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.
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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 you got to where you are.
I am one of 9 children. The middle child, born and raised on Cape Cod. We were the ultimate party family most of the time. My mother loved to entertain. I learned how to cook with either my mom or my grandmother from age 12 on. I catered my first wedding when I was 15 years old. My grandmother took me in her Cadillac, we loaded the front, back, trunk, and loaded my mother’s station wagon. It was a wedding for 125 people, a little more casual but still I got my start at 15 years old catering weddings. I catered parties through summers and I dove into the world of cooking. I wrote my first cookbook in 1994 and published it in New York City. I went down to the city and never left since 94. I started early and it’s in my blood, it’s something I love. Have been through tough times and boom times. I was a big event planner for Wall Street. It was the world of waste. Then ironically I was a participant in the big climate march. You’ve never seen so many plastic water bottles left on the ground. That was my turning point, when I started inward point. A zero waste event business.
We basically developed an analytics and metrics to measure the carbon footprints of every event. How do you create a zero waste event?
How much extra work is it to do zero waste?
There is a fair amount of extra work. At the end of the day lets do something right and change the world in a positive way! Why get out of bed everyday if you can’t make a positive change. SO yes we are adding an extra layer. It’s not that difficult to call your rental companies and talk about social and environmental impact. Get them thinking. Climate change is real and we can be a part of saving the planet.
Let’s say someone is new, what is one thing they could do that is impactful?
Here’s the irony, of course I am the king now of sustainable events. But I am most famous for freeing up 200,000 plastic water bottles. I was not responsible for that. I’d eliminate plastic from events. That’s not hard, one baby step.
Listen to podcast to hear the FYRE FESTIVAL STORY.
Event Pet Peeves: Poor Service: The customer is always right.
Superpower: Willingness to do anything.
We need to think about what are our own superpowers. What can we do to change this event industry to engage this time right now of quarantine and social distancing? Your going to see a lot of cool stuff come out.
Advice to newbies.
Fail take the risks. Be humble. Get in there get your hands dirty, was them a lot too 😉 but be willing to do whatever it takes. That is going to be the secret ingredient.
Twitter: The Meeting Minds
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
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