What happens when your business merges and your conference grows 4x larger? Emma Bica, Event Marketing Manager for PeopleNet/Trimble talks us through her company’s event growth and how to work collaboratively with a new parent company.
Tell us about you and your background.
To set the stage I have worked PeopleNet/Trimble for 8 1/2 years. I was hired on as an intern when I was still in college and they had a marketing team of 2. They had a conference coming up for the customers that they were going to need help with, one was going to be out on maternity leave. I jumped in and saw part of the benefit of being an intern was getting to go to the Boca Raton Resort in Boca Raton. I started doing that and long story short, I’m still there, they haven’t gotten rid of me. Really grown threw my career, it’s been exciting to see things change. Our department is now 6 people.
I focus on trade shows and events. We attend in some form or fashion 80-90 trade shows a year. Were in the trucking industry, its heavily trade show oriented. I also manage our social media and do my organizational ninja data spreadsheet organization as well.
Can you give us a quick summary for what PeopleNet/Trimble does?
It is in the trucking space. We create the on board technology that goes inside the trucking plate. As you’re going down the road and you see the semi’s going by you, tip your hat to them. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for this industry. It’s one that’s super easy to take for granted. We help to make their job easier and their businesses to run more efficiently.
Without this industry we wouldn’t have the clothes on our back it’s so easy to take for granted.
Yeah there are all these statistics that if all the truckers stopped for a day, the pharmacies wouldn’t get the medicine, hospitals wouldn’t have what they needed, there wouldn’t be milk at the grocery stores, or gas at the gas station. It’s one of those that is super easy to take for granted but we needed. They are working hard and there is a shortage because it’s’ a tough job to do.
Tell us about the event you had and the progression of it.
When I first started the user conference was about 400 people. It’s always been an annual user conference it’s really geared towards our customers. Heavy on education about our products and services as well as the industry as a whole. Having an expo hall for our partners and sponsors to be able too showcase what they can do for our customers, and our employees are there and available in one spot.
If we rewind to about 9 years ago to the first one I was involved with, in Boca Raton FL. We had about 420 people it was super exciting and super stressful. My boss and I did everything from bringing the projector into the room every morning and making sure they were set up, switching the signs in-between sessions everyday. Every little thing, we made sure it happened, we coordinated transportation for all our attendees.
It’s really grown and evolved over time, to skip over what I’m sure we will go over, we just finished an annual user conference it’s called The Insight User Conference, it’s with a sister company. There were 2200 people there. It’s a few more people involved. We have an event managing team that helps us do a lot of the work. I like to say we’ve grown up a bit, but it’s crazy to think about where we’ve come to where we are to where we’re going to go in the future.
Tell me more about the conference itself.
It’s about 3 days long, start on a Sunday evening and end on a Wednesday afternoon. We have over 350 educational sessions during that time. We have an expo hall with over 70 of our vendors to chat with our customers. We have what we call an insight lab a hands on place for our customers to dig into the software service and employees there to make sure its being used to the best of their ability. We also have a lot of fun.
Who’s attending your event?
It’s customers, its a really customer focused event. We want to bring them all together to have a lot of education on what is new, what the products and services we offer and we’ve been focusing on the industry. We have a lot of industry experts to talk about overall the transportation industry whats new, what’s coming up, what do they need to be aware of, tips and tricks, and best practices. We are getting more into business best practices. Things that don’t only apply to people in our industry. We are trying to expand our educational repertoire. We are going for a more holistic approach.
To people buy their own tickets, how does it work?
It’s a registration fee that covers food, beverage, and evening entertainment, as well as all the education, access to the expo hall. They just have to pay to get themselves their and their hotel and we cover the rest.
Tell us more about when you merged these events together.
Three years about in 2016. Leadership said it would be best. There’s some efficiencies you see, we were serving similar audiences. We were a month apart. When you look at it from a more logistical financial side it looked like it made sense for us to take these two conferences that were similar in nature and combine them into one to create a more powerful joint conference.
The planning began about a year and half before the conference started. In general these conferences are complex a lot of detail to put together. But now you have two planning teams who each had their own way of doing things. We’re located in two different offices, who’s best practices are you going to follow?
We couldn’t have done it without google drive. Our company had just migrated to google from outlook. I don’t know how we could have managed a budget and all these things without it.
How did you put the two together?
It’s been an evolution, and change is hard for anyone. We came up with messaging for our customers letting them know we were bringing these two conferences together and really focusing on the value that was going to bring them by not having to spend time out of the office two months in a row they could invest in sending more people there. They were going to have that value add of having one conference they could go to.
Did you have to change the cost of registration?
We did. We did some analysis and setting some bench marks. We were in similar places on somethings and some things we were a little off. The very first step to do if you are combining conferences is to do a state of the union. Where are you at? What are you charging for registration? Demographics? Content? Etc.
It’s got to be difficult.
It’s a learning process and communication is key. We had one way of doing it and they had a way of doing it and neither is right or wrong but their are different. How can you work together to find a new way to do it? Thats what we focused on, lets create something new. We’re not trying to make your conference better or our conference better but we’re trying to create something new and keeping the focus on the customer.
I always tried to think of the customer. Who is the end user of this conference? And whatever decision we make is to service them and what ever is in their best interest.
Did you have to go to your leadership because things weren’t turning out?
One of the things we learned, is there weren’t as many efficiencies that were long term generated. In the first year there were some created taking two conferences and combining them into one. What we’ve seen as we’ve gone, we have it as our user conference so we don’t have competition there. With 2 companies there are more companies as potential competitors which lessons our sponsorship revenue possibilities. That’s one of the big ways we are able to put on our conference is by sponsorship revenue that was something we saw as increasing or staying the same, but that’s been opposite of the case. From a budget standpoint we’ve been decreasing the amount of sponsorship revenue due to competitive concerns.
What is your strategy for the content during the breakouts?
Right now we’re really focusing on having the folks at the event to gain that content. I know being able to live stream during the conference or people to sign up for web versions is popular. To be candid it makes me a little nervous. We are dipping our toe in the water of picking some sessions that may serve a mass audience because we understand our customer is busy for them to take time out of their schedule, we do want to serve them. Right now we really focus on at the conference is where the content is. We do send it out as PDF forms of our presentations for our customers to have available for a month after. Also that content could get stale we don’t want it out there forever and ever.
Do you ever use celebrity power?
We have a handsome budget. The things that are super expensive have not been in our reach. But we figure out where we want to invest that money, maybe in a key note speaker. We try to have it with a purpose, we have a theme in our conference. You want someone who fits with that. Obviously big names are going to be a draw, people are going to be attracted to that. We don’t want to have someone random where our attendees are saying this person is cool but I don’t understand how it fits.
One of the things we focus on when looking for a keynote it doesn’t have to be someone who knows our industry. People don’t like when someone pretends they get what they do we’ve had speakers do that. It come’s across in an unsettling way. We want to know where you have come from. We want someone who is a master in their area. If they do that well enough our audience can pick the pieces that matter and how it can apply to them.
What other things for the event planners thinking of combining conferences?
We do not make any money off of our conferences. Never meant to be a revenue generating event. We charge a registration fee to only cover the cost. That is one important thing we were both on the same page about. The integrity of the event, this is for customers, we want to have a quality event but this is not a revenue stream for us. So what we are charging is just to cover the cost of food and entertainment and hopefully the rest can be covered by our sponsor revenue.
If you could give our audience a little bit of advice what would it be?
Embrace your inner organizational ninja and document and have data for things. As much as I love the emotional side of events things can’t continue or change if you don’t have any data to support. Decisions needing to be made need data, if you are going to present it to leadership or colleagues all they are going to see is you had a nice party the party went well. To help get some meat behind you do is to have the data behind you it will serve you well and help you to grow and see where you have grown.
The second piece of advice is being able to when you get to show time, let go and try to deal with things as they come. You prepare for months or years to get to show start and when you get there you don’t have time to make a decision in that moment you can’t put it off or send an email. You need to make a decision and move forward.
Meeting Minds By EideCom