This week we welcome Sunita Devi, the Director of Events and Operations at NYU! We start by looking at the way events have changed in the past year, from fundraising to event operations. Later, we dive into tracking event ROI, how to implement post-event feedback, and making sure you pick the best vendor for your company. This episode is all about learning to succeed, you won’t want to miss it!
This week on Meeting Minds we welcome Storey Pryor, the former Senior Director of Global Events at Isagenix, and now an independent event planning consultant. We discuss curating event culture, building touch points for your audience, and discover ways you can optimize your next event for a fantastic audience experience. You don’t want to miss this fabulous episode!
Sometimes there are so many opinions on what you should do content wise. How do you be the gatekeepers and protect your content? We sit down this week with Rachel and Coley of Blue Cross Blue Shield to talk through how they have done this!
Tell us about your methodology and your mindset for developing a theme and tying that into your content.
Rachel: A big piece of it for us is feedback from previous events that we’ve done throughout the year prior. A big piece of what we do is tie in what our customers want to hear. I mean, they come to our events because they want to get “X” piece away from it, but we also need to really integrate that with what our business partners want to tell them. They want to hear “X” thing but our clients want to tell them “Y” thing – how do we do both to really appease both parties, while really staying current in the industry and making sure that we’re looking at what our competitors do and making sure that we’re giving a cohesive message that we want to give throughout the year. But we also need to match or exceed what others in the industry are doing as well so that we’re giving our clients and our customers what they need.
You’re controlling messaging right?
Rachel: Yea, our team is very unique in that we are a small knit events team and our customers for our team are our internal business partners. But our team is really looked at as the subject matter experts… Our events team really develops what the content and the theme is going to be. We’ll sit down as a team and brainstorm together and we’ll come up with our top two choices. We’ll build out a full story line for that and then we present it to our business partners and say “what do you think of these?” And they’ll either say “well love this one over this one”, or for this year they said “we like 50% of this one and 50% of this one, can we see you mesh them together?” So then it became a really unique theme that we weren’t even thinking about to begin with.
You are subject matter experts internally, How do you do that?
Coley: I actually started at Blue Cross in August of this past year and before that I had been at third party event planning companies for the last 10 years. So developing content is something that’s completely new and foreign to me; something I’ve never had to do in the past because all of our clients were outside agencies that were hiring us to do a job. So I can do a food and beverage, AV, all of those things with my eyes closed, but content planning is something that is super new to me. So Rachel is actually our content matter expert for the events team. She has really great ideas and it’s really interesting to watch how her mind works and the things that she learns, listens to, and seeks out for information. Then she talks about it with our team and myself and the other people on our team volley back and forth to say “maybe there’s a hole here?” or “this isn’t fleshed out all the way”. There are things that we would suggest but the majority of the content build is actually comes from Rachel.
Rachel, you’re the guru? Tell us about that – how do you do it?
Rachel: You know, it’s funny that you say that… It was not a part of my job description, it was not what I signed up for, but I just started taking it because it’s so interesting to me. We had a meeting this morning and I was like 5 minutes late because I was sitting in my car like “I have this brain child!!” and if I don’t write it down it’ll be gone in the next 45 seconds because, you know, motherhood life. For me, I kind of listen to what the expectation of our business partners is.
How do you decide on an outside keynote ?
Rachel: It’s so funny that you say that because I was doing that this morning. We wanted a specific keynote and we wanted to develop this content for this keynote for an upcoming event from the ground up. And this person doesn’t speak on this topic but, inadvertently, they’re an expert in it because they do it all the time – innovation and how to be an innovator in an organization that’s so deep rooted in contextual history but also such a fast moving environment. A really, really cool topic that’s super appropriate and relevant to the rest of our conference theme, but I was like “oh my gosh, how are we going to convince the CEO of a top company to speak on this? I’m going to have to develop this to make sure it doesn’t flop!” And then I was just kind of buzzing around LinkedIn and I found a podcast that featured a person that was speaking on this exact topic. And I was like “Woah! We gotta have him!”. So you just keep your ears open, you keep listening, and I think a big thing about what makes our team successful is were not afraid to ask the questions. We’re not afraid to present to leadership or the business partners, challenging them to keep things in line with what we’re saying.
Coley: And they appreciate it. They want to make sure that when we do these events we’re not having cross messaging or conflicting messaging in the way that you present it. Going back to the keynotes, our team also tries to go to conferences that are put on in the area that have relevant topics so that we can look. So even if it’s not a known keynote, but they’re a local CEO, that has a platform at a local conference, and we think their messaging is great and meets what we’re trying to put on at our conference. That can help us segue into developing that kind of content for us as well.
How do you decide what will be industry or company specific stage time versus personal development stage time?
Coley: I think it depends on what conference we’re doing. If we’re looking at company messages, we have that kind of across the board at all of our events, it’ just depends on how much time and energy we’re spending on it based on whether or not we have clients there, whether or not we have a Q&A set up, whether or not there are agents there. The people who sell our insurance want to hear something completely different than the customers who are buying our insurance. And so what that looks like is that we try to highlight a lot of our point solutions that we have as an organization.
How much of the speakers’ content to do work with them on tailoring to your audience?
Rachel: So, I think that a huge piece of that is when you listen to something that they’ve already presented on before or content they’ve already developed, we obviously want to make sure none of it is contradicting the messaging we say the rest of the day. So it’s just becoming almost a subject matter expert in any of the keynote areas. I would say that’s probably the biggest piece we tailor. Just to make sure it’s not contradicting anything that we’re saying throughout the rest of the day.
Have you ever been in the audience or booked a speaker where they didn’t deliver what they thought you were going to?
Coley: Yes. Or if you ask someone to come and speak – even like a comedian – and you ask them to keep it either business relevant or to keep it PG, and then they throw out a couple of f-bombs and in the back you’re sweating and hoping people don’t come for you afterwards. Or when they have a script and then they go off script and you’re like “this is not what we discussed!”. So then you have to throw things up on their confidence monitors like “shut it down, bring it back!”. I think for me the biggest thing is if there’s ever a Q&A. We try hard to vet what the questions are going to be as best as we can and ask people to submit them so that then we know that the response is going to be appropriate and that the question is going to be appropriate. We don’t ever want someone to stand up and ask something that would make any of our guests or internal executives feel like they’re put on the spot to answer something that they’re not comfortable with or prepared to disclose.
Rachel: It absolutely mitigates the amount of risk that you have. We want to make sure that we’ve eliminated as much of that as possible. At the end of the day, sometimes during an event, you have to throw your hands up and just say “Jesus take the wheel, let’s go!”
Have you ever been in the position where certain people want to speak or have stage time but maybe it’s more about them being seen on stage than content they actually have to deliver to the audience?
Rachel: So I know exactly what you’re asking and I have kind of a different answer for you, if you’re up for it. I think if we plan content we identify that everybody is such an advocate for the message they want to share. So as we’re looking at our senior leaders to develop content, everyone wants a piece of that pie – rightfully so, that’s your job, to advocate for your program or your product or your message. So I think that’s a huge piece of what we do is we help to kind of filter that out and make sure that – you know that’s really interesting and how would we include it here. So similar to what you’re asking – less of people wanting to get their place on stage and more of people want to get their message out.
Coley: and I also think it depends on which event we’re doing. Some people find what they’re doing to be the most important. And it can’t always be the most important. While it is important, it’s maybe not important or applicable to the messaging we’re trying to get across. I’m pretty direct. I try to make sure we’re prioritizing the message – I always tell my team I’m happy to be the bad guy, in a way that, if we need to tell an executive no, I’m happy to be that person to not put anybody in that position. But then we need to have the “if’s, ands, whys, buts” behind it to make sure that they have an understanding and it always comes around… We have our opinions and we share them, but they’re not the end-all-be-all. So while we help develop the content, there’s still a rank ahead of us. So if we were to tell somebody that we don’t think it’s applicable and they really feel like it’s applicable and there’s the correct buy-in for it and we, at that point just say, OK great, we’ll do as we’re told and we’ll fall in line and we’ll make sure that’s what happens. We can build from there.
Rachel: I think it’s about compromise, too. And Coley you’re really good at this with a lot of our business partners, like “That doesn’t fit in here, but here’s where we could feature it.” So I think it’s giving respect that they are advocating for what they believe in and if it’s something that’s very important to them, where can we fit it in to make sense.
Coley: Our team really tries to have it be more of a collaboration atmosphere. So we bring the initial discussion and ideas to the table, and then as a group with our core business partner team we try to really flesh it out together. And they have no problem challenging us on things and we have no problem challenging them. So I think that that is kind of something that’s unique to how we work in our organization, because I’ve never been a part of something that is a volley back and forth to try to come to a compromise in such a unique way.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds
On this episode we bring in industry veteran Wendy Porter! She shares with us ways she has created experiences with guests that matter!
Tell us about you.
So actually I fell into it like a lot of people do, I actually started marketing worked for Fingerhut, for 12 years. Then moved over to a publishing company was working with them, doing some expansion into the UK and some different cool projects with them. Then I got headhunted by United healthcare and they brought me in to do acquisition marketing for them. My first year they handed me this event and they said, your turn, you’re going to do it. It was a trade show, for a partner of United. We were the platinum sponsor of that event. So I just sort of figured that all out.
I’ve got a gigantic folder from an admin who had done it the prior year, just had to sit down and sort of sift through the paperwork and figure it out. So started putting that all together and you know, looked at the boots and the first time I saw the booth I said, yep, we’re not doing that. So you got a new booth going. So started to develop those relationships with booth people and creative people and vendors that are involved in an event.Our first year, our trade show booth was 1200 square feet, so not super big. I ended up keeping that project. The plan was I was going to have it for two years. I would have an assistant that would be assisting me and then it would roll off over to her. Well that didn’t end up working out.
When we tried to do the handoff, it didn’t go so well. So they brought it back and created a position for me, created a director of marketing and events position. I had the trade show and then they started adding more.
So at this point where you like hiring people?
Yeah, I had a team at the height of four employees and two contractors and then myself. The sponsorship booth I talked about at the beginning, 1200 square feet when we first started, at its height, it was 13,000 square feet, 80 foot semi trailer in it that looked tiny. 130 staff, including 30 executives and I was wrangling for three days of the show and after hours, VIP events and all of that.
So you’re wrangling creative and vendors, and more…
It was an eight month planning cycle for that show alone. It was a three day show. Took us three days to build it. Right. And then a day basically to tear it down.
Did you redesign it every year?
So we would actually parts of it. Every year there’d be new piece, parts that we would want to include based on the business and what was happening and the new products we were introducing. We would sit down every year with the designers, there were some fundamental pieces that stayed the same from year to year.
What brought you to here now?
In October of 2015 United had a downsizing event, so unfortunately our positions were eliminated. ARP got a new CEO and she decided not to prioritize that event anymore. So that disappeared and some other things had changes in the business, so they let the events team go at that point. Very disappointing and difficult, but I knew right away that I was going to start my own company. I knew
instantly when this happened my next step is to start my own company. My old boss, who was the chief marketing officer of the company had called me that afternoon to check on me, he wanted to help me figure this all out. So I walked in his office and we sat down and he said, what are you thinking? I said, I think I’m starting my own company. And he sat back and he said, all right, I like that. I think you can do this. So it changed his perspective on who he was going to connect me to.He’s been a great supporter all the way through.
Tell us about what are you doing now?
I started Wendy Porter events. I got laid off mid October, by November I had Wendy Porter events up and running. Ironically one of my biggest clients was United healthcare. Six months later I was back doing stuff for them, and they continued to be a nice customer. Organically is a lot of leaders that have left United, they know me, they know my work. I’ve been able to support a lot of those leaders that are at other companies now.
Tell me about this Bold thing.
Right after I left United I was doing a lot of networking and sat down with somebody who was new to my network, and she happens to be a Minnesota outdoors expert. We started brainstorming. How can we take your expertise and my expertise and marry them given that the Superbowl was coming? This was a little over a year and a half maybe before the Superbowl, when we started brainstorming this. So the idea was, how can we find cool facilities where we can host business meetings and then get outside and experience the great Minnesota outdoors and have team building experiences outside. How can we marry those two things together?
We started doing research, what were the different facilities in the twin cities that we could host meetings at, the different size ranges that we could host? What would couple with that that we could get outside. Each location had a different outdoor element to it. I put that all together, worked with my graphic designer, created a package, then I started shopping around. I was going out to the different sponsors that were coming to town, so thinking the Nike’s of the world, Gatorades. I had that list and worked my network to help me figure out, okay, who do you know that’s inside? What ultimately ended up happening was the host committee ended up learning about what I was doing and they really liked it.
I went downtown, met with the host committee they actually pulled it underneath their brand, so they rebranded it bold North. I did use the word bold intentionally, but I defined it as brilliant outdoor learning destination, so it can live beyond Superbowl.They took it underneath their brand. So then it became Bold North Excursions and Meetings by Wendy Porter Events, and they marketed it. They were then marketing it directly to the sponsors, the 32 NFL clubs in town. They were marketing on my behalf. So that was good and bad in that I lost control of that part of it.
What are your pet peeves?
I think one of the biggest things is just people not really understanding our value. I think that’s a big challenge. Everything’s just done right, and people don’t take a step back and really look at it and go, okay, when we started, this was a concrete floor. There was nothing here, we had to build the whole thing and the process to do that. I just don’t think there’s a lot of respect or understanding for what goes into creating a really good event. If it’s perfect, then that means someone spent a lot of time working through all the details and making it perfect and that doesn’t just happen.There’s fires all the time and you’re back there dealing with it and figuring it out and nobody’s the wiser that that’s even happened.
What do you think is the best way for someone to get experience? Where they can go, “I want to humble myself and I want to just learn?”
Apprentice get internships, get in there at that entry level events level if you can and start learning cause you get to learn by doing. Everybody has to be in that gopher role at some point to really learn it. The other thing I tell young folks is, MPI and some of the other associations are really valuable for younger people.
Advice for newbies.
I think it gets back to doing apprenticeships and things like that. Getting involved with people, volunteering.
What kind of mantra do you repeat to yourself over and over again?
This too shall pass. And I have had plenty of those experiences. I mean I could sit here all day and tell you guys things that have happened over the years and you do have to keep your cool cause stuff happens. It just does. You have to be ready for it.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds
Have you ever thought to add a comedic flair to your event? After listening, you may consider adding someone like Scott Bloom who can contextualize jokes for your audience!
How did you get into the events world?
Well, I remember specific story when I was in second grade it was at camp, I remember a kid, actually turning to me going, you know, you’re really funny. I have kids now and they went through the ages, and you can tell when someone’s funny, even at a young age. Most comedians use it as some way when they’re growing up to sort of defuse things or select things. So I started off early. Always been a fan of comedy. I started improv group in college. I didn’t know what I was doing. I saw Second city tour and I’m like, I’d like to do that. I started hosting cabaret nights and I got an improv group together that we founded, and then went to New York City. My trajectory, I was supposed to work for my dad and be a businessman and do sales and was doing that during the summers in college, then I had to at some point, say to him, I think I want to become a comedian and actor.I did the open mikes. I started stand up when it was really booming in the late eighties early nineties, developed a standup career, started touring as a headliner. I started doing a little TV, and at one point they needed a comedian to host an actual game show at an event, and they thought, Oh, a comedian would be good on his feet and be able to ad lib. After that 1st one, the event world kind of works like that. Everyone started building me as the expert in hosting game shows, I had only done one, but I built my own press and so I started writing and developing producing these game shows and hosting him. I moved into just hosting full on meetings and because my business background it was sort of natural fit. My my humor was always sort of clean, and I realized the key to doing humor at these meetings was to make the the material about them and make it business oriented. So most my comedy sort of parodies stuff that in their world,
Let’s talk about the use of comedy in the corporate theater environment and, how do you go about crafting that?
For the first probably 20 years of doing this, I don’t think I ever used the word comedian. I rarely do now I refer to myself as a comedic keynote speaker. Humor seems to flow better in that world than the word comedy, because people have impressions that it’s gonna be like a standup club. The humor that developed for this sort of relates to things they deal with every day. I might do a bit on the excessive use of acronyms, where they use all these different acronyms. I have a funny piece about that where I go into a litany and part of my work and something that separates me from others is that people talk about customizing their their stuff, and that usually means just dropping in a phrase. But I’ll memorize 25 or 30 of their acronyms, and it works. At one point I’ll say something, once I found out this gig was ago, I knew I’d have to brush up on my Let’s say IBM ABC’s ASAP and FYI and this is no BS, these acronyms really tested my IQ, the whole process almost sent me to AA and I go through this sort of litany but before I set that up I’ve just gone through 30 of their acronyms. It lets them know that I took the time to learn about their acronyms. A lot of them can’t believe that I’ve actually either put the time or that I was able to memorize it. It’s really about letting them know that I’m here to take care of you,and I tell my clients that they’ll see in the process to the point of where I’m getting as much information, over the years I’ve learned how to absorb things pretty quickly. A lot of comedy is about about relationships. It’s almost sometimes at an unconscious level. When they feel relaxed that’s when people are able to laugh, I think it’s so important to have that element at a meeting just to diffuse all that stress.
How do you go about understanding the fit and tailoring the content?
Yeah, I know specific questions to ask. I’ll ask questions that directly give me that information so I can sort of fill it in. With comedy, you do have to try it out every so often, and I don’t you know, it’s funny as a comedian. Eventually, sort of get a sense of what’s gonna work, what’s not. But you want it you want to kill every time you wanted to be 100% effective. So you know, 80% of what I might be doing might already been written. I’m able to customize another 25% with their material. I’ll know it’s gonna work, and it appears from the audience point of view. I just came up with this, just, you know, just for them.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds