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Event Planning Lessons From The 2016 Olympics

Despite all the negative press that the Olympic Games have received, I can’t resist the draw of the drama, and hope, that they generate – from the spectacle of the opening ceremony to the dedication of the athletes and the inevitable national obsession of the medal counts. It is almost as interesting to observe people’s reactions to the events as it is to watch the events themselves. Yet, another opportunity they provide is, for those of us in the business of face-to-face experiences, to learn from them. After all, even if your trade show, or buying fair, is not Olympic-sized there are many things in common with large-scale events like the Olympics, such as hard deadlines, the desire to make a big splash, cost pressures and more. Here are a few things I have learned so far from the few moments I have been able to sneak away to watch or listen to some of the happenings in Rio.

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  1. Don’t forget to take care of people’s basic needs. Your demos may be wonderful, the promotion may be compelling and your social media campaign flawless, but none of that will matter if the bathrooms, or gasp your booth, are not clean, there is no good place to eat nearby or if there are real or perceived safety issues. This has been a tough lesson for the Rio organizers who did a great job with opening ceremonies and spent millions of dollars on facilities, but ended up with much more press covering non-working toilets in the Olympic Village and safety concerns in the street. Especially in the era of Twitter and Facebook, any safety or client comfort issue will be brought to light and, if not addressed promptly, can overshadow the purpose of your event. Make sure you prioritize those or ensure your venue has them well covered.
  2. Budget for what you can afford. Yes, it may be wonderful to have an event with thousands of people, or to participate at a large trade show with an island exhibit. However, if you can’t afford to do so, well, you will end up doing it poorly or upsetting your stakeholders. Also, your boss or leadership team will want to be assured at the end of your event that the investment was worthwhile. The more you spend, the harder it will be to justify that spending unless you can execute well and get tangible, and preferably measurable results. We are seeing an extreme case of that in Rio as people take to the streets to protest the high level of spending on sports facilities when many people are experiencing extreme poverty.
  3. Before you even make a commitment, consider your objective. Is the objective to generate trial for a new product? Is it to get a certain number of new contacts? Is it to nurture existing clients and up-sell them to a new platform?  These objectives will guide your strategy and tactics and help ensure you can justify your investment.  When Brazil committed to hosting the Olympics in 2012 it was touted by Columbia University as an excellent way to draw attention to its economic rise and build public-private collaboration to create a lasting legacy. Clearly, the economic situation in Brazil changed significantly in four years. I don’t know if this was Brazil’s objective, but it still remains to be seen if the attention it is receiving and any business partnerships built because of the Olympics will create the benefits they had outlined. One thing appears certain, and that is that they need to do a better job communicating the benefits to their people.
  4. What you wear matters. I know I don’t have to tell you that you have to dress appropriately for a trade show or event. However, there is a difference between wearing something acceptable, and wearing something memorable. I am no fashionista, but I have to tell you that I am just as likely to pay attention to the uniforms of the athletes as I am to their scores. Check out this article by Forbes about The Most Stylish Uniforms from the Rio Games. Clearly, I am not the only one paying attention. Also, if I go to a show and staffers are wearing the standard logo polo and slacks that does not impress me. However, I still remember the staffer who was very professionally dressed and had some color coordinated sparkly, yet comfy shoes. When my boss commented on them, she said people had complimented her on them all day. You certainly don’t want to stand out at an event just for your shoes, but if you can add a little sparkle and style, that will never hurt. And, a little style may make you feel more confident, especially during a live event, and consequently more successful.
  5. Extend your presence via social media & PR. You may assume that everyone in your industry knows about your event or trade show, or that the organizer has done plenty of promotion. Yet, your company is spending A LOT of money creating or attending this live event and social media will help maximize its awareness and the willingness of your clients to attend it. Tell them why they should go, what you are doing to make it relevant to them, get feedback from them, and keep them informed of any changes on a regular basis. Social media provides an inexpensive way to frequently communicate with your users. If you don’t communicate on social media you can bet your competitors and clients will as was the case with the Rio Olympics. Time magazine reported that social media traffic criticized NBC for their coverage of the Olympics, which was not in line with the NBC plan. Also, you can use your social media presence to maximize the value of any new news or changes during the event. For example, NBC took advantage of Michael Phelps’ “death stare” or #PhelpsFace during the 200-meter butterfly semifinal. The ability to share this with their social followers may drive additional viewers to their network. You should also be sure none of your event staff displays #Phelpsface while hosting your event guests.
  6. Ensure your brand is cohesive, recognizable and highly visible. It is so tempting and easy to modify your brand too much for the sake of the event. This is especially the case when you are trying to stand out against competitors who have bigger budgets or more brand That being said, it is important to stay true to who you are. Brazil is known for its fun people and natural beauty and their logo and colors stay true to their national brand, which focuses on those assets. I love how the logo shows multi-colored people which in my mind highlights the diversity of the Brazilian people and environment. It would have been very strange had their logo used muted colors or been very symmetrical like the Tokyo logo, which worked very well for them given their culture and flag aesthetic. Here is a design blog that outlines all the logos of the Olympic Games and their pros and cons.
  7. A positive and fun attitude is memorable. And it is memorable for all the right reasons. During one of the many interviews, I have heard on the radio about all the issues Brazilians are facing under the strain of hosting the Olympics. One of the things that stood out the most was the positive attitude each of the Rio citizens interviewed displayed in their answers. They had concerns, for sure, but at the end of each interview they all had something good to say and they were all excited to help make the event the best it could be. Wow! Think about your last event. How did your staffers treat attendees? Did they treat them like just another lead, or worse yet an annoyance? Did they listen to them? Did they smile? Politeness and positivity are not overrated and they will make people want to come back to you because, unfortunately, they are hard to find.
  8. A big event is a perfect time to make a statement. Make sure key leaders in your company are informed and reminded of your scheduled events well ahead of time. That way they can be sure to take advantage of your live events to highlight any big announcements, products or general brand communication that need to be made. Yes, it is true there are many other channels in which you can reach your customers year round. Yet, none of them are likely to be as impactful as an event that people take time out of their schedule to attend, an event that has unique activities and an opportunity to network. The athletes during the Olympics have recognized this and are using this live event as a platform to share their personal views. Consumer packaged goods brands are paying substantial amounts of money to tie their products to this event. Make sure your company is prepared to take full advantage of the events you organize and attend. Yes, it will probably take more time to coordinate multiple goals but this will also ensure that you get broader company support and have a better opportunity to make the event pay off if you can leverage it to its full potential.  Just be sure that the primary message for your company does not get muddled in the process.
  9. People relate to what is important to them. Coverage of the games by U.S. channels understandably has a much bigger emphasis on American athletes because our audience relates and cares more about those results. In other countries, the coverage may focus on their athletes. Coverage of soccer has certainly increased in the U.S. along with the popularity of the sport. I am sure the networks do their homework to find out what coverage will be most relevant to their audience. In the same way we, as event managers, should find out who our audience is before we plan the “programming” for our events. Look at any client research, find out who attends the event, but just as importantly, take the time to ask questions in person. I know you are tired and nervous when you finally make it in front of a client. Yet, this is the moment of truth. You don’t want to start your presentation, demo, etc. before you take the time to find out; Is this a likely client? What do they know already? What are their pain points? What do they need from you?  Then, once you know all that, you can give them the information or experience that is most relevant to them.

Let us know if there are any lessons you have learned from the Olympic events either this year or in past years. Or just let us know what you have been watching. We love to hear from our readers.

About the Author

Sofia is the Customer Engagement and Industry Relations Manager for Skyline Exhibits. An experienced marketing professional with branding, innovation and product commercialization expertise, she heads up Skyline’s marketing efforts in customer engagement, exhibitor education, industry relations and market research. Sofia has more than a decade of experience with both B2B and consumer packaged goods companies and an MBA from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management with an emphases in marketing and entrepreneurship. Sofia is fluent in Spanish having lived and studied in Latin America, and currently sits on the board of directors for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa.

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