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21 Sep 2022

What we learnt about thinking differently at the AEO Conference – by Caitlin Read

What we learnt about thinking differently at the AEO Conference – by Caitlin Read

On the train down to Brighton, I was reviewing the housekeeping, list of thank yous, and other notes that go along with being the chair of the AEO Conference. It all seemed in order, I felt confident I’d be able to direct people to an exit in case of emergency, or to the toilets, also in the case of an emergency. But I was worried about how I was going to frame the theme of “thinking differently” well enough to do justice to the brilliant programme Sarah Scott and the AEO team had put together.

For weeks, I’d be rolling this theme “think differently” over in my mind. What did it mean? How do you do it? Do I think normally? Do I think abnormally? Is this all part of one of those anxiety dreams when you have to go sit an exam but you forgot to attend the course all semester?

Much to the AV teams delight, I had a brainwave about 30 minutes before we were set to begin and asked to add some slides to the opening. With these, we did a quick experiment in the room showing that inherently, we all already think differently. No one hears, processes, or views things in exactly the same way. So, 10 minutes into the conference - great, job done, thinking different box --- ticked.  (Oh, sorry you want to know what the experiment we did was? Too bad, you had to be there.)

However, while we all came into the conference already ‘thinking differently,’ what I have seen in our industry - and need to raise a guilty hand to having done - is doing something the same because (say it with me everyone) that’s how we did it before. It sure is easy to pull out last year’s plan, save the file name as 2023, put a new feature here, a free breakfast there, and roll on executing.

But it’s just not good enough. Being comfortable will see our shows, our business, our industry left behind. We know the pandemic accelerated the pace of change within our industry, and we’re on a precipice now of embrace the change or face decline. So, we started the conference with perhaps the most significant, transformation challenge we’re facing – a discussion about talent. Our industry doesn’t exist without people, and every single session across the two days brought up talent. However, none more succinctly and powerfully than René Carayol who talked to us about the culture of our organisations, and left us with the advice to “make everyone feel that they are part of something special.” When he said this, he was talking about in our businesses, but imagine if we took that advice and applied it to our events, our communities, as well? 

After René, we had a brilliant panel session talking about M&A and integration that’s so prevalent, and yet shrouded in mystery, within the industry. We heard from Alison Jackson, Ollie Hughes, and Zoe Bonser, on things like how the process works, how businesses are valued, and how to work in partnership with the teams involved to build trust and create an environment where everyone can be successful. That was followed by the single most energetic video call I have ever taken part in, the brilliant Kubi Springer videoed in, sick with COVID, to share tips for creating an emotional connection with your audience.

After being inspired by Kubi to dream big and create fantastic experiences, we then had a panel, chaired by Carina Bauer, that took on the more challenge topic of financial remodelling and how we’re all dealing with inflation and cost pressures. Surprisingly though, the advice was the same for creating a community as it was for financial remodelling – understand your community and invest in their unique needs. This is not the time to roll-out a match making app across all your events, when you have a show where folks don’t even want to wear badges. Understand what works for them and focus strategically. We then spoke to the founder of Web Summit, Paddy Cosgrave, who shared their approach to better understanding his community was in part aided by having academics, physicists, and statisticians as a part of the team, looking at value through data and insights. We finished day one with a talent workshop, where folks broke up into round-table discussions to chat about culture, flexibility, L&D, and skills.  

As we looked forward to the evening activities, we were saddened to hear the news of Queen Elizabeth II passing. We observed a moment of silence and the AEO team did a fantastic job getting some support and guidance for the period of mourning to members shortly after the news broke. We began day two of the event by discussing the news, as well as sharing plans and activities different organisations would take during this sombre time.

As we returned to our ‘thinking different’ programming, we heard from Courtney LeBorgne, Raphael Sofoluke, Carina Bauer, Julie Driscoll, and Charlie McCurdy, about the trends and pressures from outside the industry that are having a deep impact on the ways we work and what our customers expect. They covered new tech, sustainability, future-of-work trends, and D&I topics, to name just a few of the different ways in which our industry is being shaped today. We finished the conference with a fireside chat with Orson Francescone, who shared the hybrid and bespoke models he’s implementing at events that are creating incredible engagement and new ways of valuing sponsor successes.

I’ve come home from the AEO Conference, with a notebook full of thoughts, ideas, and people to follow-up with, but most significantly for me, I’ve also come back feeling so energised and optimistic about the future of our industry. In the 15 years I’ve worked in events, I’ve never before felt so encouraged by the innovation, the different range of activities and initiatives, and the real desire to do good and do better. I can’t wait to see how everyone applies all of this ‘different thinking’ and to see all the showcases of it at the next AEO Excellence Awards.