Conference News column, April 2014

This is going to get me into trouble with everyone, including Mrs John, but there’s a point to the story, so bear with me.

Last year my chums at the Toronto Convention Bureau invited me to a terrific party, where they had employed some professional lookalikes to celebrate the city’s great film festival. And my attention was drawn – in the interests of research only, of course – to a charming young lady who looked like a certain famous actress. (Well, in reality she looks like the much younger and prettier sister of Mrs Pitt.) Her name is Lina, she’s an accomplished actress and presenter in her own right and, as you’ll see from the photo, she fell for the old “superglue on the shoulder” trick.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m running a marketing course where the issue of customer communication came up, and the inevitable question of “how often should I contact my customers about my events?”

Now, the textbooks will say that most sales require at least 5 “hits’ with the customer; however, many delegates were unhappy with this. They take the (not unreasonable) view that the customer might be irritated.
So I showed them the photo that adorns this page. And I asked the question, “do you think I’d mind if this young lady contacted me 5 times?” The answer was a resounding “no” (although several asked if she was insane being that close to me, and three requested her phone number). I then asked them if they thought I would mind if I received an email every hour from Lina? Same answer, of course.

And the lesson? If we are really interested in something (or someone) there is no such thing as “too often.” If customers aren’t interested, contacting them even once is too much; if you have something of value to tell them, talk to them frequently. (Put simply, if I send you a £5 note every day, no obligation, is there a point where you’d ask me to stop?) The trouble is so many corporate messages are anodyne and dull. Please understand this; no-one cares how long you’ve been in business, where your Head Office is, how many staff you have, or who your other clients are. What they want is for you to educate them, surprise them, stimulate them, shock them. They want ideas, thoughts and information that they can actually use. Do your messages offer that? (The answer is “no”, so put your hand down at the back.)

As a result of my encounter with Lina, I now offer a service to some of my favourite clients where I write an email for them to send every day. Oh, there’s a subtle sell in the content, of course, but generally there are statistics, jokes, ideas, analysis, thoughts, and occasionally some funny and possibly obscene stories. I’m allowed to offend (within reason and for a purpose) and I get lots of (mostly) lovely feedback from readers. And the results in terms of business are off the scale in terms of response. If you’re wanting to tell me the approach wouldn’t work for your company, please don’t even waste your breath.

Oh, and Lina, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I’ve made my point. Could you have that restraining order lifted now?


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Conference News column, March 2014

This month I’m grateful to my mate Alan Elston, international event host and all round good egg, for inspiring this month’s column. You see, Big Al, as we all think of him, runs Frontman (check out and has been the lynchpin of more conferences than you’ve had hot dinners.

So there we were, sipping tea (yeah, right!) and debating the issues of life, and Al posited the question “what would you do regarding Michael Bay?”

Now, Michael Bay is the director of such cinematic classics as Armageddon and Pearl Harbour, as well as the deeply moving and thought-provoking “Transformers” trilogy.  But whilst I mock, his films have generated $3 billion, so who’s laughing now?

But as you may have seen, Mr Bay was invited to chat at a Samsung press conference at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A senior Samsung executive, Joe Stinziano, welcomed him to the stage, and MB was then supposed to wax lyrically – and spontaneously – about a new TV set the company were launching.

I urge you to check out the video on Youtube. You’ll see from the start that there’s no hint of spontenaity in the conversation. However, within seconds Bay is behaving like a 1970s DJ hearing a Police siren. Yes, the teleprompter has broken down.

Now, as Al and I discussed, two men with decades of experience in the media and dealing with live audiences should have laughed this off, and had a normal chat; after all, the questions were as challenging as “what’s your next film?” “do you like our new TV?” and “is there anything left on the planet that you want to blow up?” Instead, Bay mumbles, stutters and walks out. Poor Joe is left holding the baby, no doubt thinking that there isn’t an executive pay rise on earth that will make up for this momemt of excrutiating embarrassment.

Now, I’m grateful for this moment; the video is now included on one of my training courses in the “so, what would you do?” sections. And there’s no right or wrong answer, in that it’s a case of, “well, it should never have been allowed to happen.

Big Al has some wise words, so I’d encourage you to hit his website and check out his thoughts on the topic. For my loyal and long-standing reader, you may recall an article I wrote about teleprompters a few years ago; yes, they are amazing and can really add to a performance, but there’s always a chance that technology or human error can get in the way, and you have to have a Plan B.

Al’s view is clear; “the moment was a disaster for Samsung and their organisers, uncomfortable for the audience and embarrassing for Michael Bay. It just may have been different if a professional Event Host was on the stage.” Well, of course, he is a bit biased, but as millions of people round the world have seen this fiasco, I think he might be right.

Of course, no-one can predict exactly what might happen in those moments, and even the biggest names can blow it; such is the joy of the live event. At that point the world holds its breath. But just remember the lines of Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” and know that you can come out shining, no matter what.

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Conference News column, February 2014

So I was working up to the wire in 2013, because Mr Cameron has stated the recession is over and Mr Osborne has tasked me with making that happen. Oh, the responsibility.

The thing is, Messrs C and O are probably about to create another crisis (I’m not taking part, by the way) by allowing another housing bubble to develop. Q: Why don’t politicians learn? A: because they need the equally stupid and short-memoried public to vote for them.

But our industry is no better. You may have heard of an event in Campell Park, near Milton Keynes, called “Winter Wonderland.” After one day, social media outlets were awash with complaints; advertising had suggested more than two tatty husky dogs and two tired reindeer would be in the park, and the ice rink wouldn’t be made of plastic.

Well the event closed straight away, due to what was called a “technical issue.” For those of you who don’t have a science background, I’ll explain the technical issue. WINTER WONDERLAND WAS PUT ON IN MILTON KEYNES.

Now there are some rather special winter-themed events that have run successfully in the UK; French and German markets, for example, or skating at Somerset House. But this is a nation where 2 mm of snow are declared a blizzard, and most of the UK’s snow ploughs have been sold off to shovel sand in the UAE.

But, more importantly, if you Google “winter wonderland events” you’ll soon realize that there is a long and proud heritage of such pathetic disasters, across the length and breath of this sceptered isle.

It’s not the dopey customers who annoy me most; “It felt like an opportunity to rip off parents” said Mrs T. Bleeding-Obvious of Milton Keynes. “I’d hope to have a magical day with my children,” added Mr I. Cretin of Bletchley. They do irritate me, of course, but not as much as the commercial partners who really should do their homework. A Papworth Trust spokesman said “we are concerned… and after consulting our volunteers have withdrawn our association from the event.” He might as well have added, “I can’t stay longer, I have a stable door to bolt.” Meanwhile, The Parks Trust, which looks after Campbell Park said, “we always ensure that organisers have robust health and safety policies and a detailed event management plan in place.”

Sadly, no-one was willing to state “actually we screwed up, and we were all too busy looking for porn on the internet to bother using it for sensible research purposes.”

There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes; without it, we’d have no progress, in this industry or any other. But I know that all the things I’ve warned you about in these columns in the past will happen again this year, because stupid people with good intentions don’t read my words.

As someone wisely wrote “ we only make a mistake once. After that, it’s a choice.”

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Conference News column, January 2014

I am good to you. While you’re partying, reading trashy novels or watching reality nonsense on TV, I’m constantly reviewing the torrent of research reports and White Papers that come across my desk to give you stuff that will make your lives worthwhile.

Yeah, you’re welcome. Just hug me when you next see me.

So this month I read, amongst other things, “The Use of Professional and Industry Speakers in the Meetings Market”, produced by teams from Tagoras and Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. (And you can access your copy from the websites of either of these fine companies.)

Now, the report has a strong US bias but that still makes it a useful read, based on replies from 175 companies, with 85% stating that they hired professional speakers, for their events of at least 500 people. And the Speaker budget was around $5000

So, here are a few tasty morsels. Firstly, companies were using speakers more; 14.6 times yearly compared to 11.2 in 2011 when the first version was produced. The budgets are up, too; more than half had $30 000 at their disposal. However, one important trend was a huge increase in the level of speaker sponsorship being secured.

And while speaker bureaux remain important, only 7.3% claim they always use one to secure speakers. The top three avenues for new speakers were recommendations from peers (84%), members (78.2%), and – perhaps surprisingly – staff (69.7%). The authors advised “we’re seeing many meeting and education professionals adopt a blended approach to finding and hiring professional speakers that combines use of a speaker bureau with their own independent research or sources…, professional speakers who have a strong Web presence (often buoyed by book publication and social media activity) are better off.. Meeting and education professionals are researching speakers used by other industry- leading conferences to create their short list.”

And responsibility for booking speakers is now moving back into the hands of the education or organising board, away from the CEO. Maybe that’s why less than a third believe a “big name” speaker is very or extremely important for attracting registrants. At the same time, organisers expect more from their speakers; 66.1% want to get more value from their speaker investment, especially when it comes to leveraging content marketing and maximizing sponsors’ return on investment.

While the report shies away from asking directly about fees, the authors have been able to make educated guests. The spread of fees – not surprisingly – is huge. The most frequently given rate was between $5,000 and $20,000 (23.2%) although 20% are paying more than $100,000. But the reality is closer to of professional speakers hired annually by organizations with budgets in those ranges yields an average per-speaker cost of $3,461 and a median of $3,297. However, “organizations working with top speakers are shelling out many, many, many times more than $5,495.”

At the same time, the report describes compensation for speakers as “soft”; “conference organizers use complimentary registration for industry speakers much more frequently than forking out for travel, lodging, or honoraria.”

So, if you use speakers, or fancy being a Speaker, downloading a copy of the free report might be a rather wise move of the next five minutes. Honestly – do I have to do everything?

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Conference News article, December 2013

If you look at the various products sold by the Volkswagen Audi Group you’ll see they seem to offer a wide range of different cars. But, were you to humour yourself and put the Audi A4, the Skoda Octavia, the VW Passat and the Seat Exeo side by side, you’d notice they all look remarkable similar. Lift the bonnet, open the doors and scrape off the paint and you’d see the commonality is much more than skin deep; these four cars all travel down the same assembly line and are close enough to be considered siblings.

The interesting thing is that the price difference between the models is quite dramatic, and you might like to consider which brand you’d like outside your house. There are some minor differences in bells and whistles and buttons and switches, perhaps a different paint finish, maybe some thicker floor mats; but nothing that really justifies the thousands of pounds that separate the Audi from the Skoda.

“Interesting, but so what?” you might be thinking. Well, here are a few words from our industry for you to consider. “Meeting.” “Workshop.” “Conference.” “Get-together.” “Think tank.” “Congress.” “Summit.” If you were so inclined, grab a piece of paper and put them in the order you think they might cost to attend, if you were to add the words “Meetings Industry” in front of them.

There’s no right or wrong; the point is to get you thinking which one sounds more impressive, more participative, more worthy, more highbrow, more likely to attract the “movers and shakers.  Which is the one that you feel might attract the premium price? Ask your colleagues to do the same, and compare results. You might be surprised by the results; it seems names do matter.

The point is, of course, that the content and structure of the actual event need not change in the least; yet now you – as a venue or organiser – are able to start exploring a different pricing strategy for what is, essentially, the same concept. Clever, eh?

You see, so much of the price you charge a client is about status, positioning, branding; it has nothing to do with the actual content. You see it all around you, day in, day out; Harrods sell many of the same items as Tesco, yet charge a premium for the ambience.

Which means, if you feel so inclined, now is the time to think about going into the New Year with a new approach to your business. Look at your portfolio of products and services, and see how you can refine and perhaps redefine them to appeal to a different sector, one that might want to pay a different fee. Think about the minor differences you would need to add to make your “economy” offering a “premium economy” item; it’s really not as hard as you think.

Oh, and no doubt you will be sending out some hideous, mawkish cards to celebrate the annual festival of intense shopping and fake bonhomie. So many of these are adorned with robins, a bird which normally has even jaded cynics going “awwwww.” But remember, a robin is a thrush with a bit of rouge; he’s just got a good marketing consultant!

By the way, don’t think this applies to our industry’s consultants. They’re not all the same. I drive a Mercedes. Merry Christmas.

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Conference News column, November 2013

Our industry PR guru Alasdair Turner recently did a splendid job at the AEME conference in Bournemouth, even though he’d lost his voice. (I could be cruel, and say a voiceless PRO sounds like perfection, but that’s not my style.)

After the showing of the upbeat “What events means for Britain” video’ (do check it out on YouTube; it’s all very motivational) Alistair sprinted through a range of interesting topics. One of these piqued my interest; the issue of “who pays for my space.”

You see, more and more meetings and events organisers are saying, “well, if we bring all these room nights and high spending delegates to a region, why do you expect us to pay for exhibition and meeting space? After all, we’re taking enough of a risk and your city is reaping the benefit.”

It’s a great question, and again raises the issue of subvention to the fore. But industrial progress shows us that major change necessitates the need for new economic models. Consider the music industry, and the failure of organisations like HMV to respond, in contrast to Apple and its iTunes approach. After a decade of “free” information, Mr Murdoch has successfully created a pay wall around his online media empire. And companies like Easyjet with their “stripped down, pay for every extra” approach are now emulated by many of the “proper” airlines.

In fact our government has been quite taken with he idea and unofficially talks about the “Easyjet” pricing model for council services. Let’s hope hospitals don’t copy them, and start regarding items such as anesthetic as “optional extras.”

Every industry – including ours – will need to look at new business models. For example, Richmond Events pioneered meetings with a difference and chartering ships, with the VIP delegates being hosted free, paid for by exhibitors. Similarly, Ray Bloom’s approach to the “hosted buyer” underpins the success of both the IMEX and EIBTM series of events.

The issue is, of course, who is going to pay for the space; and how far will organisers go with their demands? The answer to that is as far as regions will let them go. The latest Leeds Met/MPI research reveals staggering numbers in terms of future event expenditure; even Backwards Britain has £1 billion of event infrastructure underway.

So can we expect to see major changes in, for example, the direction of association meetings? On a recent visit to Berlin I was told that subvention wasn’t likely to be forthcoming because the money was being spent on new airports, infrastructure and venues; no doubt Vienna (always top of the league) will say something similar.

However, what about those nations that consider themselves in the minor leagues, but are keen for a larger slice of the pie? With already competitive cost structures and a less sophisticated market there’s no doubt that those “extras” can be quietly addressed as “subvention.” And that’s in a week where a recent UK survey revealed that nearly 50% of organisers had faced unexpected “additional costs” for such essentials as internet and car parking.

So what can you do? Well, much depends on your position in the marketplace, and your ability to predict the future. You may be concerned about the extent to which you should even have such radical conversations with clients and prospects, in case you create an issue that didn’t exist. But the truth is the status quo is now a think of the past; as the great computer scientist Alan Kay wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


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