Who’s Your Daddy?

It starts out with an interactive registration.  The check-in table is inside a networking area, so after you get your credentials you immediately start meeting new people.

Everyone (all 40 of us) then migrate to the Roundtable session, which is a bit of a misnomer because there was no table.  We all sit around the room on chairs, and are briefed on the 4 Freedoms, and similar jargon to make sure everyone feels “safe” to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as it stays in the room.  At this point I’m starting to feel a bit like I’m in a cult, or some kind of EST training session from the 70’s.  I envision trust exercises where I fall backwards into a group of people I’ve never met, talking about my mother, and lots of hugging.

My fears quickly fade away, however, as we’re all instructed to jot down how we got here, what we want to get out of this conference, and what specific experience or expertise we have that others might benefit from.  We go around the room, and each person says their spiel, prefacing their remarks by telling the group what they do for a living.

The process takes a couple of hours, but it’s extraordinarily valuable.  The ‘group therapy’ environment initially seems a bit goofy, but it’s literally an express elevator for everyone to get to know each other.  Two volunteer scribes jot down people’s answers on white board pages, which are posted around the room.

2. The Tribe Has Spoken

We then break for an hour, and then head over to a dinner reception, where those same white board sheets now paper the walls.  After everyone’s had time to relax, eat, drink and mingle, a ton of worksheets are placed on a central table.  Adrian instructs us all to write down any topic for a peer session (which will be held the next day) that we’d like to see.  A little later on we all revisit these sheets and sign up for anything that looks interesting, ranking our interest levels from 1 to 3.  If we feel we can serve as a Facilitator or Expert on a topic we indicate such.

Adrian and his swat team then whisk the sheets away into a room, where they evaluate which sessions have the most, and strongest, interest, weeding out overlapping topics and those without bona fide leaders. And poof!  We have an agenda!  The schedule of topics and facilitators is posted in the morning, and, over the course of the day we have four one-hour time slots, each with 3-4 sessions to choose from.

3. Let the Learning Begin

Some sessions were more workshop-oriented, with everyone contributing ideas in a free-flowing manner, while others had stronger facilitators who clearly drove the subject matter in a more structured format.  Regardless, the key tenet of the day was that the attendees were all 100% engaged in every session.  The reason is clearly that everyone felt a huge sense of ownership because they themselves drove the topic content.  It’s a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum, but it works.

Much will be made by others of the fact that there was no Powerpoint, or other trappings of traditional conferences, but don’t drink that Kool Aid.  That is utterly irrelevant and is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. One of the better classes I attended was given by Carolyn Ray on Conflict Management, in part because she had a ton of content to dish out and she knew her stuff.  She could have had Powerpoint and nobody would have said boo.  Equally effective was a Social Media 101 class by Jay Daughtry of ChatterBachs and Jenise Fryatt of Icon Presentations, where the structure was different, and people literally asked a non-stop barrage of “How do you . . . ?” questions.  So the format has no bearing on the experience.

The day ends with everyone returning to roundtable format where we’re all guided on filling out worksheets detailing the action steps we’re going take after the conference to act on what we’ve learned, followed by a group debrief of what worked at the UnConference and what should be changed.

4.     The Trojan Horse: Why it Works (It’s Not the Reason You Think)

The biggest benefit of this UnConference is the relationship-forming on steroids.  Across the board, everyone agreed we formed more connections, and stronger ones, at this 40 person conference than we would have at a 2,000 person industry expo.  So clearly, size matters, but in reverse.

This format is clearly not for everyone, and there’s a bit too much kumbaya-love-your-brother stuff for most people.  But it definitely works in a way you would never imagine.  The biggest question nagging at me was why.

On the surface it seems to work because of the whole Participant-Driven agenda thing, and there is certainly much to be said of that.  However, you could just as easily have the participants create the agenda online in advance, but the networking would be considerably diminished.  Ultimately, I think the idea of the attendees choosing the content takes a back seat to the following two dynamics, in terms of why this event was so successful.

a)    Group Immersion. In analyzing this experience, I feel that it was the whole group being together for the Roundtable, and then the course selection process over dinner, that was the ultimate driver of the relationship-building process.  We could just as easily had the group Roundtable (where we get to know each other) lay the groundwork for the networking at dinner, and we would have formed equally strong bonds, even if the agenda had been pre-set the next day for us.

Contrast this to a typical conference, where people simply are not forced into a networking mash-up like this, and its no wonder they don’t form as strong connections.  It was literally impossible for anyone to fall through the cracks; everyone got immediately swept up into the flow of the event and was steadily woven into the fabric of group experience.

b)   The Twitter Effect.  For this group in particular, the majority had long formed bonds online through the EventProfs chats on Twitter, but had never met.  Though this is not a requirement for success, in this instance there’s no question that it significantly amplified the Group Immersion effect above.

Across the board everyone had an amazing experience.  However if we are to recommend this conference format to our clients or bosses, we need to understand the key ingredients needed for success, and make sure we don’t tinker with the formula that Adrian has been perfecting over the years.

“Beware the Daring of A Cautious Man”: The danger of a half-hearted RFP response.

Posted November 8, 2010

You’re sitting at your desk staring at an RFP you just received for a nice big job.  It’s big bucks if you get it, and a high profile client to boot.  The kind of event you sit around hoping lands on your desk.

You’re so excited that after scanning the RFP you call the client up to thank them for the opportunity, and to ask the usual qualifying questions.  The answers wipe the smile off your face pretty fast.

“How many other event companies have you sent this to?”
“I see you’ve done this event before.  Is the incumbent firm being asked to bid?”

“If you don’t mind me asking, were you happy with their work?”

“Yes, very happy.”
“Why are you seeking so many other bids then?”

“We want to see what other ideas are out there.”

Not exactly the greatest signs.  You furrow your brow in frustration and briefly try to use your special powers to make the client’s head explode through the phone line, then politely thank them for the opportunity again and tell them you can’t wait to show them what you’ve got.

Yes, of course it’s not professional to ask twelve companies to create detailed proposals, but that’s a whole other discussion, and at the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to bid.  Do you have a chance to win the business?  Yes, but with an incumbent agency in the picture, it’s not great.

Now, there’s two types of “not great” situations like this.  The first is where the client is forced by their Procurement Dept. to bid the work out.  Generally, they have every intention of re-hiring the incumbent vendor, but need to satisfy their internal process.  In this case, they normally don’t get more than 3 of 4 bids.   They want to get the minimum number needed to satisfy procurement.

The second situation is the one described at the beginning of this post, where a client really does want to see what else is out there.  That’s why they’ve bid it out to so many people, which is really annoying.  On the flip side, you can bet they will look at your proposal.

So what do you do?  You can either acknowledge the time commitment in creating a winning proposal, factor in the long odds of winning it, and pass.  Or you can roll the dice, show them your best, and keep your fingers crossed.

The one thing I encourage you NOT to do is phone it in with a quick proposal that’s not your best work.  In the twenty years I ran

NY Times Columnist William Safire

my event company, I often had account executives want to do this, saying, “I’ll just throw a quick proposal together.  Don’t worry, I won’t spend too much time on it.”  To which I usually responded, “if we bid, we bid to win.  Otherwise forget it.”

‘Go big or go home’ is another expression that conveys this principle.  But perhaps my favorite is ‘Beware the daring of a cautious man,’ by former New York Times columnist William Safire.  He wrote this after the failed attempt during the Carter presidency to rescue the hostages in Iran.  (Yes, I am that old and I did read the newspaper in high school.  Sometimes.)  Apparently Carter sent in a small team of helicopters, and when two of them had mechanical trouble the whole mission had to abort.

I don’t know why, but that quote has always stuck with me.  What I take away from it is that it’s ok to be daring, and it’s ok to be cautious, but you don’t want to be cautiously daring.

In this case, there are worse things than actually not getting the job.  If you do a half-assed proposal, you probably won’t get the job, AND the client will be so under-whelmed by your work they will not ask you to bid on future projects where the odds are better.  Worse still, they will spread their mediocre opinion of your company among their friends and colleagues when asked.

Far better to politely pass on the opportunity.  Say you don’t bid under these circumstance, or say you’re simply too busy.  Or pull out all the stops and go for it.  Yes, the odds are against you, but if you wow them they’re far more likely to use you in the future, and they will spread a very positive word about you.