This transcript is from Episode 37 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/37
Interview only transcript
Tom: Folks, I'd like to welcome Shawna Suckow, CMP to the show. Shawna, welcome.
Shawna: Thank you. Good to be here.
Tom: I am thrilled to have you. Now, Shawna, you are the chairwoman of SPIN, which is the Senior Planners Industry Network? Am I right on that?
Shawna: Yes, that's correct.
Tom: Okay. You've won a bunch of awards including in 2015, I see you were one of the top 25 women in the meeting industry by MNC magazine. You've authored books. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in the event industry?
Shawna: Oh, sure. So way back in the 90's, I was just out of college. And my degree was in international business and Spanish. And I thought I would walk right into some top level job, and that didn't happen. So I ended up taking a temporary position with a commercial estate company. And through a chain of events, I got asked to do, to help plan the charity events. And that led to planning another things, led to planning another thing. And then eventually, that commercial estate company opened up an internal training university and I got brought on as the second person in that department. And I was then in charge of all the training internally for the company which involved a lot of planning of meetings. So I was one of those people back in the day where it fell in my lap. There was no formal education channel to get where…You know, I didn't really even know it was a job, frankly. I didn't know it was a career. Like many of us I suppose my age and older, it found me. And I'm very grateful.
Tom: Now once you started planning these meetings and realizing everything was coming along, how did you progress in your training?
Shawna: Well, I didn't have a lot of training for my job, which was really unfortunate, which is why I'm such a proponent of continuing education today. Because I wasn't aware even of MTI back when I first got started. And so for years, I was the only one I knew that did what I did, and I learned through a ton of trial and error. And there was a lot of error. There was a lot of embarrassment, there was a lot of money wasted. And once I finally discovered all of the wonderful industry associations, what a difference it made. And so I encourage anyone in the industry who's listening to this, who's feeling alone in their job, to just join an association. There's a lot of online learning if you're not near a chapter, but it's something we should never stop doing. I'm still learning today.
Tom: Well, I think it's important to learn. I love that lifetime learner aspect. So you were talking about how you learn from trial and error. And I'm going to turn the podcast around a little bit today because I want to start with something I usually close toward the end with. And it's about event horror stories because I really think that people learn from hearing where others made mistakes. And I was wondering if you have a little horror story that happened to you, maybe early in your career, something that happened, and how you dealt with it and what you learned from it.
Shawna: Oh my goodness, yes. I don't know how horrifying it is to anyone but me. But I was so embarrassed and it was a good lesson for me. And that's about gratuities. And I had been taking the same group to the same hotel on a fairly regular basis for you know, quarterly learning. The same company, they'd have different divisions go there, and I developed a great relationship with these people. And they would bust their humps to make sure that the group was happy, and that I was great every after meeting. And somewhere along the line, the sales person pulled me aside and she said…mentioned something about gratuity. You know, we have a method to give you kind of cash if you ever wanted to do that. It's not required or whatever. And I was so mortified, so grateful to her. And I had one idea that a lot of the workers who work in hotels don't make a living range without the tips that planners give them after an event done well. And I remember the bartender was an older man. He was just always so grateful to be helpful. And at the end of each night, I just say, “Thank you so much,” shake his hand, give him a hug or whatever, “See you next time.” And you wouldn't do that in a restaurant if the bartender was serving you. So it just never occurred to me. And ever since then, I've written about it, I've talked about it. I teach a couple of classes at the local college. I make sure that they understand that just like you would do in any service industry, you've got to be prepared to show your gratefulness and appreciation to the people that are making you look like a rock star.
Tom: Excellent. Excellent story. I really appreciate that. That's good stuff. Now, I'm going to take and turn the tables around here. You've attended a number of events, you've thrown a bunch of events. Was there one that really stood out in your mind as truly amazing? And can you kind of pick maybe something that really stood out in your mind that you've been able to incorporate in events you've planned?
Shawna: I'm going to be a little selfish here and just mention SPINCon. The very first SPINCon that we've ever put together was seven years ago. And we did it on a shoestring, and so we didn't have the glitz and glamor and the wow factor to impress. All the senior-level planners, average of 20 years in the industry, they've seen it all, they've done it all. And they're coming to our meeting. What do we have to offer them? And so we, on a shoestring, we did so many wacky, creative things because it's all we had to leverage was our creativity and the connections that we were able to foster for people that came. And that really taught me a good lesson is at the end of the day, is it about the centerpieces or is it about the human connection? And I'm not saying don't ever do centerpieces. If you've got the budget, make your event have a wow factor. But what that taught me, after all these years, the centerpieces was, “Wow, okay. These people had a great event and it wasn't because of the wow factor of the staging or anything like that. It was because they had a human experience.”
Tom: Well, you're actually an expert on the…helping planners. You help planners engage their audiences. And I was hoping we could talk a little bit about that today. That's a very deep subject. But when a planners putting together a meeting or an event, are there tips that you have that if they can consider in furthering that engagement with their audience?
Shawna: Oh, so many tips. I think that audience engagement is a huge challenge for the meetings and events industry right now, but it's a solvable challenge. And we're facing a lot of challenges like ZICA, for example, that we can't fix. But we can fix this. What's happening is our meetings and events follow a similar format that they've followed for 20 or 30 years. They're not evolving to keep pace with our audiences. And one of the things that I've found extremely interesting is that adult learning theory, which is all the rage 20 years ago, is kind of out the window now. There's no singular way that adults learn or engage. Everybody is an individual and they come with different life lessons, different expectations. For example, take the introvert versus the extrovert. They're going to have a very different experience unless you help them engage. The newcomer, the person who's a newcomer to the industry or to the meeting versus somebody who's been coming to the meeting for 20 years, they're going to have a different experience unless you facilitate that engagement strategically. What happens is we've got these wonderful devices now that we can fall away from what's going on and go hide in a corner and check Facebook if we're not feeling it. And so, the job of the event planner more than ever is to meet the people where they're at, keep them, make the meeting or event so engaging they don't want to check their phone. And that means, strategically helping them make those connections, which is the number one reason people want to come to meeting or events in the first place is to network and make human connection.
Tom: So let's talk about how we can do that.
Shawna: There are several ways, but what I'd like to do is take a…now, we've got planners of all different kinds listening to this, but my sweet spot is the conference. That's where I was brought up. So it's like a three-day conference, say you've got 500 people coming to the conference. A large chunk of them are going to be industry newcomers, first-time attendees, and introverts. Those are the three populations that I really take a special interest in my meetings going forward because they have a hard time making those new connections. And what I've found is the magic number is eight, like a magic eight ball. Think of a magic eight ball. If you can help everybody at the conference make at least eight new connections, then a lot of magical things happen. Their learning retention goes up, their involvement goes up. They're more likely to show up at the evening functions rather than retreat to their rooms. They're more likely to give higher overall ratings to the conference, and they're most likely come back the next year. And over the course of the year, they're going to become an ambassador for the conference and tell people how good it was.
So that's just a matter of helping them make eight connections. And so I love to have first timer sessions. If you're a first timer or you're new to the industry, or if you're an introvert, people forget introverts, come and just meet other people so that you have kind of a base camp. You have kind of a tribe that you fit into, that you have some allies to attend things with. And help them have a meaningful conversations, not just exchange business cards. That's not only at that pre-conference session but throughout the conference. Don't just leave your breaks and your networking functions to chance. You've got to help people along a little bit.
And there's all kinds of ways to do it. There's color-coded name badges, there's stickers, there's lanyards, there's all kinds of visual cues that can help people connect with people who are similar to them. You can do a mentoring program where you hook up a veteran. you can match a veteran with a newcomer on day one. And that veteran's job is to introduce the newcomer to as many people as possible. You can use gamification. You can use an app. I mean, there are a million ways just to strategically enable these human connections to happen. And one of the simplest things that I do is now that I'm a professional speaker the majority of my time, whenever I have a session, I don't care what I'm talking about, I will have people stand up and relocate themselves to sit with people they don't know, and then just take a minute to share something about themselves with the people that they're now sitting with. Because people sit with people they already know, or they sit with their coworkers. I heard an interesting fact. People will sit with someone they know and don't like before they will sit next to a stranger. That's human nature.
Tom: That's interesting.
Shawna: Yeah. So facilitate those connections, longer breaks. That's another thing. People can't really make decent meaningful connections with a 15-minute break. There's just too much going on. And so, longer breaks, strategic networking, having assigned seats or randomized seating at your event. All good things to do.
Tom: Excellent, excellent stuff. And yeah, as you were talking about that, I was thinking about an event that I attend where we specifically single out the new people and everyone who's a veteran of being there for numerous years makes it a point to go talk to them and introduce them to others. So that's some great stuff.
Shawna: Yeah, I was just at a conference over the weekend where international speakers association does something interesting. Every newcomer, they get a bright red badge that says VIP. And it doesn't say new or new member or anything like that. It says VIP because they are in some respects, they're the most important people there because they're newcomers. They're going to be a new foundation if this association is to grow. And a wonderful thing happens when you have that VIP badge is all of these established long time members will come up. I saw this happen. A very established, well-respected speaker sent out a tweet that said, “Hey everyone, I am at such and such table and I'm with this person who's brand new. Please stop by and say hi.” Oh my gosh, you know, what a great thing that that person did. So it's just taking the time to recognize those people who are going to have a challenging time. You know, I'm extremely outgoing, but if I'm the only person I know at an event where I often am as a speaker, it's difficult for me too because there are natural cliques and groups or conversations going on and it can be difficult. So whatever you can do to help that out.
Tom: I absolutely love all those tips and I appreciate that input. Now I'd like to take us in a different direction. One of the other things we talked about prior to in our emails, you've mentioned about the topic on event sponsorship. And sponsorship can take a lot of different forms. So, what does a planner need to consider when they're looking for sponsorship?
Shawna: Oh, goodness. Yes, sponsorship can make or break an event. They can become the foundation of a workable project or a lacking budget. So it's become more important than ever to think about the sponsor and what their goals and objectives are, not just what your goals and objectives are. And beyond that, it's now important to consider what the audiences' goals and objectives are and integrate all three into a win-win-win as Kim Skildum-Reid, who's a brilliant sponsorship expert says. So make it a win-win-win and don't just think about the money you need to raise but how can I provide a fantastic marketing vehicle for my sponsors and how do I connect them with the audience, which is what they really want without interrupting the audience's enjoyment of the event. So how to make a seamless win-win-win for all the three. And back when I did sponsorships in the 90's, we never really thought that way. It was, how do I part this sponsor from their money? What benefits can I throw at them to make them say, “Yes, I'll write you a check.” And that's really all we did back then. And now, it's become a lot more strategic and a lot more thoughtful. So I love the way that industry is taking us today.
Tom: That's some pretty interesting stuff. I mean, that's a lot for somebody to consider. I know that a lot of people are hesitant to reach out to sponsors. Is there any advice you have in your…how do I going to say this? I'm such a pro. Is there any…is there any advice you have from your experience on ways to start that conversation with a potential sponsor?
Shawna: Well, first of all, you've got to get your mindset right. And a lot of planners feel ishy about it because they feel like they're begging for money but you're not. If you think about it a different way, that sponsor wants to reach their audience. And you've got the audience in the palm of your hand and you can deliver a beautiful match, a beautiful marketing vehicle for that sponsor. And so it's almost your duty to make that potential sponsor aware of this fantastic marketing channel that they've probably never thought of. And so you're offering them a way to meet their objective; you're not offering them a way to part with their money. That's secondary to what's really going on. They're not going to part with their money if they don't see a way to meet their business objectives. And so, if you approach the conversation from that mindset, you are not begging for money. You are there to present a win-win, and you start the conversation with asking the sponsor, if you can schedule a conversation and not catching them off-guard, I would ask them, “What are your biggest marketing challenges?” And then talk about the benefits that you have available to help them reach those marketing goals.
And if you're catching them off-guard and you're really just sending out an email, I would just start with, “It's not about the event. And it's not about you. It's about them.” And approach it as, “Here's the return investment that you can achieve by attending our event, by sponsoring our event, by partnering with us.” And it's not anymore about logos on stuff. That's an unfortunate part that every sponsor is going to want but it's so much more than logos on signs and logos on stuff. It's about how are you going to help them reach their marketing objectives. It's a whole different conversation today.
Tom: Most certainly is. When somebody's starting out when they're reaching out to new sponsors, do you recommend…I mean, a lot of people want to send emails, some people want to send hard-copy letter. Or do you recommend a phone call? What would you do if you're searching for new sponsors?
Shawna: I would actually start my search on LinkedIn. Or I would start, if I have a board of directors for the event or what not, I would start with the relationships that are already in place. So on LinkedIn, I can figure out where my existing relationships within a target company already lie, let's just say Target. You know, if I'm trying to approach Target, I would look on Linkedin and I would search for Target in companies, and it will bring up everybody that I have second, third, first level connections with. Or I would start that conversation with the board of directors or the C-Suite, anybody who has a lot of leverage, and ask them to make a very simple introduction and I'll take it from there. Because getting the foot in the door is critical these days to get them pay attention to you. Often times, an email blast is going to be ignored, a phone call's just going to be ignored, unless you can name drop or have a foot in the door. What's your foot in the door? What's your connection to the people you're trying to reach? Start there and you won't waste a lot of time.
Tom: Now, once you've partnered with these sponsors, are there ideas for, I guess, putting them out in front the attendees in other ways? You mentioned, of course, the logo, and I know a lot of people will put them in the program or different things. Are there different ways that you present them to your attendees?
Shawna: Absolutely. And it depends on the level of their sponsoring, of course. But at higher levels, you can really get into what they specifically want, what's their motivation for sponsoring? And without getting into a whole lot of details, there are four main categories that their motivations will fall into. And one of them may be good will. Maybe they're just sponsoring for good will. And in that case, they just want, maybe you align them with the charity, or if you have a corporate social responsibility effort like if as part of your event you're going to go paint houses or something, then they can sponsor that. Align them with what they're trying to achieve. If they want to get their product into the hands of the people who are there, that's a whole different sponsorship type. If they're trying to get known in the industry, that's a branding type motivation. And you want to help them memorable.
One of the things that we do at SPINCon, as another example, is we've been to a ton of industry events where a parade of sponsors will get up at the podium and do their three-minute pitch about their hotel or their city or their transportation company or whatever, and it's not memorable. So at SPINCon, we take our top sponsors and we give them stage time, but they have to put on a skit, they have to do something, a song, a dance, or whatever, something really memorable. And it works because I just had somebody the other day say, “I still remember from five years ago that these particular CVB, conventions and visitors bureau, did that skit that was so funny and I remember them. That's the whole point if you're trying to get branding as your main purpose of sponsoring is you want to be memorable. You don't just want your logo slapped on a sign. They can be more noticed. And so, how do you make your sponsor be memorable?
Tom: I absolutely love that. Now I'm going to ask another question on this. If once you've done your event, are there follow-up recommendations you can make to really cultivate that relationship with the sponsor for future events?
Shawna: Absolutely. You definitely want to send a final report to the sponsor of all the deliverables and any extra deliverables that you did to add value. So sending the final report to them. I also like to send a report as an event is approaching, like a monthly report, or a quarterly report, depending on how far out you are saying, “Here's what we've got coming up that we're planning on doing as part of your fulfillment, and here's what we've already done.” So that you start to build a relationship and they realize this is happening not just the three days of the event, but this is happening beforehand. And then after the event, you can give sponsors the first right for refusal on the next year. You can give them a loyalty discount, you can give them a multi-year discount. All these things are a win-win. Our sponsors, in our events get, because we always sell out of our sponsorship opportunities. So they, at this particular event, so they get first dibs, if you will, to ensure their slot for next year at this year's prices. And so, it's a loyalty builder and then we send the final report of everything that we did. And here's the other thing. If we did not fulfill a sponsorship benefit, it doesn't just expire. We continue to fulfill that through the upcoming year until we can cross it off the list. We leave no sponsorship benefit unfulfilled.
Tom: That's great advice.
Shawna: Yeah, we've called sponsors who's sponsorship expired like three months ago and they think they're never going to hear from us again and they don't ring up. And we'll call them and we'll say, “Hey, you still have an ad in our newsletter. Would you still like to get this in there?” And they're like, “Wow! Nobody's ever done this before.” And we've won some sponsors back that way because we're serving them with integrity.
Tom: Right there, that last line is just great. “Serving them with integrity.” I love that. Now Shawna, on your website, you mentioned one of your passions is helping destinations represent themselves better to event planners. Our audience are not destinations. Well, I'm sure that there are some venues and destination locations that are listening to it. But I'm wondering, where do you feel that they fall short? And are there questions that a planner could ask to help make better decisions on their destinations?
Shawna: Yes. Destinations fall short in marketing themselves like everybody else. There's a particular major industry event that I go to where the lunch has typically three main sponsors. And each get to come up, they get to say three minutes of promotion and then they get to show a three-minute video. And it's a parade for those 18 minutes of the same thing. And that same thing happened at breakfast. And this goes on for three days. And we're seeing, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 videos and it shocks me. This is when it occurred to me several years ago is these guys, their videos are all showing the same thing. “Here's somebody…”, so picture a destination. “Okay, here's our meeting space. Here's somebody playing golf. Here's somebody dining out. Here's a group of lovely ladies who are shopping. Here are people doing outdoorsy things that are exciting in our destination.” And it's the same. And it's set to music, and it's the same thing.
And so, they're marketing themselves very generically, even if they think, “Well, our destination is the best.” Well, you're not really helping us to differentiate. And so as planners, when we are going on a site inspection to a new city, for example, I am very specific. I don't leave it to chance anymore. I say, “Here are the top three things that I want to experience about this city.” And it's based entirely on the demographics of my group and what my group's objectives are. Otherwise, if you leave it to chance, for example, back when I first started in commercial real estate, that audience is 80% men and their average age of 40, very heavy drinkers, heavily networkers, sales people, type A. Invariably, whenever I would go on a site inspection, I would see spa after spa after spa. These guys don't spend any time in the spa, you know. And I would not speak up and say, “Here's what I really need to see. I need to see your bar, I need to see your outdoor spaces, I need to see you common areas where we could set up networking events.” I never spoke up to get what I needed. And so my advice would be, to help those destinations or those hotels stand out to you, tell them what your priorities are. And if they respect those priorities, it's going to be a good site visit.
Tom: Shawna, I've got to tell you. I have really enjoyed our conversation today. You have shared so much gold with our listeners. I do appreciate it. If they're interested in learning more about SPIN or learning more about you as a speaker, or your services, can you tell them how they're going to be able to reach out to you?
Shawna: Thank you. And it's been my pleasure to be on today. We've covered a lot of territory. Thank you. If they're interested in SPIN, they have to be a full-time planner with ten years of experience or more. And they can apply at spinplanners.com. During 2016, membership dues are free, and all registration fees are waived including SPINCon, our annual conference in November. It's called the year of the member. Never been done before. And if you're interested in me as a speaker, they can go to shawnasuckow.com, and I help them deliver strategic audience engagements at events. And I also speak to groups of sales people to help them differentiate how their marketing and selling to whatever audience, not just planners.
Tom: Well again, Shawna, thank you so very much for taking the time to sit down and talk with me today.
Shawna: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Tom.
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