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Ops Nest: the lockdown-inspired membership programme for the event operations community

by Joe Gallop

Joe Gallop meets Lou Kiwanuka to learn how the Ops Nest has moved to support the exhibitions sector

Learning and support community the Ops Nest has been at the very heart of the event operations scene since it was launched last year.

Lou Kiwanuka, who has worked in operations since 1996 and is also the chair of the Event Service and Supplier Association (ESSA), set up the programme as a response to Covid-19, but already had the idea for a number of years prior.

Founder of The Shaper Group Kiwanuka says the inspiration for the programme came about when she realised there was a “lack of training” for operations workers, other than general safety guidance.

“But safety is just a slither of our job role,” she says. “We need to know a little bit about a lot to be able to create a show. It’s just a whole bunch of moving parts.”

For the past 14 years, Kiwanuka has run a freelance operations company where she had to train her own team.

“About five years ago I thought this is getting ridiculous,” she says. “For every person that walks through the door there’s not enough time in the day to give them the knowledge I have, and continuously keep training the people who come through.”

Kiwanuka turned this frustration into a plan; to create a four-day in person training course at venues, with the “knowledge at the source of the expertise”.

“We would have the electricians there, the carpet fitters and the furniture guys there, so that we can impart that kind of knowledge to the next crop of ops managers.”

After years in the making, the course was launched last February after International Confex and the “buzz” of the physical event.

“We sold about 50% in two days and looked like it was going to be the next big thing in operations, and then the pandemic hit,” she says.

Kiwanuka says she felt a great sense of community after the event and focused on how to maintain this with without people being in the same room over lockdown.

Instead of letting the work to go to waste, Kiwanuka, like many event professionals during this time, pivoted and moved on to her next venture.

Ops Nest

During the first lockdown, Kiwanuka set up ‘Ops in Lockdown’, a free weekly training session series over four months that explored issues surrounding the pandemic and how industry can develop.

While restrictions began to ease, a return to ‘normal’ still looked far from reach. This then led to the development of the Ops Nest as we know it today – a collection of venues, organisers, suppliers and contractors.

Kiwanuka says she took the “essence” of the weekly lockdown series and turned it into a membership community focused on training with industry experts.

While it was of course not able to operate in person, Kiwanuka decided to set up a series of masterclasses, all CPD accredited, which each member has monthly access to.

“Some can be niche, some can be broad,” she says. So far, the masterclasses have covered subjects such as rigging, event project management, security, electric and children at events.

Response to the pandemic

“Ops people usually find a way to make the best of a bad situation,” says Kiwanuka. “The people within Ops Nest have that at their core.”

The bad situation is exactly why the programme was set up and for its founder has been one of the positives to come out of 2020.

She adds: “The collaborations and the relationships that have come out of this digital platform and largely digital membership, is astonishing.

“Contracts have been exchanged, contacts and knowledge are all grouped together, we come together to talk about different challenges that the industry has. Not just to talk about them, but to also find solutions for them.

“It’s been fascinating. I’ve been surprised by just how successful it’s been. Not just in terms of how people are paying to part of a membership community, but also the relationships that they’ve formed.

“I always hoped and intended that but when it actually happens, it’s incredible. It’s like magic – the magic you see on the show floor.

She adds: “I know a lot of people don’t think we can create that digitally, and I’m all for face to face, but to say that we can’t create that digitally when I’ve seen it before my very eyes, you would be wrong.

“Serendipity does take place in the digital space, we just haven’t as an industry figured out how to tap into that properly yet.”

Tapping into digital and physical

The group also holds a ‘Let’s Talk’ series every week, which has so far featured speakers including Andrew Evans, Jason Stead and Simon Garret.

While it usually operates on digital platform Thinkific, the group was able to expand into the physical event world with Ops Nest Live back in October, just before the second lockdown. The event, which held around 100 people at Pergola Olympia restaurant in London, brought the Let’s Talk sessions to a real stage and there are currently plans for another event as soon as possible.

Similarly, the group introduced its other face to face mechanism, Ops on Tour last year, where members travel to contractors’ workshops and factory warehouses across the country to go behind the scenes gain a deeper understanding of operational processes.

“In that sense it deepens the relationships between the contractors and the operational community,” says Kiwanuka.

Currently at around 90 members, the programme, which Kiwanuka says has a strong retention rate, uses both corporate and individual memberships. Similar to EventWell’s, system, even if members are not earning anything, they can pledge whatever sum they want and receive what they need, “no questions asked”.

“It’s a way for people in the industry to help when sometimes we can’t figure out how we can do so,” she says.

Long-term goals

Kiwanuka, who has been in charge of The Shaper Group since 2016, says every member of the company is also part of the latest membership programme: “The whole reason Ops Nest exists is because I want Event Shaper to be the most forward thinking, educated group of ops professionals that are in the industry. That’s my goal.”

As for Kiwanuka’s ambition for beyond this year, she says: “I would love our operational community across the industry to become better educated to stop increasing knowledge through mistakes which is fundamentally what learning on the job is.

“I would love for people to come into this industry and feel like they are attaining a valuable knowledge base. Because people that work in our industry are incredible, but they often don’t come out of our industry with anything to show for it that is a tangible qualification or a level to be attained that can be recognised by others.

“So, we’re hoping that the Ops Nest will be very much part of that, or a key drive in professionalising the operating community.”

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