We are throwing it back to before the pandemic! Charles sat down with Matt Williams of Exhibit Partners to discuss everything from trade-show booths, the creative process, to client relationships. He is a wealth of knowledge and we are excited to share with you!
The event industry is a passion industry! How do we move people in the midst of a pandemic? Nick Borelli, an event strategist, sits down and shares how we can make the pivot!
Tell us how COVID-19 hit you?
I have been asking this question a lot to my friends too. Many of them are dealing with this in immediate ways, and others are being cautiously optimistic. Personally I work for organizations that represent a lot of events. The ones most affected by this and the least likely to bounce back quickly. Everyone on our team self-quarantined. It’s been a moment of reflection before we start working on solutions in the strategy world for our clients who are hurting pretty badly. When it comes to content there is a lot of work to be done now.
There is pain right? There’s very obvious to find pain. It’s just determining where you have authority, what your lane is, and addressing the pain of the people who are most important to you, in order for you to use your skillsets to improve and help. That is where I am coming from and the work I am doing now. How can we prepare people for massive disruptions so they have systems in place to make better decision making based around design thinking.
How do you strategize when you don’t know if something like this is going to happen?
I will address that we are in uncharted waters for the most part. I am not going to say there is this case study to follow. The best case studies are from 1918, not exactly a lot of road maps for success in the midst of a pandemic in the live events industry.
We can rely on frameworks for thinking. Sit reps, something the military uses on what you know, what you don’t know, what to communicate. There is things like what should you be putting out to the world. It’s not about the products you have but you should be talking about your mission and how you can in the midst of this contribute through your mission.
Create benchmarks, tipping points. If this happens then we know it’s too late for this. Lots of listening. This is an unparalleled time, especially in marketing. The best sales and marketing people know it, and the rest of the world is weak on it. You need a chief listening officer right now. You need someone who has their thumb on the pulse of your community and the world.
Most of us are cheerleaders and believe in live events into our soul. We could make more money doing other things but it’s a passion industry. We’re thinking always with our passion in regards to this stuff. Often times our clients are not. They are not as passionate about what they see as one stream. You need to divorce yourself from that and see it is their perspective. We’re a bunch of believers, you should post-pone, I believe that too, we will get through this people will gather again; the problem is, will that message resonate right now? Is that the message we need to hear internally, yes! Is that the message that resonates externally, I don’t know. I think they are thinking, how can I be made whole? We can become partners and use our skills in different ways and address bigger problems. It may be outside of live experiences. Facilitating the goals of our clients should be something we start thinking a little more flexibly about.
How do you do that?
Look at the client’s mission, and really understand it and understand what they are put on this earth to do. And how can you be a facilitator with one less specialty (events)? If your mission is to connect the world, or service this community, how can I use the skills I have in order to facilitate that? I know how to help people achieve goals through design. I do that with architecture and with props, and with things that engage senses. Whatever your contribution is to live experience is, consider how that can be applied in a useful way in this economy and create new lines of revenue in the short term. That’s one option.
The other option is collaboration. There are lots of people hurting. How can you put together a bunch of different skills and create a new product in the interim.
The last thing I want to see is a bunch of people lowering their prices. It’s a race to the bottom. It’s harder to come back from that. Better to create new things that didn’t exist before and those could dissolve after word.
What is the purpose of strategy and how does it work?
Events have phases. There’s an entrance, engagement, and more. Above the phases there are three umbrellas.
For the longest time were were executors, in the late 90’s we got into true sophisticated planning. There’s planning planning planning and it evolved into a conversion of experiential.
What advice do you have for newbies?
Outside of this atmosphere, get out is something people have said. The first people I want to address is the people who have been in the industry for a while and cut that out. Your problems were of time, and building their problems are intellect and we can’t scare away talent. They are going to stand on your shoulders but don’t have your initial thing be “this is a tough industry”.
No matter your contribution, not everyone gets to create the strategy, but everyone should think strategically.
Figure out what you’re good at besides the thing you do. What are you good at the way you think?
Give us a little hope.
I am a generally pretty optimistic person. I do believe a little bit in business darwinism. As much as a recession is a terrible thing to waste. Everyone on the other side of this is going to be smarter and more educated. We might be able to evolve faster than we could. There’s an ability to overcome things that makes you resilient. This is the time to stretch.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds
He’s back! This week we share an episode recorded two weeks ago when things were starting to move in the events industry. Micheal Cerbelli shares his take on the current virus as well as the last time the industry was hit.
What have you been up to since you were last with us on our podcast?
It’s been an incredible year. I’ve had 155,000 miles of travel in 2019. We’re seeing some challenges with the Coronavirus affecting events, but other than that, I’m very excited to announce that we are officially signing with a brand new collaborative building in the event industry in New York City. The fourth floor will be myself and a great company called Elegant Affairs Caterers.
Who is your Demographic/Audience?
We’re looking at it as a spot to help promote all our businesses with our clients. What we wanted to do was create a space that anybody and everybody in the event industry could come to. We wanted to bring a space together so that our clients could be there, have their meeting, a get together with their clients, and be around creative people all under one roof and share their ideas with each other. From there, the client knows that there is a closer relationship there instead of jumping on a phone call for twenty minutes. We want to have collaborative experiences.
How long has this been in the works? Tell us what the journey has been like.
I’d been looking for a new space because our lease was almost up in NYC. About a year ago I said, “Let’s start planning.” We live in a beautiful area of New York City; it’s called Hudson Yards. It’s the newest hotspot in NYC; it’s booming. I think 40 office buildings have been built in this area throughout the past five years. There were four firehouses back from the 1800s that put out their own fires before the fire department was around, and there are two of these firehouses left. We have one now, and the other one is owned by Anderson Cooper as his home. It’s fantastic, I have a fire pole in my office, I’m so excited! It’s going to be officially called “24030.” That’s our address, 240 30th St. Manhattan. We don’t want to have one name on the banner outside; it’s a collaborative building, so why does it have to be one company? It’s all of us.
How are you dealing with the Coronavirus and how it affects you in the event industry?
It’s there. If you look at the news today, Facebook and Microsoft cancelled events that they had coming up. I had a name talent, and I’ve worked with this guy four times. His camp had started to question about two weeks earlier, and when we came to them and said “it’s official, we’re postponing it, we’re going to pick a new date,” they understood. “You got it, safety first. Let’s work out these dates and see what we can do.” We’re flexible, we’ve got it, everybody is working together as a team on this one event that I’m seeing, and I’m seeing that in other areas too. I think people are starting to understand that in the world we live in, stuff happens. You know what I actually want to say, but “stuff” happens, and that’s what we all understand. My client is actually having more pullback from the actual attendees; they’re more upset than us in the event industry, so I think it will affect events. If everybody can work together, and those clients can work with us to help manage some of the losses(maybe airplane fees, paying someone for their time because they lost it). We work together as a team, and I think that’ll be great for all of us.
Has this sort of situation been something you’ve seen previously in your career?
Yeah, I can definitely 100% go back to the financial crash of 2008 when people were cancelling like crazy. I had a client cancel, and there was no reason for them to cancel, but they didn’t want to be perceived as a company spending money during that time. This was going to be my first event ever in Dubai. Huge spend, monster spend, and they just cancelled the whole program. Back then, there was a panic. “We all lost, what are we going to do? How are we going to recoup?” I think now we understand this. We don’t want you to hurt. We don’t want to hurt. How can we all work together? That’s the difference I see immediately from everybody. In 2008, people panicked. I think that’s why it hurt harder. I think we’ll know in about a month from now if it’s going to affect us hard. Macro, not micro; let’s look at the big picture right now. Let’s keep calm and cool heads.
What’s been going on with you aside from everything else?
A corporate client let us create a magical circus theme; it was called Under the Big Top. I’ve done this event for seventeen straight years, and every year has a different theme, and this one really stood out. There were people flying through the air, tightrope walkers, we used their colors instead of the red and white stripes. It had a very “NYC Circus” theme to it, from the video invitation to leaving there with a bag of popcorn and Crackerjacks for the kids. It was probably one of my favorite events of last year. This summer was an incredible 50th birthday party at one of the most beautiful homes that you could imagine. We took them through a musical journey through 50 years of music festivals. It went from Woodstock in the 60’s, the 80’s and 90’s Lollapalooza, today’s Coachella, and to a big concert onstage in their backyard.
What advice do you have for people who are brand new to events?
I could be sitting for hours and nothing’s coming to me, and I’ll wake up at 3:00 in the morning and I’ve got to write it down. That’s how my head works, but although it’s in my head, I can’t do it without a team. I’m very lucky, and there may be newbies that don’t have a team. Take what you see, look around you, think about these moments. It doesn’t always have to be black and white. How can you change it? How can you come together as a team? I may be a producer, but I don’t own anything. Reach out to your vendors too, maybe they have something creative. Partner with the right people. My whole thing is collaboration. When you’re going to work with someone, does it all have to be you? If you take advice from your creative partners, that’s what leads to a great event. So many people are like, “It’s my event, I own it, this is what I want to do.” Ok, that’s great, that’s good for you, that’s not good for me. I love my team, I love my partners, I love their ideas. We all like working together because we feel we’re part of one.
What are your pet peeves?
My biggest pet peeve is the person that doesn’t plan properly; the people that panic onsite. When someone says “I’ve thrown a party before,” that’s great, but have you thrown an event where you have to know how people get on the loading dock? If you think about every step along the way, how everybody has to come together to manage this one event, that’s the strength on an event planner. The person that doesn’t know that is the person running around panicking at an event. Don’t tell me you’re an event planner if you’re not an event planner. It comes with years of experience, learning, getting dirty, working 40 hours in one day to get everything done for what you need. Notes, contracts, insurance. If you don’t have that, you’re the one panicking. I can point them out at any event.
Any last thoughts for our audience?
In two weeks from today, it’s the official 19th anniversary of Michael Cerbelli’s “The Hotlist!” If any listeners want, please reach out to me, I promise I’ll try to get them seats for the show. It’s going to be an amazing show this year.
How do you create more engagement? How do you sell out a conference? More importantly, how do you get 100% satisfaction ratings? Sheena and Matt from the Institute of Internal Auditors have figured out the formula that works for them and their audience! Listen to this if you’d like to be challenged on how you approach planning your next event!
You have to tell us how did you get started?
Sheena: I’ve been doing this since 1989. I was meeting with my college recruiter. I said I like people, I like to travel I want to apply my business skills and I want to make a lot of money so doesn’t everyone. She sent me on some journeys to interview and she sent me to this association and I just fell in love. At that point it was in their regulatory affairs department and I was responsible for scheduling the congressional visits and managing that whole process. The rest is history. I’ve been in the association environment ever since.
Matt: I started in the hospitality side. I worked for several resorts and all different facets from operations, front office, sales and that’s where I got exposure to working with associations and corporate groups and really loved the events side of the business. I finished my MBA and an opportunity came up with the medical association in Florida with the endocrinologist. I led their readings and events staff for a couple of years. Went to a couple other associations. Then was led back to Orlando with the IIA. So I lead our conferences, events, and sales teams here.
When I tease at the beginning of an episode, how are you going to get higher satisfaction ratings? Everyone’s ears perk up! What do you guys do?
Matt: Coming from MPI, very different environment with meeting planners, hospitality, resorts, suppliers. Our members are really focused around risk management and adding value to organizations and corporations. It’s very different from what one may think of when they think about auditors. So our members span globally, we’ve got over 200,000 around the world. So major footprints. That’s really one of the big things that drew me to come to the organization. This organization has a stellar lineup of conferences. We’ve five large events, a major international conference, and over the last year we sold out three of those major conferences, it’s pretty unheard of.
Sheena: It’s historical for the organization, so that’s exciting. It is kind of a misnomer that when you come here you think, “I’m getting ready to go and deal with a bunch of accountants, so it’s going to be a boring situation.” It really is not that. So internal auditors, to Matt’s point, they are risk management professionals, responsible for assessing the entire risk universe of an organization. Very diverse set of skills are required, which is exciting. So that gives us a bit of a playground when it comes to developing content. We have the opportunity to bring some exciting information, looking at business trends, looking at business environment, and really being in tune and in touch with your audience. I think that’s one of the main things, you really have to understand what is the pain point of the audience that you’re serving? How are you going to bring value to them as a professional, so that when they leave this event, they’re gonna leave feeling fulfilled, inspired, and empowered to go back into their settings and apply those learnings and make the difference in a positive way. When that’s your baseline, then you’re able to build from there.
What are some of those things that you’ve tweaked, because I’m guessing you haven’t always had 100% and you’ve kind of come up to that and you know, what are those things you’ve changed?
Matt: We’ve put a lot more focus now on event technology and what we’re doing to engage attendees, our learning environments, really looking at all of those elements to make it a more interactive and engaging experience for our attendees. So much so that we’ve dedicated a role to event technology and the attendee engagement at a director level. It’s been really great for us. Sheena can talk about a lot more of the initiatives that we’ve enhanced.
Sheena: Looking at the technology component, and how we have been able to apply some of those elements to enhance the experience, by raising the level of production that we engage in our conference programs. So it’s not just the standard audio visual set up. We really try to include some enhancements as some element that’s going to bring some excitement to the program. We have incorporated things like polling and our social Q and a. That has really elevated and increased the level of interactivity. I would say we’re all adult learners, right? As adult learners, when you go to a program, you sit in that room and you know what is your pain point when you’re sitting in that room. You’re sitting in that room and you have a speaker at a podium reading off slides for 60 minutes, that’s a pain point. I don’t know any adult learners who will say, I paid attention all 60 minutes and I got every single thing that I needed to get from that because that’s just not how adults learn. We were very skill based. We were very diverse in our learning. We know that those come with different formats, different learning modalities that you have to include. We put ourselves in the mind of our conference goer, and what their needs are and how we can create an experience that’s going to be much different than just them sitting behind the computer. Because in this age of technology, you can get content any way anyhow in any time. When you attend, it’s about the overall experience.
How do you walk that line between polling and getting it out of the audience without annoying the crap out of them?
Matt: You just have to give them that. If they want to engage that let them, but you don’t make it an annoyance. You don’t overburden them. It’s another channel for people who want to do that. So it’s just all about understanding all the different needs from all your different segments of your audience and being able to make it available if that’s the way they want to engage versus saying everybody, use this to ask questions. I don’t think that’s the right way to approach it.
Sheena: I think you’re absolutely correct, Matt. It’s a delicate balance. Our audiences are known to be introverts. We take that into consideration when we are incorporating all of these engagement activities, understanding that everybody is not going to want to default to that one thing. So you have to create multiple opportunities for that engagement and make sure that people are comfortable with attaching to whichever element or component that you provide.
How do you sell out an event?
Sheena: It’s the experience. You’re going to hear us say that so much because what we have learned is it’s so very important and the experience is everything combined. So it is not just the content, it is the combination of how was registration, what are the social events? Think through each day, what is this person going to experience today from start to finish that going to create something for them that is almost magical that they leave saying, I can’t wait to come back. Peer to peer engagement is going to be important and valuable. What things are you incorporating in your conference that fosters peer to peer engagement. How are you prepping your speakers so that they are more dynamic? How are you incorporating those different elements so that it’s not, when you come to the conference, you don’t feel like it’s robotic.
Matt: I would add from a marketing perspective, it’s definitely that FOMO effect. You need to take your event beyond just the three days or however long it is and carry all of the traction that you’ve got all the way through.
Matt Pet Peeve: When you’re at an event and there’s not a lot of branding, a lot of good signage on where to go. It starts off the whole thing on a bad foot.
Sheena Pet Peeve: Not starting on time. There’s like this domino effect. It just impacts everything else in the course of that day.
Matt Super Power: Staying calm and cool under pressure.
Sheena Super Power: My superpower is my smile. I think that it calms me down and then ultimately it translates out to I’m able to calm you down.
Matt Advice: You’ve gotta be patient with your career growth. I was very ambitious when I started out, wanting to grow very quickly in the industry and you just have to understand that you need to learn as much as you can about all the different facets about the industry. Find a mentor who can guide you to where you want to go with your career.
Sheena: This is a very stressful industry. So you really have to find that balance for yourself in how you are able to manage that stress because it can console you if you don’t find that.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds
What’s the biggest lesson learned as well as the biggest disaster?
Coley: The biggest lesson that I’ve had is that no matter how hard you plan, nothing is ever going to go exactly as you want. There’s always a fix to it so there’s no sense of getting worked up. There’s always going to be a response and so staying as level headed as possible and not having those around you know that there’s an issue is the best way to go. I will say the more pressure that I have, the better performer.I did an event, I mean I’ve had many a disaster, but the biggest one I’ve had, I did a concert at outdoor concert at the Atlantis in The Bahamas and I had 800 people for a dinner and a concert. The women’s restrooms, there was one set of restrooms that were open in the other side were locked. All of the women’s restrooms started overflowing and flooding. So you couldn’t even walk in the bathroom because there was so much water and sewage on the floor. We found out that the other set of bathrooms couldn’t be open because there was apparently one person on the entire Island that had a key and they had gone home and they lived on the other side of the Island. I was like, well, I’m going to need you to come back. Nothing like having like a really fantastic event and then having it end in sewage.
Super Powers: Coley: Being calm, cool, collected, and finding the answer.
Rachel: I’m not just saying this because we’re on one of our partners podcasts, but I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the events world is have really good business partners. I think truly over the last year as I’ve learned it’s really important to have people that you trust, not only running your production but helping you facilitate your event. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is having that trust between like my internal business partners and myself and then my trust to the other vendors that we work with and our partners. I think that’s huge.
The biggest disaster: last year we had a celebrity on our stage doing a keynote, power went out and I’ve never run faster in my life. Dr Oz’s was on stage. And let me tell you that man is the most cool, he’s like a fricking cucumber. He kept talking and just kept tangenting as like myself and my team. We were sprinting. I don’t even, I didn’t even have like an intentional place I was running to. So there was construction happening in our venue and one of the people that were conducting the construction was training in somebody new and they were like, Hey, we have this kill switch. You want to see it? And the trainee was like, yeah, I want to see it. And it’s like you open this switchboard and it kills the power. So that’s been the biggest disaster I’ve ever seen.
Super Power: Rachel: Empath, able to read a situation.
Pre Conference Pet Peeves – Coley: I think for me the biggest pet peeve I have is when people either set unrealistic expectations and push for them and they don’t understand that the budget is a factor. While those are really great ideas, they can’t always come to fruition. The other one that I would say is, people who don’t understand or respect timelines.
Best advice – Rachel: I’m so fresh into this industry, so I feel like I have an interesting perspective.You don’t know what you’re doing. You have no idea what’s going on. So just take a step back and listen. And I think that’s been the biggest thing for me in the last year is taking a step back and humbling myself and understanding that I’m going to listen to what my business partners want. I’m going to listen to what other people that are really good in this industry are good at. I’m never gonna think that I’m too big to take advice from somebody. That’s the biggest thing to me that I think has helped me.
Best advice – Coley: Learn and absorb as much as you can to learn your placeMake sure that you are communicating the things that you want to communicate with the correct audience and making sure that you’re not overstepping because nobody will respect you if they feel like you are overstepping.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds