Spotlight: The Present & Future of Events with Tahira Endean
As the world of events continues to pivot, we see a rush of technology solutions popping with the promise of seamless virtual events. But most of the conversation is being driven by marketers who have an agenda, not actual event experts. We want to change the conversation by amplifying the voice of industry leaders who are on the battlefield, confronting the real challenges event planners are facing daily.
We had the opportunity to talk recently with Tahira Endean, CITP, CMP,DES,CED, Head of Events at SITE (Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), about the future of events. Tahira describes herself as the world’s biggest event nerd. Her experience, enthusiasm and expertise are matched only by her creativity. She has worked in the meetings and events space for over 25 years. A certified Event Designer and Digital Strategist, Tahira holds a Diploma in Event Management and a Bachelor of Hospitality Management. She is a Certified Incentive Travel Professional and a CMP Certified Meeting Professional. She is also the author of “Intentional Event Design”, a book about creating events based on seven distinct intentions in order to drive stronger, better results.
As we approach the end of a challenging and transformational year, we chatted with Tahira about the state of the events industry, what innovations have appeared and what’s to come.
How is the event's industry coping with the pandemic?
Everybody's job [in the event’s industry] has been shifted in some way. It could be that they're doing more with less resources. It could be that they don't have a job anymore, that they've been laid off or they've been furloughed. Some event professionals may have found new jobs; some haven't. Some have pivoted to doing virtual and digital events, and some are still just trying to figure out how they're going to do events next year.
The biggest lesson has been that there's just no easy way to all of a sudden change everything that you're doing and to not know what exactly is going to happen next. People have had to really dig deep for courage and resilience, and to really look at what they want to do, what they're energized by, and how we can help our organizations at a time that's really difficult. There is a lot of opportunity, but there's also a lot of pressure.
What have we learned about running successful meetings and events during a pandemic?
The events that have been the most successful are the ones that have made it more about design over platform. One of the events I've enjoyed the most was one that SITE produced in September, our Young Leaders Conference. They are generally between 25 and 35 years old with less than five years specifically in incentives. But we had people from a broader range than that attended the event.
What I loved about it was that the committee planned it. They were all in. Everybody participated in making sure that it was successful. And we did it all in Zoom, which was a choice driven by economy. We said "Well, if we're going to just have it in Zoom and not use a cool platform, then how are we going to make it awesome?". We set the expectation: if you're going to attend, be prepared to participate. Because we're creating an agenda that will benefit from your participation. Everyone had their cameras on.
“We set the expectation: if you’re going to attend, be prepared to participate.”
Being new in their career, many of those people have lost their jobs. So, they were doing something different, or looking for new things, or trying new things. This was their opportunity to ask questions, get interesting answers and look at things in different ways. The event was over three short days (2.5 hours per day), and a lot of people stayed for the three days.
A few elements that worked well:
- Breakouts. The first day was about adaptation. We had some really great speakers talking about what they've lived through, and some great presentations. At the end, we did a reflection exercise where everybody went off into breakout rooms with the committee leaders and reflected on their learning. We took basic good learning principles and basic design principles and applied them. It worked.
- Access to senior leadership. On the second day, attendees got the opportunity to meet our board members and ask them about their careers and their advice. That's always an opportunity that they love, and it was important to be able to recreate it.
- Fun. Every day we had a DJ at the end, and every day people stayed for 15 or 20 minutes just dancing. It was just a really great event from that perspective.
- Video breaks. We had lots of 2-minute interstitials with advice from industry leaders. Someone asked me just last week: "How did you get those people to give their videos?"-- I just asked! I literally just asked. I said, "Can you give us a two minute video and pop into this Dropbox and film it horizontally and talk about what you're doing?"- and everybody said yes and did it, and it was great. The worst that could happen is someone says no.
How are we innovating?
I watched an interview the other day with Microsoft who pivoted $200 million worth of events into digital. I loved it, because what he was saying was all of the things that we had learned along the way, which was "make mistakes, go into this with your team knowing that you're going to make mistakes and blame is not going to be late". We're all going to learn together how to do this better. We are definitely seeing digital fatigue, so we have to figure out ways to make things interesting and finding ways for people to connect, not just listen.
I just did a series of micro webinars. It's exhausting to continually listen to one-hour webinars, so we did a series of 12-minute talks. David Allison works with Valuegraphics and has this amazing data about how people think and approach things and what kind of core values our participants are showing up with. We did this 12x12 series on YouTube that was really good fun.
“We’re all going to learn together how to do this better”
What are your predictions for the events industry?
I think that what we will see will be much like what we saw after the recessions. The events that we do might be smaller, but the people who are attending them have more reasons for being there. Events will become much more purpose driven and much more people centric. These are the two things that I think are the most important in what we do.
“Events will become much more purpose driven and more people centric.”
Whether it's doing safer air travel or having a better hotel experience, or having a meaningful event experience. It's all about taking the things that we're learning, and the things that we already know but don't always apply. Good learning design principles - make people learn in 10 minute chunks; don't make people sit down for 60 minutes and watch something.
Think about the reality that we are in, not just putting content out there. What people are craving now more than ever is ways to connect. It's about finding ways that you can have those genuine connections with people and build our community around that. And that's going to be the next piece of the puzzle that we really need to overcome in the next year.
“What people are craving now more than ever is ways to connect.”
How do we generate engagement at virtual events?
There's a lot of good stuff happening out there – really great quizzes, team building, virtual escape rooms, and all different ways that people can interact digitally. And it just goes back to what's the purpose of your meeting. Figure out what the purpose is.
Let's use IBM Think as an example. It’s a super well produced event. It would usually happen around March in Las Vegas, and they would have around 30,000 attendees. Well, March this year happened to be when you couldn’t have a 30,000 people event in Vegas. So, they crafted a very well executed digital event, and 100,000 people showed up.
Because they are a technology platform, they're using their own great skills they already have from a production and technology perspective, and they're working with experienced experts in event design and creating a beautiful flow of an event that's well executed and people will stay and watch it. It was new and fresh. It's about creating the purpose and telling a story. And they told that story really well.
If your purpose is to share a message with tens of thousands of people, you have to be really clear on crafting that messaging and then create digitally engaging, well-produced content to do that. If your purpose, like ours with the SITE event, was to connect 100-200 people who are newer in their careers and looking to get some inspiration, connection and ideas for how they can move their careers forward, you’re going to design that event in a totally different way.
How is technology being used to support engagement?
I don't think I've seen a quarter of what's available out there to connect people online. There's lots of great platforms out there. I think it's about exploring what the opportunities are, because there are some different networking platforms that are really great.
Who would ever thought that people would go to escape rooms? Ten years ago, there were very few escape rooms in the world. Now there are 15,000 escape rooms in the world. And more, now that there are digital escape rooms. They're a terrific way to get people to work together in small groups to solve problems and to come out on the other side stronger as a team. That's their purpose.
Another example: using trivia as a way to get salespeople to connect to the information that you've given them about your product. That's still effective. You've given them some information and you want to test that information with some kind of a digital game right away. Do you want to take that digital game into a mobile app and connect it to your learning management system? It all depends on what the need is, but there are lots of different and amazing ways to connect people.
What do you see for the future of event Design?
It's going to take a while before we get to any kind of herd immunity that's going to take us back to a pre-pandemic sort of state. And we're far away from this reality right now. We're going to have to rethink everything that we're doing and how we're approaching a duty of care.
“We’re going to have to rethink everything that we’re doing and how we’re approaching a duty of care.”
When you go into a hotel and everything is behind plexiglass and people are wearing masks – that’s going to be around for a while. It's very different to facilitate a conversation between people who can stand in an open bar with a drink in their hand and have a networking conversation and I can see you across the room. For example, if I bring somebody over to meet you at an event, there’s a good chance we'll be wearing a mask and that we still need to have some kind of physical distancing. That fundamentally changes events where we've relied on at face-to-face meetings.
How we design moving groups through our space, how we design seating, how we feed attendees, and how we get them to have dialogue – these have all fundamentally changed. I'm going to say for the foreseeable future, we'll get past it. But not for a while. We just have to start at the beginning basically and continue to rethink events.
What does the "new normal" look like for events?
There’s a great whitepaper from IMEX about how we need to go back into events thinking about creating it regeneratively. I think that's really important. It's not just thinking about sustainability but thinking end-to-end, cradle-to-grave circular economy.
We need to step back and not just return to events as they were. Not back to that place of non-sustainable tourism meetings and events. We need to think about people's safety and about the land that we're on and the way we're using it. We need to think about the people who are there to create things that are going to have a positive impact for the destinations that we're in, and a positive impact for the organizations that we work with.
“We need to step back and not just return to events as they were.”
What do you see as you look to 2021 and beyond?
We're at a great time of experimentation. Do we need to get slightly slicker at it? Possibly. We still need to keep it really human. That's probably going to become even more important than when this started back in March. There is no possible way that we imagined that eight months later we would still be going back into lockdowns. There was a lot of optimism back in March. We thought we'd be meeting by August and in August we would be meeting by December, and by December… maybe we are meeting next June.
A lot of big companies have said that they won't be doing live meetings for 2021 or at least until summer 2021. And maybe not just until 2022. That's a massive impact on the 12 million people that are employed in the meeting industry and another 10 million people that are employed in the hospitality industry. All of these industries were impacted since we paused in-person events across the spectrum. We can keep doing digital events, but we also need to get back to safe travel and smart, regenerative, thoughtful meetings and events.
What are your favorite resources for event professionals?
Some great podcasts that I listen to regularly:
- Bizbash has Gathered Geeks
- Meeting Minds Podcast
- A new Canadian podcast called the Illuminate Project
- Dare to Interrupt, which is Courtney Stanley on, and she really looks at women's issues and talks to some amazing strong women.
We thank Tahira Endean for her time sharing her insights with us!
You can connect with Tahira here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tahira-endean-citp-cmp-des-ced-918a868/