PR Wars Podcast: Event management pivot

In the world of PR and marketing, this virus has impacted one specialty exceptionally hard: events, trade shows, and conferences. It’s been brutal. PR Wars scoured the landscape looking for someone who’s made the pivot, who has changed the paradigm. And, we found it. On today’s PR Wars podcast, we learn how Norm Aamodt, President of the Event Strategy Group is finding success.

A.I. generated show transcript: “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “I have news for everybody. Get over it.”

Announcer
It’s time. Welcome to PR Wars coming at you live from Atlanta, Georgia. Now, here is your host… Chris Shigas.

Chris Shigas
Hello, everyone and welcome to PR Wars. I’m Chris Shigas. In the world of PR and marketing, this virus has impacted one specialty exceptionally hard: events, trade shows, and conferences. It’s been brutal. People with decades of experience having to reinvent themselves. I have personal friends who are now looking for work. PR Wars co-host and fellow communications raconter, Brad Grantham and I explored the landscape looking for someone who’s made the pivot, who has changed the paradigm. And, we found it. The Event Strategy Group produces events: massive ones, small ones, virtual ones, and now somewhere in between. But there’s one mission. They create great experiences. So joining us on PR Wars today is the President of the Event Strategy Group, Norm Aamodt. Thank you so much for joining PR Wars.

Norm Aamodt
Good to be here.

Chris Shigas
2020, for many people in your field, was a disaster. For you, it’s become an opportunity. When did you come to the realization that that this was going to have big consequences in your industry?

Norm Aamodt
Well, we were working on mobile Congress for Lenovo, that show traditionally held the end of February, we our crews were going in to set up and install you know, that kind of thing about a month out. And they were already talking about restrictions on certain people coming from certain geographies around the globe. And with a little bit of digging, in mid January, it became pretty clear that this was something that was going to get a lot bigger, it was growing exponentially in China. And, and people were starting specifically this show, because it has such an international audience of you know, a few hundred thousand people.

Chris Shigas
And I can remember for us it was CERAWeek, which is a big oil and gas show in Houston. At first, they were going to ban handshakes at the conference. And I’m like, whoa, it was kind of a wake up call. And that was even before they ended up obviously canceling the whole show altogether.

Norm Aamodt
was that I mean, the association GSM, a tried very hard to find a pathway that would continue to yield a show. And I think that they ultimately had to cancel.

Chris Shigas
It could have destroyed your business. But at some point you had to reach and you had to think and you had to brainstorm and pivot. Tell me about that moment.

Norm Aamodt
I remember, our 20th anniversary is April, April 20. And we were approaching it and we planned big celebrations for this year and all that kind of thing. And we had built the company from from an organization whose motto or whatever was, we’re gonna do one event a month, the one that was doing 10 or 15 a week. And we were happy about that. And we’re continuing to grow, continue to get new clients. And when this happened, and the industry just crumbled, right? Every day, somebody called up and said, I’m done. I’m done. I’m done. We kept trying to hold out hope was not going to last long. You know, we can wear a mask. Um, it really became clear, I would say, after the mobile world, Congress was officially cancelled, we were in the mop up of all the billing and the people and logistics on that, that in early March that we my partner, Rene and I sat back and said, what are we gonna do? Because, you know, we could have closed the company, right? A lot of companies like shut their doors, you know, kept their money and walked away and just let everybody go. And we decided we weren’t going to so we are We brought in, we circled the troops, we got people to go, or team in our company together, we brought in you outside folks that we thought were extra smart and could help us through the process. And we looked at, and we tried to define what happened to us. And what’s going to happen to us. And we came up with some core tenets. And one is that, you know, there’s a disruption in our industry is going to be turned over as a result of this. And, and so, whereas a lot of people, I think were thinking that, you know, this is going to be gone in six months, eight months, 10 months, you know, whatnot, I think that virtual events, or some people call them digital events, are something that’s going to be here to stay, because we’re proving the efficacy. We also looked at as an opportunity, we’ve always looked at challenges as an opportunity. You know, not as not as an obstacle, you know. And so, so we looked at as an opportunity, we tried to find the differentiators we look, we tried to look hard at, at what it was that we did in the past that we are still going to be doing and what it is we’re going to need to change to be effective in this role forward. We also saw everybody that the conversation at that point, and I’ll stop me anytime the conversation with clients, and prospective clients and the industry as a whole. Everybody was running out what platform you’re going to use. And you know, is it gonna be zoom teams? Or even just there’s WebEx and on 24 and six connect and all the rest of them Skype? Right? Yeah, whoa. And also, our focus was it, delivery is not going to be an issue, I could put a I could stream video video on Vimeo and put it in a webpage and in 15 minutes, but it’s more about content, and it’s a story you’re going to tell and how are you going to engage the audience? And and even one notch up from that? How are we going to communicate with audiences in this new world? You know, the way people consumed information five years ago, 10 years ago, two years ago is much different than it is now. We tuned into YouTube, we’ve hit Netflix content is already queued up based on our preferences and you know, programs running in the background and watch what we do and offer up new stuff. So how can we be reflective of that movement in our society? So we’ve it’s been a heck of a ride. It really has.

Brad Grantham
We’re gonna get into the content side of this and where we go forward, and a couple minutes, but I want as from a business perspective, take a step back. You mentioned you had that cut, or you had that moment, we had to rally the troops, bring them all in one room and kind of figure out Alright, what are we going to do? How are we going to salvage this? What are we going to do? You know, many events, companies have laid off all their staff, they may have one or two people left behind, they switch to just video production. Instead of doing events or you know, content creation. How much of a buffer did you have in the bank for a time like this?

Norm Aamodt
Well, we initially pledged not to lay anyone off. And I because that’s not we’ve never in 20 years laid anybody off for financial reasons. There’s other reasons why. But we’ve never done that. And, and that was our mantra for the first couple months. And we started looking at the money, we figured we could get to the end of the year. And and see what happens. We’re we’re a little bit in that mode, but we’re not. We’re very bullish about it. We’re gonna be around, we’re sticking around. We did lay out with two layoffs one, we were at 45 event managers, we reduced by seven and then we reduced by another nine.

Brad Grantham
So from a content perspective, you know, talk us through how you’re doing the events right now, obviously, nobody’s in person that’s all virtual. Or if there is an in person event, it’s extremely limited to the people who are in that room, obviously, with COVID test other things. What does the event of today look like for either a global company, regional company? If they’re working through you, what is it look like? And what are you offering?

Norm Aamodt
Good question. Um, the first thing I think you got to do when you think about the engagement of an audience is that you know, we’re now constricted to what goes through this screen we’re looking at you and I are right now. No, it goes to this 13 inch screen. So how do we create that experience? Right. You know, we’re limited, our hands are tied, you know, our bump. We can’t shake hands. We can’t do the things we used to do live and put on the shows and The, you know, the confetti cannons and all that stuff. So um, so when we first started focusing on was providing experience on the other side by delivering things, you know an event in a box. And we focused on social events, which we do tons of now where it’s an hour long zoom meeting, we’re doing a, we had the head of law calm, do how to make coffee, we’ve got Mr. Weber do it literally doing cooking shows for us. And we’ve got a couple people in the company, they’re just focused on building out these programs where we can create a two way interaction. And to us, that’s the fundamental tenant of what you have to try to get done in the virtual world, you have to have a voice both ways, so that I can talk to you, you can talk to me, we can exchange an idea and share. And, you know, so much of what we look at now is pre recorded, you know, it’s called Live, it’s not live, it’s semi live, blah, blah, blah, but so much is not live and and I think that, that when we get into content, I think that when we get into content creation for clients, we talked them about a brevity, abbreviating their commentary to something that actually matters to the other person. Some of the things we talk about is, if you can find it on the internet, you shouldn’t be bringing it up on your session. You know, people are coming to you to learn something that they don’t know, I can Google anything now and find out pretty much anything I want. If I can’t find it, that’s what you should be talking about. So if you’ve got something new to say, let’s talk about it. Let’s have to talk about reducing everything to bite sized comments. You know, we did an event in 2015 for Lenovo and China called tech world. And the core tenant of the show was 15 to 10 to 15 minute segments, I wanted the audience to feel like they just finished a NASCAR race. And we did a two and a half hour show and the sets were changing that things were going it was awesome. And and really I felt like it just didn’t last more than 10 minutes. You know, when you’re watching when you watch a really great movie. Right? It goes fast. Well, that’s because it’s it’s written well, and scripted. Well, so. Yeah. Yeah. So we have courage clients to you know, to bring in writers with a different set of writers, it’s TV writers that you guys know, you know, that that know how to condense a lot of information into a short period of time and make it exciting to listen to. So content creation, Quick Hits. Communication is super important.

Chris Shigas
So you gave a couple of examples there. But I’m really interested. Obviously, you’re plowing ahead. And as you go, you’re kind of learning along the way. And you’re like, Okay, this idea didn’t really work. This idea is really hitting the mark. But what are you seeing on both sides of the things where, okay, we tried that didn’t really work. But then what also is like, this is so effective. I so I recommend it for every event.

Norm Aamodt
We’ve tried doing the normal thing, a guy, the speaker gets up, they talk for 30 minutes. They put the PowerPoints on we cut back and forth with the webinar of the past, right. They don’t work people don’t tune in did the viewership. You know, the dwell rate on that? Five minutes tops. But what does work? And we’ve used this a lot with clients is you know, if you ever watched CBS Sunday morning, right? Yeah, sure. I’m, I hope to be like a chill guy. It feels like a chill thing to do on Sunday mornings, the way that’s written and the way that that’s constructed as a show, where there’s five minute segments, you go to this, you go to that and you move around the same set. We’ve used that analogy with multiple clients, and it works. It really does work and what even what makes it even more better is doing it live. There’s the part that I think clients have to get away from, it’s okay to have a little bit of a flaw, it’s okay to be not perfect. I mean, right. Now, the guy yesterday was grinding a stump in front of my house while I was on a conference call, nothing I could do. So it’s like we’re all in this together. And I think that you know, the flaws that would show in a production where you have maybe two speakers not quite experienced or they make a mistake, it’s okay, move on to say, I bet to say this, or I’m gonna do this and move on. But that that creating a creating a segment of content that then moves quickly, and has something to actually say is what works

Brad Grantham
from an ROI perspective. You know, one could argue that events of the past before COVID may not have been the best use of dollars from a targeted perspective for customers clients. So if you have a huge trade show, you’ve got 30,000 people show up major Gonna rate, you know, 50 to 100 leads maybe a little bit more than that. Maybe that wasn’t the best use of dollars going forward, you know, there’s going to be that natural need to want to connect in person that always be that need for events. But how do you visualize it as a combo, perhaps, where you still have the in person event, but it may be scaled down. At the same time, you’re doing some type of live virtual event in parallel to the actual main event

Norm Aamodt
is a spot on. I’ve been doing events since the mid 80s. I sad to say. But you know, so much of what we do in the event business is about the reaction of an executive or the reaction of a company to say I got a bunch of awards, it’s Wait, I got, you know, 20 leads wonderful. But when you get into digital events, or virtual events, the ability to measure is, is unending. If we can tell what everybody does, we can mind chat for keywords, we can tell them long dwell rates, how many people show up. And, and so what that’s, I think going to do, when events start to come back, and as you point out, I’m 100%, sure they’re going to come back smaller, more focused, you know, that the money’s gonna be a little more, you know, it’s tougher to get sometimes like it was after, you know, eight or nine. But I think that, coupled with a virtual event, it’s going to force the live events for men to put in measurement metrics. Now, what is it? And what am I getting out of it? And I think that’s the best thing that ever happened on business.

Chris Shigas
What one thing we’ve noticed in public relations, and from an external communication standpoint, is more and more companies self publishing, and creating self content and looking for different channels to publish. So what I’m hearing from you in creating, possibly your own show your own broadcast, not thinking it of it as a conference that’s online, but but more of a presentation, it’s it’s kind of another channel for companies to produce self content.

Norm Aamodt
It’s true. I mean, there’s two points to this, I want to make sure I don’t forget, the second one is I did last time, I think that it it’s difficult for companies and event managers, inside companies to turn into line producers for TV shows great, you need to bring in the pros, there are still things, there’s lots of things for them to do, they’ve got to go find the speakers, they’re going to get the content together, they’ve got a, there’s a lot of registered people, there’s all the things, there’s still a role for them. The what, what happens, though, is that if you look at what CES is doing this year, they in partnership with Microsoft are producing CES television, they’ve come out and said they were going to produce broadcast TV for four days, in early January. And that tells you everything about the way this is going to go where it takes you one step further is now all that content lives on. You know, and I I am a wholly confident and this is what we tell clients. And we’re actually right in the middle of this with a with a client now is that you can do that three day show. And we do it effective and really make it sing and get people to sign up and get engaged. But now all this content will live on forever, and you can market to it. So if so you can use that as an engagement tool, down the line on your own hub. And you know, we talk to clients, it’s not necessarily about a specific platform, because you could do it in a webpage. But you know, presenting it in scrollers, much like Netflix, presenting it in a way that is organized, that that the way their audiences want to think is really the way to go.

Chris Shigas
And that there are thousands of people in your industry that are now reevaluating their career options, right. And they may not know where to turn. Many people have lost their jobs or they see handwriting on the wall and maybe they don’t have the vision that you have as far as how they can engage for someone in your industry that’s that’s out of work, trying to reinvent themselves. What advice would you have for them on how they can take the skills from your industry and and apply it back into the types of things you’re doing? Or perhaps be able to engage in marketing communications. In another way.

Norm Aamodt
It’s funny, I talk to my partner about this very thing, you know, we’re not ordering, there’s no food and beverage manager. There’s none of those those roles don’t exist, are gone. But what we are is we’re digital marketers, we’re digital, you know, we’re a digital marketing company now. So you know, I would go out and like I did many years ago you read the marketing books you read what digital marketing really means to talk to friends that then and in people in the industry about digital marketing because in the events world, it’s something we never touched on. We’ve never did this before. I mean, you guys did. Yeah, I do. You know, I would say, befriend YouTube guys and learn everything that’s going

Brad Grantham
when when when somebody is applying to your company, whether it’s now or in the past year or two, and somebody walks through your door, and they strike you, like, we’ve got to hire this person. And let’s say they’re just fresh out of college, maybe a couple years in, what are the qualities that you look at, in a person who’s applying to get in this industry. And you say, I want that person.

Norm Aamodt
It’s funny, we don’t have a mole, but we do. Emotional intelligence is at the very top of the scale, the the desire to do whatever it takes, in a, obviously ethical way. To deliver on a goal, we’re in a services industry. So if you waited tables before, that’s probably a good thing. If you if you you know, you know, what it’s like to take a beating and keep going. Because we are and I think that, you know, an entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to manage money, because our the way our work in our organization is run, as our event managers are in there, like they’re the account manager, the event manager, the person that’s washing the dishes, they do it all. And then their teams behind them support them. So, you know, they have to, you know, know how to balance a checkbook and know how to negotiate fees. But it’s that I think top line is that emotional intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit would be the two keys

Brad Grantham
30 years in, what would you say, is your best success, event wise? And what was your biggest disaster? And what did you learn from it?

Norm Aamodt
I think the tech world events we did in 1516, for the Lenovo were fantastic. They were world class programs. I think the biggest disaster was and I won’t name this client showing up in Las Vegas when I was much younger guy not having done my homework. So that’s a really big exhibit. And I didn’t get the engineering drawing stamp, the drawing stamp fine engineer. And I am looking, thank God, I bullshitted my way through it. But if I hadn’t bullshitted my way through it, I would have had one of the biggest electronic companies in the world. firing me. Yeah, I’ll never forget that as long as I live. It didn’t turn into a disaster, but it was close.

Chris Shigas
Well, norm, I need your advice here. I I’m putting together my 2021 plan. How do I fill this gap? What what what what should I even be thinking of as my event strategy?

Norm Aamodt
The question, I think that, you know, you have to look at the way events, you know, why do you go to events in the first place? Why don’t we do all this as a more as an as a company, you know, as we’re working on behalf of other companies, and we talk to clients? Well, if you need leads and need to meet people, right, you go to trade shows, because they’ve got all this data, the companies they’re showing up, they do all the heavy lifting on marketing and delivering the audience. And if you do a really good job as a, as an event marketer, you’ll get them to come by your booth, you can sign them up for stuff and get their names in your database. So I think I think that, you know, in terms of lead generation, and that front, I would participate in the digital online events as much as you can. But you want to drive them to your own experience, I think there, we just did an event, I don’t want to bash any companies. But we did one in the online experience for this industry. That was terrible. The good part was is we didn’t rely on them, we had our own digital event on top of it outside of it. So we said, Come on over here and see our digital event, a big virtual booth and on the carpet. Yeah, if you’ve got clients in the sales cycle, and you know who they are, and you want to talk to them, I would run social networking events, I mean, the last thing in the world anybody really wants to do is to be sold, they want to build a relationship with you, you know, running, you know, like what we do with these social events we do, where you’d run an hour long event, you get every 20 people on a call, had someone come in from the outside to talk or do a demo, or whatever the case may be, like the Weber guy, get something in that person’s hands to do that would give them more reason to actually show up the day of the show, you know, FOMO is always a good thing and, and just talk to them and tell them what’s going on. And then and then if you can start scheduling meetings around that. I you know, we’re you know, on the side, if you want to have a meeting with me, call me up or texted me and I’ll be glad to set up a meeting. We can talk more I think that did that interaction is so important. I think another thing that is missing and I think our industry is still struggling with is the sense of community. computing, community chat rooms community, you know, communities around topics. I mean, Microsoft does a really good job on on their stuff. But I don’t think that I think that opportunity is missed by companies creating communities around their their objectives, their marketing objectives and their customers and prospects and let your customers sell your prospects, that kind of thing. What are

Brad Grantham
your clients? Your current clients? Obviously, most people have scaled back this year, or have adjusted to the virtual events. What are your clients saying for next year, budget wise, Outlook wise?

Norm Aamodt
Everybody, everybody’s pretty much in a holding pattern till q2. So far, I think they’re all we’re all waiting for the vaccine. So we can go ahead and start licking doorknobs again, you know, you know, and I think it’s coming and we all know it is and so you know, what the advocacy is? I, I think that budgets are going to be diminished. You know, virtual events aren’t cheap. And I think that’s a, you know, virtual events done right aren’t cheap. We just didn’t want all those tech world two weeks ago. And we built studios then produced all the content in live studios to make it more authentic. And none of that’s cheap, with a huge COVID testing protocol, which cost a lot of money to keep everybody safe. But I think budgets are going to slim down I think companies are if they’re still getting the same results and not doing events. You know,

Chris Shigas
speaking of budgets, and I know that, you know, obviously, some global corporations might have what’s a seemingly unlimited budget for a lot of companies, let’s say, a mid sized company, if they want to engage in a virtual event, and they want to do it, right. They don’t want to embarrass themselves, what what do they need in terms of budget,

Norm Aamodt
we’ve got a little program, we call it a platform, it’s really that’s a webpage with with no holes in it. And it’s well designed and well run and we serve content, and it only has to live and you know, 4050 grand, something like that to do a couple hours. Well Rania producers in the background and rehearsals ahead of time, someone to write the scripts for you, coach you up on how to organize it, have breakout sessions in the afternoon, you know, get all the technology working in the right direction. It’s all scalable, though. It’s, as technology continues to evolve like this, this team’s live, it’s come out that this guy is a pretty good platform for doing live events. It continues to get cheaper, as we get better at

Brad Grantham
that as he’s talking about all the different sets and this that the thing that keeps going through my mind is the guy from airplane who actually unplugs everything, there’s that there’s that picture of the guy just going sorry. We we’ve asked this to a couple of different people who’ve been on PR wars. And that is this question. If you could go back in time, and tell yourself one piece of advice 30 years ago, what would that be?

Norm Aamodt
Wow, that’s a good question. Um, there isn’t much that did differently. This isn’t boastful any way shape or form. I think that, you know, I’ve been blessed by the turns that I’ve never seen coming. You know, and, and I think that, you know, hard work and perseverance and dedication to being really good at your job has gotten us, me and my company through a lot of obstacles. So, you know, on the professional and personally, I could definitely rewrite a few of those pages, but, um, perform professionally. I couldn’t be happier about the decisions we made as a company and where we are and how we got here.

Brad Grantham
From a structure standpoint, what is your company look like at the moment? Like, you’ve got the event managers you’ve got, I mean, walk us through with the company and we may not use this. I’m just curious what the structure looks like.

Norm Aamodt
That’s actually a good question. I’ll I will say one thing I wish I had done differently. That’s seven years ago, we brought on a guy who was the was Bill Morton’s, like jack Morton, the agency. No more in his right hand guy is a retired guy business for 28 years. And we had struggled very hard as a company to get to grow our business. And through dumb luck, Atlanta did this guy bill Barr selector. And he was I wish I had met him 20 years ago, because we would be off the charts. I learned more from him than I learned in the previous 20 in two years of hiring him as a consultant. Then I didn’t 20 years in the business it was phenomenal. And that that I would grant would have done over in a heartbeat or organizational Structure right now it’s very, it’s been very flat. We pride ourselves on, on on our clients being directly in contact with the person doing the work. So like I said before, there’s no contact, there’s no project manager, there’s no, you don’t even have project managers. But there’s no account managers, there’s nobody collecting information, and then disseminating it to the team. client, do, we’re done. And that’s where we run. And we’re finding that we’re starting to change that a little bit, we’re thinking about changing a little bit, because the client needs more from us in, in talking about how it all works, you know, and, you know, because it works a whole lot differently today than it did six months ago. So, you know, we’ve got, you know, our people, as any company, you know, some people are better than other things, one thing some people better other, and we’ve got a few that are that are super good. And taking that, that that the mission of the client has turning it in topping, turning into a strategy and then then communicating how to deliver that.

Chris Shigas
We did this pivot, we had this change. Where’s it going now? Where, where? Where do you see the industry change?

Norm Aamodt
I couldn’t be more excited about where our business is going. I you know, I can tell you, we still have four or five, six months of unmitigated, you know, hard work in front of us. I think, though, when it opens up, and people want to get together again, it’s gonna take off like you’ve never seen before.

Chris Shigas
And people want to go to Vegas again.

Norm Aamodt
I can’t wait out the house. I was there 14 times when everybody called me crazy. I think it’s, I think it’s gonna be a phenomenal renaissance of the industry and a maturation of the industry. Because now because we’ve got are getting virtual events really, right. And we’re measuring the living daylights out of them. Now, we got to do it for the rest. And it’s just got to happen and I couldn’t make me happier.

Chris Shigas
Norm, thank you so much for joining us on PR wars today.

Norm Aamodt
was great to be here, guys. Thank you.

Chris Shigas
Well, you can talk to Brad and me at PR wars on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. We’d love to hear from you and find out what you would like us to cover on the next episode of PR Wars. You can find a new episode every Sunday night at 8pm. Eastern. On behalf of Brad Grantham and the entire PR wars nation. I’d like to thank Norm Aamodt, President of the Event Strategy Group. Do me a favor. If you’re in the event space. Don’t give up hope. Companies are learning how to navigate this brave new world. And we need you. You may have to learn some new skills, a crash course in digital marketing, but there is opportunity on this new playing field and the demand will grow and you can win the day. Now go get ’em.

PR Wars was selected as a Top PR Podcast You Must Follow in 2020 by Feedspot.

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