Carl: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where our guests share how they get and stay connected. I'm Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest today is Erick Randolph from Eventful Conferences, coordinator of the Biz.ONE conference and many others. Erick, tell us a little bit about yourself, Eventful Conferences, and your role there.
Erick: Carl, thanks so much for having me. I’m a conference producer and researcher at Eventful Conferences. We’re owned by ASUG, the Americas' SAP users' group. We produce about 10 conferences throughout the year for SAP user communities. Company events started in Australia, moved to South Africa, and then made it to North America. We were acquired by ASUG about 2.5 years ago, and we’re now their official event arm. We have a lot of history in creating professional learning communities for SAP users, and that's who we represent. We're not part of SAP, which is what people get confused about – we’re there for the users.
Erick: I've been with Eventful for four years, producing events for everything from automotive to chemicals to enterprise asset management. I've been working on the Biz.ONE conference for three years. That conference caters to SAP Business One users, and we created it to bring people from all over the country to talk about Business One: how they use it, how they learn from each other, tips and tricks they have, and how to get more value out of the technology. A big part is staying connected to the right people – developing networks, meeting people who use the same technologies; even if it’s in a different industry or type of company, we face the same challenges. That's the best part about working as a conference producer – I get to meet people from all over the world and connect them and help develop networks and create relationships.
Erick: Some of my favorite moments have been after conferences when people email asking if I know someone who does X or if I've ever interacted with someone who worked on Y project. Through the people I've met, sometimes conference speakers, sometimes attendees, I get to connect those people and make a worthwhile introduction that adds value for them and maybe solves a problem.
Carl: You know, Erick, most of my podcasts are interviews about very technical topics, and they're focused on new ways companies are connecting to their supply chain. But today we wanted to talk about what I'll consider an old-fashioned way of staying connected – probably as old as the family reunion! – and that’s getting together and attending a conference. You organize multiple business-related conferences about technology every year, but why do you think businesses continue to invest in it? It's not an insignificant investment. There’s travel, lodging, meals, etc. to pay for; why do they see this as an important way to stay connected?
Erick: First I want to say I wonder what kind of keynotes the first family reunions had! But you're right. The human element of meeting people and being face to face is an important part of who we are, of the relationships we form, and that’s the core of why people continue to invest in attending conferences. Technology, culture, music … conferences aren’t restricted to technology and business. People go to conferences all the time for many things, but businesses see it as a valuable way to spend their resources because people form connections and relationships with other people. There's a huge difference in the conversation you have face to face, away from your office in a new space, versus even asking a question in a webinar.
Erick: Many people see conferences as another type of training, but they’re more than that. It's about that in-person connection of being there, being able to really touch and feel the thing you're working on. You can get hands-on experience with a demo of a product you’re considering and, with Business One, the opportunity to see multiple solutions in one spot.
Erick: I don't want to seem like I’m selling that, but that’s the thing about conferences that makes them stand out from other types of training and gathering resources. You can search YouTube for days for videos about how to do things in the software, and if you leave a comment, you might even get an answer. You can message the creator individually and you might get an answer. But being there in the room and talking to someone in real time is a different proposition. There's value there that people still recognize.
Carl: A friend attended a conference and told me that before it, he felt like he was swimming in the shallow end of the pool; after the conference he said, “I just jumped in the deep end and there was so much there for me to take in.” These face-to-face communications are so important to business, and from a relational standpoint it makes sense, but how do you think people use the conference and this strategic communication and all the connections they develop to help them make strategic technology investments for the future?
Erick: A big part of it is just recommendations and references. You can talk to salespeople all day. They'll talk until they're blue in the face to tell you how great their product is. But if you can talk to other users … those recommendations and referrals mean more. One of my favorite experiences from working on Biz.ONE wasn’t even at the conference but at a research group we did for the conference where we still bring people together. We ran three of these around the country, brought in 15 people to each one from different regions to talk about their challenges and pains so we could get the conference right. But we sat for about three hours. We had a great conversation.
Erick: Carl, you were there. You led the conversation. I don't remember the actual task we talked about, but one person said how they’d been struggling for so long, how they paid a consultant to come in and spent $20,000 trying to figure out how to do it … and it still didn’t work. Then the guy sitting next to him opened his laptop and they sat and figured it out and he talked him through and it didn't cost him a dollar. It's such a valuable aspect, being able to talk to other people who don't have a vested interest because you’re buying a product or going down a path; they're there to offer help, and hopefully get help.
Carl: It seems like these relationships, whether they be with a supplier, a consultant, and especially other users from businesses somewhat like your own, carry a big value at a conference. How does a new person make the most of it when they get to the conference?
Erick: It always pains me when I see people not take the most advantage of being onsite at a conference or leaving and saying, “I didn't know how to meet the right people.” It's critical to do a little bit of prep work, like looking at the list we publish of who's coming to the conference, which companies will be there, etc. Seeing if anybody on that list is with your same partner; maybe you can talk about the work they've been doing.
Erick: If they've upgraded recently and you're looking at an upgrade, if they use an add-on you want to use, etc., you can connect with them on site. Attendees should also look at the sponsors who will be at a conference and do homework there. Which types of solutions are they looking for? Which types would make sense for their business? Which ones are supported by their channel partner? Then they’ll know which sponsors to talk to. This is all specific to the Business One space, but there's prep work you can do before any conference that will make your experience more valuable. As an organizer, I'm happy to work with any attendee to set up meetings beforehand to introduce them to people.
Erick: It's somewhat of an unknown resource. We're connected to all these people, so we can help get you connected – just ask. That's what I wish more people did … use their time better. You're using a lot of resources, putting a lot of time, money, and energy into being out of your office, and to make the most of it you must prep and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Most people don’t love going up to strangers, but we always say everyone has the same goal – we’re all trying to solve problems. We all came here to get more value out of our technology.
Erick: We all have permission to ignore those social contracts during the conference to walk up to each other and say, “Hey, I'm here trying to solve this problem. Do you know anything about it? Do you know anybody who might?” There's a psychological aspect to it and a logistical prep work element, too.
Carl: I've noticed when companies send more than one person, they tend to operate like a herd; everyone goes to the same workshops, etc. That may be a legitimate thing to do sometimes, but breaking up and covering more ground is also a good strategy.
Erick: If your company wants to upgrade to 9.3, you all should go to the 9.3 workshop. But if you're looking for eCommerce, EDI, and WMS solutions, you should split up and go to different sessions and then bring the information together. I wish more people did that, too; especially if they have a team. On the last day of the conference or when you get back to your office, do a debrief to determine what information everyone gathered and how to implement it. In fact, before you go, figure out how to make sure you don’t just spend three days in a nice location and then nothing's changed.
Carl: Conferences are fun, but they’re still work. On a personal note, how do you stay connected with your contacts and important business relationships? Which tools do you use for your business communications? Does social media play a significant role? Is that changing or growing in your experience?
Erick: I’m firmly within the millennial generation, but I'm a bad millennial. I don't use social media as much as other people my age. I don't have Snapchat. I think I’ve only posted one picture on Instagram, and I think it was my dog, but I’m not sure. In business, email is still the predominant method of communication. LinkedIn is a lot more valuable than I was led to believe, especially when I was in college – it was the butt of jokes that if you wanted to get the word out there about something you didn't actually want people to do, you put it on LinkedIn. But I stay in touch with many people through LinkedIn and make a lot of connections that way.
Erick: Many people want to leverage second-level connections through LinkedIn, and we've been more involved with video production from our company and at Eventful Conferences. We're trying to get people engaged through video. I like to consume my news and media through text, but many people prefer short videos; you can get a lot of information out quickly. We're trying to keep up as everybody establishes a brand voice. That's an important element of today's business world – you can't just make announcements about your product. You need a brand voice and identity, which is an interesting aspect for a conference company because we have so many discrete brands that stand alone but are united under Eventful Conferences.
Erick: Very few people know Eventful Conferences. They're more familiar with Biz.ONE or SAP for Utilities or Best Practices for Oil and Gas – the names of the conferences. We're trying to unite those voices and have a consistent approach.
Carl: Is connecting with the brand one of the most challenging parts of facilitating quality communications and connections when organizing a conference?
Erick: I think so because you don't think of the conference as a product. You're buying an admission ticket to an event, so there's difficulty specific to the conference industry in getting people to associate with that brand and evoke emotion. We strive to make people think about the quality connections they made, the relationships they developed, the valuable information they learned, and the experience they had. That's all part of making a good conference and a good connection with our customers and then retaining them.
Erick: We want them to have a valuable enough experience that it's worthwhile for them to come back to the conference and get more answers to questions. Having a strongly identifiable brand and brand voice in the conference industry is a challenge. I don't know if it's more challenging than other industries, but maybe there’s a bigger step between associating a conference with a brand name than a physical product you hold in your hand.
Carl: I understand how that would be a significant challenge because a lot of their identity is with the product the conference is about, not necessarily with the conference company, so linking the two doesn’t automatically happen for attendees. Have you seen changes to the events’ business model taking advantage of new technologies that weren’t around when I was doing conferences way back in the day?
Erick: Absolutely. While I've been with Eventful Conferences, the biggest shift is the onsite registration process. We used to pre-print every attendee's badge and alphabetize them in baskets to be sorted, shipped, resorted, and filed behind the registration desk. Now we have an iPad registration with printers sitting behind the registration desk. You just type your name, check in, and your badge prints. It’s easier because we know how many people are checked in and how many aren’t – it gives us an idea of the workload we have left.
Erick: One thing we could do is track attendee movement throughout the conference with an RFID or QR code scanner as people enter a room. That's data we don't capture yet, but it’s coming to the conference world. Many people track which sessions people go to so they can create more personalized content feeds for individual delegates and cater messaging around content that will be available at future conferences based on the sessions you've attended. That's an element we've talked about, but we don't have the resources right now.
Carl: I was talking with a coworker recently about geofencing. Set some of those things around a conference experience so you would know exactly where people are, in what room, etc. That would change your registration process again, probably, because you'd be putting a chip or something on the name badge … right?
Carl: Interesting idea you guys are dreaming about and something I'll look for. I've experienced the new registration process; it’s fast and seems more personal in some ways than waiting in line 20 deep for somebody to sort through the hopefully alphabetized registration name tags.
Erick: It’s nice that we can look at the iPad screen as you're checking in; it tells us if you're a speaker, sponsor, track chair, or BMC and as we're getting your badge, we can weave that into your welcome process and ask you when your session is or tell you where your booth is to make the registration process more personal.
Carl: The sooner somebody feels that connection; they know who I am and where I'm supposed to go, and what I'm supposed to do … I can see that being a big plus. So, if attendees have a good conference experience, they made great connections. They met the people they planned to meet and they’ll go home and regurgitate it to their coworkers and tell them what a great experience it was. How do you know that happens? How do you measure? How do you track improvement, great experience, things like that?
Erick: A great battle went on inside Eventful about whether we should use paper or digital surveys. Some were convinced we got better quality feedback on paper surveys and that by physically taking it from someone's hand, you make more of a connection and it feels more personal. We moved to gathering data electronically, though, because that's what people want. That's what people expect from a modern experience. There's an app for the onsite experience where you can see the agenda, rate the speakers, and make comments. That's where we get the best feedback.
Erick: Last year at Biz.ONE we tried asking a question we hadn't before: “What's one thing you learned you plan to take back to your organization to make meaningful change?” It was an experiment. Many people said, “Got great info,” which wasn’t the deepest or most insightful answer, but a few people gave an example of something they learned or the name of a session they were looking forward to putting more thought into. We're doing a follow up to ask, “Did you do it? Was there anything that changed because you attended the conference?” We're six months out from the conference, so it's a good time to ask.
Erick: We always want to know how satisfied people are with the experience in general and how we can improve. Our customer satisfaction index is something we track across all our conferences and ASUG more broadly tracks that as members of the organization. We do a lot of follow up calls with conference attendees to get their opinion/feedback. The surveys and calls are the best way we track that. But regarding the connections people make, that usually comes up in conversation. I don't know if we've ever asked a question that got to the heart of that, but it comes up when people give general feedback about the conference.
Erick: They talk about people they met or another company they were introduced to and that they learned something good about the processes they use. It's an important part of the conference and we're interested in learning how well people connected with the material, the experience, other delegates, and with us as a company.
Carl: Erick, I appreciate you joining us for the Connected Enterprise podcast. You shared good ideas, and other companies trying to connect with their customers might get ideas. And I’m sure our listeners appreciated learning a bit about the conference industry. It's easy to make these podcasts too long, so I try hard not to. Until next time, thank you Erick, and everyone else, do what you can to stay connected.