In search of the holy grail

What is your strategy moving up to and beyond the Olympic year? How has the company weathered the recession and maintained client confidence in the power of ‘face-to-face’?

Face-to-face events are still the most influential activity you can do, besides putting a sales person in front of clients!

Customers are giving up their personal time to be immersed in your brand so you had better make it memorable and valuable to them. The experience they have needs to be executed flawlessly so that the logistics don’t detract from the message.

Next year is going to be big for our industry. Because of the lead time necessary to produce the best experiences, it’s all starting to kick off in 2011. This is a shot in the arm after the last two years.
Agencies are much leaner, fewer, and have focused on their core competencies. The ones that remain are better at what they do. It is an exciting time. Some of the experiences for the attendees at the 2012 Olympics will be amazing both inside and outside the sporting venues.

What are the effects of budget tightening and shorter lead times?

Shorter lead times can mean rushed decisions, client contacts being unavailable to sign off changes, and mistakes. It is short-term tactical thinking. Strategic event marketing should be part of a longer term marketing mix with business objectives that bring tangible value. Although the economy is picking up, this short-term thinking is now embedded.

We have adapted but are also trying to educate management and procurement that they are not extracting the most value from their event spend with short-term thinking.

With increasing technology applications in the events space, what is your strategy?

Technology can allow for great innovation. Used intelligently, it can make an experience sexier, more efficient and more effective: a great combination for increasing value while making the message easier to digest.

We use technology to enhance the information flow to management; the experience for the event delegate; efficient operations for the event staff; measurement for analysis and improvement, and cost reduction for procurement and finance. Because of recent technological advances, we can do more, better, with less – and that is the holy grail.

Does our industry lack a strong voice in the political corridors of power?

I don’t believe that our voice is weak. Politicians want to listen to representation from the events industry, not least because of the proliferation of public, televisual and outdoor events – each of which brings income to the UK. An obvious example is the Olympic Games, but awards ceremonies, festivals and incentive programmes also draw big interest.

The UK is also used as a conference base by overseas organisations, not least because of the excellent logistics and strong event management availability. We also have an excellent fabric of accommodation here, so there’s an impetus for Government to listen to us on a variety of fronts. Organisations like VisitBritain, the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) and the London Mayor’s Office, are vital in processing communications to and from Government. We need to influence these bodies. 

What changes would you most welcome in the Government’s approach to meetings and events?

Changes to the Tour Operator Margin Scheme (TOMS) require amendment and clarification. TOMS causes huge confusion. The Bribery Laws may have an influence on how we do business and there are a number of EU legislative processes that might stem the flow of our collective ability to function as smoothly as we’d like.

Whitehall departments are beginning to focus on our space, not least in considering how they can save money in the provision of their events. The turbulent economic times have actually created a focus.

We would welcome better availability of tax breaks for companies buying third party event management. It’s worth reiterating how much the industry contributes; according to the BVEP, £10bn from conferences and meetings, £9bn from exhibitions, £7bn from incentive and business travel and £1bn from corporate hospitality. And the industry at large employs nearly a million people. 

The new US-style Bribery Act, effective in April 2011, will call into question the standing of ‘freebie’ events. The hospitality sector will have to adapt. The familiarisation trip could become a thing of the past if companies mandate against them, as US companies have already done.

How have your strategies been affected by global risks?

One of the only certainties in our business is that at some point, something out of our control will go wrong. We have a rigorous crisis management process and, next, a Plan B. Ninety-five per cent of the time it is not needed but for that five per cent it is an invaluable tool.

During the Icelandic volcano ash crisis, our in-house aviation team not only assisted our booked groups with alternative travel arrangements, but bailed out clients who were ticketed with other agents unable to provide a satisfactory service.

With some things, though, you just have to shake your head and say: “Who would have expected that?” At that point it’s all hands on deck to work with clients on their next step.

How can we get over more convincingly the value events provide?

Effective measurement is key. This is partnered with ensuring the goals for the activity are in line with client business objectives. However, with procurement taking a larger role in the management of event spend, the tendency is to concentrate on the cost only, rather than the cost/benefit (these can be longer term and include softer outcomes such as brand loyalty and relationship building). 

What future trends are they shaping your strategic thinking?

This will be the year of virtual events, collaboration through social media and driving performance through connectivity. This will become standard business practice. 

Internal meetings and product launch activity has been cut right back, while virtual meetings may in time prove to have a greater impact in the meetings market. It is currently best used for small numbers. One key opportunity is around extending audiences, so those who cannot attend in person can be virtual guests.
Sixty per cent of meetings buyers we surveyed believe senior management should mandate meeting and events programmes, and we are seeing signs of some clients moving towards such a policy. 

In many instances where a decision has been made to hold a live event, clients have re-directed spend away from expensive venues requiring an audience to travel and stay over, to sourcing local, perhaps unglamorous, venues but with a focus on producing a more impactful show. 

The further development of augmented reality in the communication of the event has helped build anticipation, and the usage of 3D Mapping to create visual displays with an unmatched perspective of depth and realism has been well received when showcasing key content during shows. This has the added benefit of asset reuse. The emphasis here is on enhancing the content experience rather than the physical one.

Clients also continue to invest heavily in experiential marketing, perhaps the most measurable brand immersion platform available. The deep-seated desire by procurement departments to be able to accurately measure ROI has encouraged product owner stakeholders to explore with ever greater creativity routes to capture a greater share of voice and consumer data. We envisage that this one area will see an uplift of at least 100 per cent year-on-year for the next three years. 

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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