3 Tips For Event Organisers In A Recession

Last week I was a guest at the annual IOD Director of the Year awards dinner – my thanks to ABDN for their kind invitation and good company.

I was interested in a theme of discussion at our table and among several people I met – can these sorts of awards dinners continue in their existing format? Sponsorship is drying up – from government agencies, the banks and others – and will businesses want to be seen paying £100 a head for a ‘jolly’, as unemployment rates rise with the impact of government cuts?

I am a great believer in looking for the opportunity in any adversity. And this might just be the trigger to re-think and innovate at the dinners.

Earlier this year, David Parkin did just that with his Business Masters awards at Aspire in Leeds – an excellent but fairly informal lunch. It felt fresh and different and would have been a lot more affordable.

My tips for event innovation are:

1. What is the purpose of an event?

Strip your event back to the basics. Why are you doing it, who was the audience – and what do they want from it?

Awards dinners over the last ten years have increasingly become about income generation for hard-hit media companies. The income came from sponsorship and then the event had to deliver large numbers of people attending and reading about the event, to ensure ‘awareness’ for sponsors.

The focus on what guests want has often been lost – how many tedious sponsor speeches have we all sat through? And in all honesty, what value has been delivered back to sponsors – have guests and readers really clocked who is sponsoring and how the sponsor is relevant to their business?

Put the target audience/guests back at the heart of your event – and income ideas may come from unexpected places.

2. Rethink the business model for an event

The finances of events have become formulaic in good times. Because sponsors have been giving considerable sums of money, event organisers have been able to run away with the budget – flowers, balloons, entertainers, lighting, backdrops, programmes, gifts, audio-visual teams, filming of finalists and so on. To say nothing of an event organiser’s time and fees for all this.

What do the guests want from the event? Probably as simple as a guest list, good networking and picking up a few tips for their business. Considering these events are normally a sea of male faces, I wonder if half the guests even notice all the touches put on for their delight!

3. What added value could you deliver to your guests?

Good old-fashioned hosting is becoming a lost art. What a lot of guests will really want is to meet new people who are relevant to their business – probably as new customers but maybe for partnerships.

But what happens in reality is that a corporate takes a table, realises two months before that they must invite some guests, scrabble to see who they can get and the week before they ask a few mates to fill last-minute gaps.

On the evening, they rush from work, change into black tie and hope they get there before their guests do.

Instead of which, they could have:

  • Thought strategically about customers and contacts and who they would like to meet
  • Invited them months ahead in plenty of time and then briefed the guests a few weeks in advance about who is coming – allowing them to do their own research
  • Do research on other companies attending the dinner and think who they know who could be useful to their guests
  • Contact some key people and offer to make introductions at the dinner
  • Take a list with them and ensure they introduce around the room.

The organisation hosting the awards dinner could also ‘host’ and introduce guests around the room – adding a touch of personality and warmth to the event.

And the finalists and winners want to be recognised as leaders in their fields. Some event organisers are very good at maximising the PR value for award finalists – but there is a lot more that most could do to give back value to those who enter.

I’d like to think that this recession could see a new wave of imaginative, affordable and really excellent events that focus on those attending – and in the process could spark all sorts of new ways to generate income. (A few ideas have struck me as I’ve been writing this but I guess I should keep those for my clients!)

Do you see these events surviving – and what do you most like about them?

Victoria Tomlinson is founder and owner of Harrogate-based PR consultancy, Northern Lights. A former director of Ernst & Young, she started her career as a graduate trainee for Plessey and later with Bradbury Wilkinson, the banknote printers, travelling around the world to sell banknotes to foreign governments. She joined Arthur Young as part of their start-up marketing team and was made a director of client services on the management committee and managing a 100-strong division. Victoria sits on the boards of Bradford University School of Management, Northern Ballet Theatre and Common Purpose North Yorkshire. She is a Prince’s Trust mentor.