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Design Thinking

by Saul Leese

EN talks to Harvard design thinking expert Jake Austin and big data whizz Mark Parsons about thinking differently in a time of unprecedented chaos.

Over recent years the discipline of Design Thinking has gained significant momentum. How might design thinking be useful for organisers in dealing with the aftermath of the current crisis? It’s about how the anticipated constraints provide opportunities to address underlying issues and engage with communities in a proactive way. So, what is design thinking and how can it help? Design Thinking is a process to create, validate and test different ideas. It’s become very fashionable in technology companies and is now taught at leading business schools. It’s fast becoming more mainstream because it actually works.

Design Thinking is particularly well suited to event organisers because it’s methodology is similar to how shows are created. There is a vision of: what the show should be, how it is curated, what it should feel like, what matters to attendees and exhibitors, and why they should visit. Each year new ideas, technologies and concepts are trialled and built on the prior edition. This process of prototyping, testing and iteration is natural to many in the events industry. While a quick search on the web will turn up hundreds of frameworks, we favour a simple five step approach championed by Stanford University.

We focused on the first three stages in this article. This helped us frame the options that might be available to organisers during the upcoming months. By understanding the constraints, we proposed an approach to build a better show within the framework of the anticipated measures to reduce community transmission of COVID-19. So how do you help thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors when you can’t hold a show? We started to approach this by unpicking the problem and defining what a trade show is, and what value it delivers. Using this approach, our thoughts turned to jigsaws. Maybe the jigsaws we’ve both rediscovered during the lockdown inspired us!

While trade shows split broadly into two main groups – exhibitors and attendees, the underlying pieces which make up a trade show are thousands of people with problems (or opportunities). When a show is held, the pieces are put together in a specific way. Some pieces are the customer, some pieces are the product. Organisers now face a number of constraints which prevent them from assembling the same jigsaw. That’s not to say you can’t start to put the pieces together again in different ways though, tactical ways, to build a better show when you can. What are the implications of likely constraints?

Turning to the likely constraints, there are four which are likely to have a significant impact on organisers over the coming months. Firstly, the need for social distancing, secondly, the limits on gathering size, thirdly, travel restrictions and fourthly venue access, will all limit options. In simple terms, we might not be able to gather many people from different countries close together in a physical space for a long while. With no ability to gather people together, the reality is that online is the only solution in the short term. But digital offerings lack the serendipity, the surprise, and the sense of community which physical creates. Who isn’t closer to their friends, family and colleagues during this crisis? We all have a physical need to belong. As we emerge from the crisis, we can use this need to belong to help customers connect again. Gathering size is the most challenging constraint.

A typical trade show has a ratio of ~20-30 attendees per exhibitor. These densities rarely generate profitable events when applied to an event of 50, 100 or 500 people. Some formats are far better suited to this such as 1 to 1 meetings, panels and matchmaking / speed-dating at the smaller end, and conferences and confexs at the larger end. These formats often don’t transition well to trade shows, but this is normally due to lack of market demand.

The crisis has created an unusual situation where the demand exists, but we can’t deliver a ‘normal’ trade show. Solutions to build better shows An organiser who is able to empathise with the needs of their customers, their competitors’ customers and their audience during this time could do powerful things to create a stronger show in the future. Rather than wait until restrictions lift, work out which communities shape your industry in the future and invest in them now.

Start building small jigsaws to solve their unique problems and knit them into your existing show when restrictions lift. When we applied this approach to a client’s show, we made the following recommendations: » Pivot the exhibitor sales team to talk to attendees for one week to gain greater empathy and identify new unmet needs. » Segment existing data on exhibitors and attendees into very fine-grained clusters. This includes both consideration of the company but also the individual role at the company to understand the size and opportunity of desirable clusters.

Create lean and low-cost digital products based on desirable clusters to drive engagement and create new routes for exhibitors to reach customers. Examples might include the repurposing of prior show video content, creation of digital buying guides, or leveraging your speaker network for fresh content. » Roll out a regional 1 to 1 meeting format to focus on finding domestic suppliers as soon as gathering sizes are ~50. Any recovery is going to be domestic first, and many companies will need to find new suppliers. Explore the use of video to run the events concurrently (i.e. not all people need to be in the same room).

Roll out a thematic ‘On tour’ one day format for small scale local events near to your customers and competitors shows when gathering sizes permit ~500 people. These are focused on growth areas for the future show to establish thought leadership. It may be that third parties are better positioned to offer some of these services on your behalf. By positioning live events as transitional activities; because you’re unable to run the “normal” show, this creates a clear path for migration of the attendees and exhibitors to the show in the future. What is important is the need to retain flexibility.

While the future is unknowable, there are many states of the world which might occur as constraints relax and the economic reality evolves for customers. An empathy led, design thinking approach to solving customer problems now, is a roadmap to building stronger shows in the future.

About the Authors

Jake Austin has worked in group strategy and corporate development roles at UBM Informa and Clarion Events extensively over the last 10 years. As an independent consultant he specialises in helping organisers with customer insights, growth strategy and delivering effective M&A. He is currently studying design thinking as a post graduate qualification at Harvard Business School.

Mark Parsons runs Events Intelligence, a big data business which uses machine learning to understand the similarity between companies and find new exhibitors at scale. For the last four years he has helped the strategy and deal teams at major organisers using data-led origination tactics. He is a Chartered Accountant, holds an Executive MBA from London Business School, and a Masters in Data Science and Business Analytics from NYU Stern.

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