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Eventprofs must ‘innovate and delight’ to tackle cost hikes

Creating innovative experiences to “delight” attendees is key to tackling surging costs faced by organizers, according to an industry leader.

Greg Topalian has recently become the chairman of Clarion Events North America, having been CEO of the division for six years.

One of the biggest challenges he sees facing the industry right now is the surge in traditional event expenses, which he believes can be fought with a renewed focus on attendee experiences which are becoming increasingly important.

He told ExpoPlatform: “Don’t get me wrong, I am interested in revenue growth and profit growth. 

“But I’m just as interested in what are the concepts that are going to make this show new, fresh, exciting and one that everyone’s going to notice.

“You want people to walk in and hear sounds and noises, have experiences and take selfies with things that they haven’t done before.

“Part of it is you’ve got to know your market. Really know your customers – and by customers I largely mean attendees – what they think is cool and then deliver it for them.”

Greg used an example of “puppy lounges” which can be introduced to a wide range of events serving different markets.

These built-out areas – which can also be sponsored – are done in collaboration with rescue centers to give attendees the opportunity to meet with the dogs to add a different element to their show experience.

He said: “What you see is a senior executive from the energy industry sitting on the floor more delighted than they could ever be in a conference session – with a puppy licking their face.. 

“That’s one of those things that you can transfer to other shows.”

Greg pointed to his experience working at Comic-Con, the premier event for all things comics and related popular art, as an example of how serving attendees is of utmost importance.

He said: “What I learned in that market – which I love – is if you delight these people, if you have stuff they can’t get anywhere else, if you have celebrities and products and experiences and a community and they love it, they will line up for it. 

“They will buy it early, they will pay more for it – they will pay more for a better experience, a more elevated experience.

“Just keep improving the product and they will love you.”

A lot of Clarion Events North America’s had previously taken about 90% of its money from booths, according to Greg.

But more of that now comes from ticket sales from attendees who are paying for a top-tier event.

He added: “I’m seeing if you really delight your audience, they will pay for a full on conference experience, they will pay for including networking events.”

UFI’s latest Global Exhibition Barometer research shows the state of the US economy was the most important business challenge for exhibition organizers in the nation, with 19% choosing it.

A further 17% chose chose global economic developments as the toughest issue they face.

Addressing challenges such as rising costs and changing consumer expectations, Greg emphasized collaboration and innovation as key strategies for success. 

The need for transparent communication with partners and suppliers was highlighted to identify cost drivers and explore alternative solutions.

But Greg also envisions a shift towards unconventional spaces with “bold people” trying to develop a different format to improve offerings and cut expenditure.

He said: “The biggest problem I’m seeing is costs are getting out of control. I believe the direction of business needs to be more investing in experience. 

“All of a sudden you’ve got a show that’s growing but your cost basis is going up 20%. 

“That’s a real challenge right now – how do you embrace experience, but at what cost? 

“And where are you going because the premier cities are getting more expensive, more likely than if you’re in a second tier city. So that’s challenging.”

Emphasis was placed on the potential for unique locations to enhance the event experience while controlling those costs.

Greg added: “I think you’re going to see some bold people saying ‘I don’t want to be in these types of venues anymore. I’m going to move somewhere where it’s a combination of outdoor and indoor’.

“In the same way if you think about the festivalization of our industry, that’s a real thing – and it’s a great thing, by the way. 

“You could see people saying ‘I am just not going to get stuck in a convention center. I’m going to move this to a multipurpose type environment and I think I can pull off an amazing experience doing that’

“But that’s going to be bold people. I’m looking forward to meeting who that is.

“You may also see organizers that say ‘my show is a big enough deal that I believe wherever I run the event I think my industry will follow me’.”

Greg is a seasoned figure in the events industry, having cut his teeth and climbed the ladder at RX – formerly Reed Exhibitions – before launching his own company LeftField Media in 2014.

The company was bought over by Clarion Events which led to him becoming CEO of the North America division.

Greg brought with him a mindset which has spearheaded significant growth in Clarion Events North America, nurturing a culture of innovation and excellence.

He said: “Clarion has always had an entrepreneurial approach. These are kind of my people. 

“It was an easy cultural fit for me and they didn’t push back at all at my desire to grow and innovate. They were like ‘I love what you’re doing’.”

His new position as chairman also allows him to work on projects outside of Clarion Events, something which he is approaching with enthusiasm.

This is especially apparent when it comes to the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs who may be at the budding stage of getting new businesses off the ground.

Greg set out how he is interested in working with people he finds stimulating – even if their business is losing “half a million dollars”.

He said: “I love entrepreneurs. I like being one. But I have gotten so much out of my relationship starting at Reed where I acquired businesses from smart people.

“Rather than try to smash them into a big organization, I tried to let them flourish.”

Greg added: “I’m interested in the person – if I meet somebody and I think they are brilliant and know their market and are doing things I’ve not thought of, I don’t care if they’re losing half a million dollars. I want to be involved with that project.

“Because it will make money – that is one of the biggest things that I learned over the years.”

Greg believes this is because entrepreneurs tend to have the right mindset – thinking about a strategy which will create profit, without profit being the driver of that strategy.

He explained how a company becomes successful due to this way of thinking from leadership, with a laser focus on their markets and how something new can be created for them.

Now, Greg believes he can play a crucial role in helping entrepreneurs to progress without unnecessary mistakes.

He said: “Where I can help is I can show you how to do this better. I can show you how to do this faster. I can talk to you about what a team should look like.

“I can cut off years of hard learning. Why? Because unfortunately I have enormous amounts of scar tissue from failed launches and stupid ideas that I chased.

“I will focus on advising and also investment. I have always felt a connection to entrepreneurs, I have been in their shoes. 

“If I can kind of throw a proverbial arm around them and speed up their process and avoid some mistakes – that’s something I get a lot of enjoyment out of.”

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