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These Girls are on Fire

by EN

In her latest feature, EN guest editor Ruth Carter talks to Philippa Christer, event manager at Montgomery Events, Hannah Windeler, marketing manager of editorial events at The Telegraph, Yasmin Amin, content and community executiveat  Reed Exhibitions, and Neema Sharma, commercial manager at Nineteen Group about being women in the events industry.

Let’s start by clarifying that I know these are not ‘girls’. But calling this feature ‘these highly-driven-talented-event-professionals-who-are-powering-their-way-up-the-career-ladder are on fire’ just didn’t have the same ring to it.

One of the things that has become increasingly evident to me during my 4-month stint guest editor, is that we have precious few women in seriously senior posts. It is easy to roll off the names of Jackson, Hannant, Barrett, Hoinkes, Barnes and King but then you have to start thinking a bit harder. The only way we will drive that change is by proactively continuing to push for gender balance in all workplaces.

But there is hope on the horizon that the ground work we have laid so far will eventually pay off in the longer-term. If you wander a little deeper into the org charts of most companies, there are some seriously interesting and talented women powering their way up the career ladder. So if you are expecting a vanilla ‘powder puff’ article about what ‘women think about being women’, you will be disappointed. Given the power, talent, energy and sheer guts exuded by these firebrands, that would be doing them a disservice.

I spoke to four of our possible future leaders to see how they felt about the industry overall, what they thought would be the biggest influencers on the exhibition world and how they felt it could be changed.

We started off by talking about the future of our industry with a specific focus on the impact of technology. How do they feel things will change and develop and what do they feel the major technology innovations will be?

Philippa Christer: The most obvious next step is to get as smart as the supermarkets and social media in mapping our audiences as individuals. Collecting valuable, accurate data and using it to provide a more targeted and improved offering. We have a lot to learn from consumer profile mapping. To do this well takes a talented team and serious investment. It will be interesting to see how quickly the exhibition industry can run with this. Exhibitions have realised during the pandemic that they are sitting on pots of very valuable data all the time. Take away the live exhibition and you still have an incredibly valuable asset. This digital community that sits on the database is gold dust waiting to be leveraged year-round with digital solutions, allowing exhibition companies to benefit from new revenue streams outside of the live event itself.

Hannah Windeler: Technology will be the future of events, absolutely no question about it. From the way live events are ticketed to the shift into virtual events as a result of the pandemic. Our events simply just wouldn’t exist anymore without technology. The audience and the opportunities are bigger than ever and I personally am really excited to see what the next 12 months brings. The advancements in collecting and dissecting information about our customers, thanks to the improvements in technology over the past few years, is just the start of what’s to come. Data and insights are what help me do my job better and to make informed choices about who we are targeting and why.

But as a result of the increase in online event activity, we are now all experiencing content overload and as producers of that content, we must be able to layer the behavioural data of our community on top of our demographic data to create an omnichannel or multi-channel strategy that will provide the best suited, frictionless experience for our customers, regardless of touchpoint.

Yasmin Amin: I don’t think virtual events will take over, instead they will add a new dimension. Now we know we can do successful virtual events, we don’t need to fear them. It makes me excited that there is a new element. Once life goes back to ‘normal’ we can have physical, in-person events and also virtual ones for those who want to attend the event online. I think the lockdown has forced us to think outside the box and adapt which is really exciting but at the same time, it will be interesting to see if it will succeed when lockdown is over.

Neema Sharma: I think online and digital will definitely affect some organisations running virtual events but I personally feel it will be short-term. Nothing beats face-to-face events. The personal connection, the experience, the vibrancy. This year, with Covid-19 about, digital will most certainly become more important for all businesses. But I strongly feel people are waiting to go to exhibitions and have meetings again, have that personal connection and be fully immersed in the experience they want to have.

We talked more about the changes of direction that they see on the exhibition industry horizon and they are fearless and challenging about how the industry needs to evolve and grow.

PC: I am excited about the possibility of exhibitions entering a new phase. It’s time we moved forward. An exhibition needs to be viewed as an ‘experience’ and not ‘just an exhibition’. People like to be surprised and entertained, even at a business event. The exhibition industry needs to look to the events agency world to include more creative ways of delivering content in an interactive way. Maybe we should be working in partnership with these kinds of agencies to provide ideas to develop a more experiential approach to content delivery. Exhibition brands will therefore be viewed more as a year-round community rather than just a live event over a few days.

HW: I really do believe technology is going to fuel a big shift in the events industry going forward and with that, the importance of physically being in a room has shifted and will continue to shift. We have seen people from all over the world tune into our virtual events and now those doors are open, I can’t see them closing again. The challenge is being able to translate that real life event experience and everything that comes with it to an online setting.

YA: As an events industry, we are all working a lot closer because we all have the same goals now and I think this is a positive step that needs to be carried forward. Whether they are from external suppliers, associations or venues, all our initiatives have become more aligned and this can only strengthen us going forward. Within my company, I find I am strangely much closer to everyone even though I don’t see them in the office. But we are working much closer together and having to support each other more. We need to keep this open way of working where possible as it benefits the whole industry. It will be easy to slip back to the old way of working but this won’t help events or our audience.

NS: For my company, the customers are the heart of the business. We’re all about placing the customers at the centre of what we do. I think what we are doing perfectly is going out there and speaking to the customers. Asking them what they would want to expect and feel at the events and creating an action plan based on this to give them the best event experience one can have at such a large scale.

If these individuals truly are the future leaders of the exhibition industry, what initiatives and changes would they like to see? I asked them what they would do if they were the Chief Executive for a week.

PC: Teach people to break the mould and challenge. Make space for creativity. Create ways to network more with the wider events industry outside exhibitions – there is a hot-bed of amazing ideas out there. Also encourage the teams in all departments to visit experiential consumer events and find new ideas to channel into exhibitions. They won’t all work but training employees to have their radar out for ideas should be ingrained in all staff. Can we use these concepts to create areas in the show that prompt discussion and debate – away from a straight panel discussion. I’m not saying change the world of exhibitions, but add elements from the more creative world to improve them.

HW: I think the past year has taught everyone the importance of flexibility in the workplace so all companies should be encouraging staff to ensure they have a good work-life balance. This is especially relevant in the events industry. You won’t make it in events if you aren’t willing to put the hours in but it’s also really important to take some time to recharge.

And of course diversity, diversity, diversity. Women, BAME, LGBTQ, the list goes on. Ensuring we are creating a culture where everyone feels valued and welcomed is fundamental.

YA: I would introduce unlimited annual leave. Netflix, other tech start-ups and some high-profile firms are starting to do this and it’s such an incredible perk to give back your employees. Maybe after 2020, we need something like this to adapt to our work-life balance again after we blurred the lines so much.

I would also implement a short-term diversity quota, until the company is balanced in gender and race/ethnicity so that we make sure that all job recruitment has a 50/50 male vs female shortlist and a 50/50 person of colour shortlist, with no exceptions.

NS: Listen to what customers are telling you. Nineteen would be a fine example of a company that is doing this. The customers are the audience and they are who the company is built for. Give them the attention they so truly deserve.

Truly champion your USP. Establish a culture within a company where the USP is the very essence that the company works on. Every single employee of the company will exhibit exactly what the company stands for and that is when the company goes from being a go-kart to a supercar.

With so much turmoil over the past year, it would be easy to feel a level of nervousness about the future of the exhibition industry. Not so with these four individuals.

PC: Now is the perfect time to showcase just how adaptable and dynamic this industry can be. Come back bold and dynamic. Don’t just open up in the same way as before. It is time to show off what we’ve learnt and not just roll out the same old thing. I think the bold and brave events will be catapulted forward over the next year, and those that hang back with fear will not survive. I’m excited about my career and am filled with energy and ideas.

HW: There is some level of hope on the horizon and that makes me feel excited. In terms of my career, I’m just starting so watch this space. I really don’t know what the next 12 months will bring, just as no one foresaw the last 12 months!

YA: I feel really positive. 2020 was not ideal no, but I don’t think I would change it if I am being honest. It allowed me to reflect and it allowed me to push myself further. As a result, I am super confident going into 2021. I think this will be the year where we will appreciate everything that we took for granted before which is fantastic! I will appreciate everything from being able to travel and be social with my colleagues in the office through to the smell of sawed wood and fresh polish on Day One at an exhibition hall!

There are also big things we are planning within our company, such as working on the Global Race Committee, which really motivate me and this will hopefully help elevate me in my career. I can’t wait to show the world what we can achieve if we all work together and stick together.

NS: I am actually very excited for what lies ahead as the New Year comes with new challenges and exciting new possibilities. The team at Nineteen is absolutely fantastic, where every single person is valued and hard work is always recognised. This reinforces my zest for what lies ahead.

The world is a different place and we have all been exposed to a part of life that we would never have foreseen coming. But I feel that the way we have all adapted, the struggles we have faced and the positivity that we, as humankind, have maintained will make us stronger now. These will build the foundation for a much stronger economy and a much more unified world that will make for infinite possibilities.

And finally, what insight or advice would they want to give to a younger version of themselves as they start on their career ladders?

PC: Never doubt that you make a difference. Take your valid place at the table and speak up. The best solutions are born out of collaboration: everyone’s opinion is valid and adds a meaningful contribution. Never underestimate the contribution you can make.

HW: I would definitely tell 21-year-old Hannah, “nothing comes for free, work hard and keep working harder and you will get what you deserve”. I really think there is a growing culture within our society that, if you go to university, when you leave you are entitled to a job and that it will come easily. I can tell you it doesn’t: it takes work and perseverance.

YA: I would tell myself to “take each day as it comes”. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve goals by certain timelines in my life and that’s not how life works. Everything will happen when it is supposed to. 2020 has taught us that we can’t predict what is going to happen in the future so there isn’t much point constantly putting pressure on ourselves and planning ahead for every minute detail. Ignore the background noise. It is OK to be happy with what you have today, and when you are meant to have more, it will happen exactly when it is supposed to. Trust your timing in everything from your career to your personal life too.

NS: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and time. Don’t be so rigid on timeframes but do leave room for flexibility. Life often surprises you and takes you in a direction that you completely hadn’t thought about. This isn’t a mistake, but a path where you suddenly find yourself excelling. You cannot plan your whole life ahead of you. Have the end goal in sight at all times but be the salmon that swims upstream. Ask questions, fear nothing and challenge everything!

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