The Evolution of Events: An Interview with Kathy Miller

TotalEventResourcesWith over 35 years of experience, Kathy Miller started in the events world at a time when events were barely even considered an area of expertise, having not even been recognized as a profession by the US government until the year 2000 — and there certainly were no college degrees for it.  Kathy is the founder of Total Event Resources, a company I’ve had the pleasure of working on successful events with in the past.

I think every event planner, no matter how long (or short) they’ve been in the field, has something to learn from Kathy.  There’s something about the way she can detail the facts that makes you excited to listen to what she says about anything and everything event related.  She’s specific and knowledgeable but also personable and fun.  I’m a strong believer in the fact that we always have something to learn from everyone we work with, whether they are our co-workers or competitors.  I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Kathy about how she got her start in events and how the world of events has evolved into the industry it is today.

The Chicago Event Planner (TCEP): What trends have you seen more recently in the Events Industry?

Kathy Miller (KM): Little by little, inch by inch, we’re moving in a forward position in terms of the stability of our industry and the recognition of our industry being on the rise. We produce meetings and events all over the world and the trends are to provide an “experience” for attendees, with technology and social media continuing to be important elements.

TCEP: Can you elaborate a bit on what things you see being better recognized?

KM: Well, we produce award-winning events all over the world… But there is one word that comes to mind: engagement.  People are understanding the value of a quality event by the way they “engage” the audience.  We’re producing conferences where it’s not just about talking heads on the stage any longer… Attendees don’t want to sit in a theater-style ballroom listing to a speaker, they want to be involved, to have an “experience”. One way to do that can be as simple as changing the room set up to be a more comfortable and open environment for sharing.  Another way would be to create learning cafes or even something more complex like engaging people in gamification through technology where attendees can be engaged ahead of time.  Higher levels of engagement, even prior to an event (compared to say, showing up in a room and just going through a powerpoint), is becoming the new normal.

TCEP:  What other trends, aside from better audience engagement, have you noticed?

KM: We’re seeing a lot more clients who are interested in buying out a restaurant as opposed to more standard venues for fairly self-contained events.  Facilities, particularly restaurants, if they are new and trendy help to increase attendance and can be more cost effective.

TCEP: What changes have you seen in events since the economic crisis around 2009?  Have you noticed companies being more conservative in the type of events they are having, if they are even having the event at all?

KM: There’s a lot of work being done with the intent of sustainability, re-using things and bringing forward designs that aren’t as opulent as they are functional — especially in terms of décor elements and branding.  I have noticed that with the actual planning of events, lead times are getting a bit longer, even though the event proposal time is quicker.  The times where you’d have a year to plan a meeting or event are far and few between. We’re lucky if we get 3 months.  If we have 3 weeks we are also lucky, but for a different reason because we get to fill a gap of business that we weren’t anticipating.  When we are faced with the short turnaround time, clients are looking for a proposal to be turned around quickly. That part isn’t always easy, yet it’s good to have the short term business.

TCEP: Do you associate this change in lead time with the development of technology and how the internet has allowed us to move faster in business?

KM: To some degree yes, because technology can make things easier.  I’ve been in the business for 35 years so I could tell you when the fax, and later FedEx, changed people’s expectations.  The faster we can receive, the faster people want information; on the flip side we are also managing so many different forms of technology and communication devices that all of it has to be cohesive, functional and managed.  However, when it comes to people, a big part of what’s still happening in our industry hasn’t completely recovered from downsizing and job eliminations post economic-downturn.  Many companies have downsized or eliminated meeting departments, having gone from maybe 500 events a year run by 10 people to 200 events covered by 2 people.  There is a lot of work overload, yet not a lot of people to do it. However, for us, we are a great alternative because we have an extensive amount of resources.  Companies working with Total Event Resources aren’t limited to the abilities of 2 people — they have our whole team which is comprised of years of experience and global resources at our fingertips.

TCEP:  What size events do you handle?  What is the range in terms of numbers of guests?

KM: We’ve done events for as few as say, 9 people but for as many as 18,000.

TCEP: How many staff members would you have assigned working on an event as large as 18,000 people?

KM: It depends.  There are many factors when deciding how to dedicate people to a project. You look at the overall production requirements, the time you have for preproduction hours and the skill set required for the project.  We are working on a Trade Show Summit for next month where we are producing a mobile app, managing the Trade Show, an off-site event, the entire registration process and many other elements, we have a team of seven working on this.

TCEP: Have you seen an increase in interest in the job field?  Do you get a lot of people who want to work for you?

KM: Yes!  I get at least 10 emails a day from students or people who want to get into the industry.  The good news is that 35 years ago our industry wasn’t really considered a profession.  The government didn’t even have a title or job category for us until 2000.  Now, last April, I gave a speech at Illinois State University to about 200 students, where at least half of them wanted to be event/wedding planners.

TCEP:  So how did you get your start in the industry?

KM: In 1977 I started working for Hyatt Hotels as a secretary, spent 10 years with Hyatt working my way up to Director of Sales and Marketing. I jumped to the production side, worked as a Creative Director of Marketing which lead me to the events side of the industry and then to a scenic design company. Once I had a family I decided I wanted to spend more time with them and became an independent special event producer. Fortunately I started with about 5 clients that enabled me to start my business with what I thought would be about 12 special events the first year.  My first year of my business, I produced 30 large scale events and realized I needed help.  I now have 12 full-time, 2 part-time and 2 perma-lancing employees, plus many free lancers and extensive supplier partnerships.  When I started the business about 18 years ago, I knew most of my competitors.  At that time companies were much more focused on one discipline within the industry.  Now, with the economic downturn, the industry has changed in some cases it’s a bit more blurry.  For example, services are being provided by a caterer who used to only manage the Food and Beverage of an event now will “produce it all” including things like tenting, venue, entertainment, etc.  This means that one day my supplier partner is just that and the next day we could be competing against each other for the same business.

TCEP: How do you balance the technology you choose to use at an event when there are so many options available?

KM: The integration of technology has played a big role in events nowadays.  People have less and less time.  They want to be able to select which speaker they may go to see, so now they will stream it live. Skype has really pushed what we can do along with mobile apps.  There are many apps tailored specifically to events – the ability to share information and communicate, educate, interact and engage with one another is incredible. Technology is capable of so much and we see it more and more with conventions, especially.  But there are so many resources so we want to be careful when spending clients’ money – particularly when we are having an app created specifically for them.  Somewhere you have to stop and say “Ok, I think I have the resources I need here.”  It’s important to talk to your clients and to have a full understanding for their strategy, goals and objectives behind the events to insure that you have the right solutions.  Sometimes less is more – you don’t want to overwhelm people with so many options or too many bells and whistles.  Having the right balance of technology, activities and engagement is key.

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