The Secret Life of a Successful Event

Lessons Learned from Hosting 30+ Events in One Year

book-fair-678261_1280.jpg

Hosting any type of event is hard work – there are often multiple stakeholders to manage, complex problems to solve, and things rarely go according to plan. While many of us have experience planning social gatherings such as birthday parties or informal dinners, hosting a professional event is different, and in many ways, much more challenging. Although we often attend professional events, the work that goes into hosting such events is often overlooked as the best events appear effortless, with the coordination and prep work being done behind the scenes by coordinators like me.

AmCham China hosts over 300 events annually. These range from roundtable industry discussions, to cross-sector events, government debriefs, to larger social events and conferences and even multi-day business trips to other provinces in China. Our events aim to connect American businesses, grow professional and personal relationships among individuals, share industry knowledge, build on the insights of members, build trust between governments and industry, and provide for advocacy and access. “Events are the lifeblood of AmCham China” says Alan Beebe, President of AmCham China. “Our programing brings the American business community together in a neutral space where experts can share best practices and freely explore new innovations in business.”

“We also gather together and have a lot of fun” adds Henri Tan, Director of Member Operations who oversees AmCham China’s programs including the 40+ working groups and signature events. “To celebrate Thanksgiving, we gathered over 150 members to celebrate the years successes, elect the 2018 Board of Governors and, of course, chow down on a turkey buffet.”

The four secret success steps in hosting an event are 1) prepare 2) promote 3) execution of program 4) publicize.

 

1. Prepare

Before beginning the hard work of hosting an event, take the time to consider why the event is necessary. Develop a mission statement for the proposed event at the beginning of the process. Think through the impetus for organizing the event and develop a concise statement of purpose that can guide you through the event planning process. Two important questions to consider are:

 

  • What type of event will this be and what are the ideal outcomes from the event? Is the event a knowledge sharing exercise, networking and community building session, or promotional opportunity?
  • What do you want people to walk away with? Think about your audience, who will attend the event and what incentive do they have to attend?

 

After identifying the goal of the event and thinking about the audience, create a shortlist of potential speakers. Dream big about who might speak at the event and think outside the box. While big names like Jack Ma or Elon Musk will raise the profile of any event and attract an audience, the best speakers may not be CEO’s or high-level leaders with name recognition. Sometimes, working-level experts are more knowledgeable about policy, can delve into the weeds, and have more freedom to say what they really think. Also, be practical when approaching potential speakers, consider time restraints, and leverage your existing network. Hosting speakers with different backgrounds and experience is key – the lineup should include speakers from both American and Chinese companies, and represent large MNCs and SMEs. One example is an event I hosted concerning China’s Cybersecurity Law which featured speakers from Alibaba, Amazon, Oracle, and an academic perspective.

Variety helps the audience understand the topic from different perspectives, plus encourages the speakers to participate and learn from colleagues they would usually not have an opportunity to engage.

Next, consider potential venues for the event. Will you host the event in an office, a conference center, a hotel ballroom? If possible, visit the space during the planning stage and try to visualize the event. Think creatively about the layout of the venue to create an atmosphere that facilitates the mission statement for the event. If the event will be content-heavy, provide seats at tables set-up “classroom style” so attendees can take notes. If you want to encourage audience participation, consider placing chairs in a semi-circle. If the goal of the event is professional networking, consider whether canapés and cocktails can be served to get people in the mood to mingle.

Think about the flow of the event and draft a tentative agenda. Draft a detailed timetable for the event rundown, dividing the event into sections including registration, introductions, speaker presentations, and audience Q&A, possibly with networking at the end. Remember, time flies: speakers tend to over prepare and speak over time. Include some cushion in your agenda recognizing that events rarely go according to plan.

The final step in preparing for an event is to develop a budget. In my experience, it is best to have a conservative budget that anticipates slightly higher costs and slightly lower than projected revenues. This tactic will relieve pressure on you for financial expectations and provides wiggle room to cover for all eventualities and unexpected situations. To develop a budget, determine the costs including venue rental, on-site staff support, food and drink. Separately, calculate the projected revenue including ticket sales to attendees, potential sponsorship opportunities. Finally calculate the net revenue or net cost for the event.

2. Promote

After settling the venue, soliciting speakers, and developing a budget, it’s time to focus on the audience. Revert back to the mission statement and think from the perspective of an attendee: what would you hope to gain from attending this event?

Create a catchy title for the event that grabs people’s attention. For example, in September AmCham China hosted two former US government officials for a discussion on how foreign companies can maintain compliance with the Cybersecurity Law and Export Control Law – a relevant and timely topic for many AmCham China members, although it sounds rather dry. I spiced up the title, calling the event “Law Wars: Compliance with the Cybersecurity and Export Control Regimes in Uncertain Times” and had a full room of 48 attendees.

Every professional event needs a website or at the very least an electronic poster that can be used to advertise and promote the event online. Any good website or poster should be simple but include the following critical information:

  1. Content: Title, purpose, names/titles of speakers, cost of entry, information about how to register and a QR code to scan to learn more
  2. Visual aid: Find a photo or create a visual that is relevant to the topic and looks nice. One secret tip is to include other people in the photo – this allows anyone to visualize themselves at the event and people relate to others instead of a cold logo.

With this set, you can begin to promote the event. There are several ways to promote an event: by email, through social media, and the old-fashioned way by word of mouth! Mass emails can be effective, but it is better to target your audience. “Everyone wants to feel special and unique, not just as a number on a list” says Graham Norris, AmCham China’s Senior Director of Marketing and Communication. “Personalize the invite and include a friendly greeting using the guests’ first name” if possible.

One trick is to send a mail merge from Microsoft Office. This allows for personalized greeting lines that addresses each individual by name. Mail merges are also sent directly from your personal email account, instead of a CRM system, which increases open rates.

Contrary to popular belief, for emails, there is not a direct correlation between the number of emails sent and the number of attendees that register for the event. The first email, if crafted well, sent out at an appropriate time, to an appropriate audience can generate the majority of sign-ups. After two email campaigns, anyone who is potentially interested in your event has likely seen the email anyway and might feel annoyed and put-off by the barrage of emails.

In addition to emails, social media is also a powerful tool to get the word out about an event. Post the poster or a link to the event website on your personal WeChat Moments and share you’re your close friends and relevant group chats. LinkedIn is also a powerful tool both in the US and China.

3. Execution of Program/Process

All of the prep work is done, and the day of the event is finally here! Before attendees arrive, ensure the layout of the room is suited for the number of people who signed up. Turn on the projector, test the microphones and make the room a comfortable temperature. Try and create an inviting atmosphere for the guests and the speakers.

Expect guests to arrive at most 30 minutes before the start time of the event and be prepared to check-in guests, process payments and issue receipts or fapiao’s. Even if attendees have registered and paid online in advance of the event, expect a minimum of 10% no-shows. Also expect some walk-in’s who did not register online but show up at the door and want to attend the event.

After attendees register and enter the room for the event, invite them to enjoy the food and beverage, or at least have some water (hot and cold!) prepared.

During the event, take studious notes; try to capture everything everyone says. Do not worry about formatting the notes during the event, you can go back and polish after the event.

Also take photos during the event. A good photo should show the size of the audience or venue, and focus on a speaker doing something interesting. Make sure the lighting is well balanced and the subject appears in focus.

4. Publicize

Within a week of the event, review the notes you took and create a one-page summary of the key points focusing on what the audience learned from the event, or what was a value-add. Include some direct quotes from speakers and 2-3 great pictures from the event. An event wrap-up can give your event an afterlife, allowing those who were not able to attend to still gain some information and learn something from the event. Plus, sharing the success story will encourage people to come to future events!

Don’t forget to send a Thank You email to attendees and speakers, you can include the event wrap-up and some additional pictures. Also be sure to ask the speakers in advance if you can send the PPT that they used during their presentation directly to the audience.

After hosting over 30 events in 2017 with AmCham China, I am confident that following these four steps can lead to a successful professional event!