For three years leading up to the Great Recession I had the privilege of working alongside a master of business. His name is Gary Wollerman, known as the architect behind Ruth's Chris' explosive international growth throughout the 1990s.
In 2001 Gary had ventured out on his own and opened New Orleans' best restaurant, GW Fins with fellow Ruth's Chris alum Chef Tenney Flynn. Over the next few years the seafood house racked up nearly every exclusive award imaginable, including Esquire's highly coveted top ranking.
From day one on the job Gary communicated his single key to success: create raving fans. For him, every person who walked through the doors -- from the dish porter to the postal carrier to the guests -- was to be welcomed, treated, and accommodated with preemptive service at every turn. This lesson stuck with me because the end results were always undeniable. It's become the very fabric of my work ethic and how I manage my professional life.
"So how do the lessons from a restaurant operator apply to the event production world?" That's the question I've been asking myself for months throughout the pandemic as I've witnessed countless event producers and meeting planners put on client events that leave audiences and sponsors feeling unfulfilled.
The answer is surprisingly obvious. Here it is in three tidy points.
1. Put Audiences In Control
Everyone who walked through Gary Wollerman's doors felt as if they were in full control of their experience without ever having to give a single direction. Staff were trained to observe and listen to every person as they entered, take note of special requests and habits noted from any previous visit in the reservations computer, then to guide the current visit based upon these observations.
When producing live in-person events, online events, or hybrid events this should be the same aim using a different set of tools. Sure, many meeting planners will reference the post-event survey from the past year but does that even apply to an online experience? (Spoiler alert: nope.)
- Observe the online behaviors of your target audience before sending out the first invites. Which topics are they most interested in? What personal interests are available from their online behaviors that can influence programming?
- Plan content and programming around attendee interests. Again, everyone likes to feel in control. Often enough event planners will consult sponsors and exhibitors for content ideas, or will simply look at what competing events are talking about. Instead, turn to the real experts, the folks doing the actual work out in the field.
- Don't skimp on finding good speakers. Attendees are already reporting they're unhappy with the quality of virtual event speakers. Be sure to contract with a solid partner to locate the best speaking talent and be sure there's evidence your audience will be interested in their point of view.
2. Leave Space For Attendees To Meet
At GW Fins it was a cardinal sin to rush a guest through their meal. The rule was that if people could enjoy themselves at their own pace, getting lost in great conversation, they'd be more likely to pay for that second bottle of wine or another plate of smoked sizzling oysters.
The pandemic has left people feeling crushed and overwhelmed by a bombardment of digital content as marketers everywhere scramble to get in front of audiences that now aren't leaving their own neighborhoods. As event planners and marketers our focus should be on understanding this new limitation and creating pressure-free online experiences that foster attendee interaction. After all, the entire point of conferences and events is for people to network and meet.
- Leave enough time in the event agenda for attendees to chat. Since you aren't paying $500k for a convention center and don't have to keep a shuttle schedule between session locations, captive attendee audiences should be able to jump in and out of the online event experience at their leisure. The time between should be left to networking and staff and strategies should be dedicated for facilitating that sort of matchmaking.
3. Redefine ROI For Event Sponsors
Of course Gary was focused on making money, and by any measure I'm sure he's done very well for himself. His formula for achieving financial success, though, was atypical of most. Guests were allowed to experience the restaurant as they wanted, to not be rushed, to linger and watch the stars rise over Bienville Street. He told me that if every guest had this experience that converted them into a raving fan, if they were truly delighted, they'd be back. And so would a dozen of their friends.
This may have been an ill concept to some of Gary's investors. I don't know. But it definitely isn't a typical approach to running a profitable restaurant. In the events world Gary's take on making money also seems a bit off. However that accepted wisdom only goes surface deep.
- Virtual and hybrid events provide even greater reach for sponsors. Logo placement within virtual sessions, branded post-event videos, digital downloads, sponsored discussion rooms and more are available as activations in the online event space. And what's great is that there's no reason any of these assets ever has to leave, exposing your sponsor's brand to more people for longer. In a traditional in-person event all branded assets are shipped back to HQ or hauled to the loading dock and discarded when the event ends. Remember this opportunity when planning activations and bring on key strategy partners who get this way of thinking.
- Long-term engagement is a no-brainer. If you've planned three days of virtual stage time, that's fantastic. But then what? You've already got your content online for the event so why not migrate it to an online community that you own for engagement throughout the year? Without stopping there invite your sponsors into that community to observe attendees as their conversations grow and new ideas come to light. Exposure to this sort of organic thought development would cost millions if conducted in a focus group of comparable size.
- The end result is sponsors are less pressured to overwhelm attendees in a short period of time, leading to less digital fatigue and delighted audiences happy to engage.
When I started working with Gary I felt that his philosophy was a little cheesy, too simplistic, and a poor way to make a dime. In the end I've come to cherish every moment of his mentorship and lessons for business and life. I like to think that today I'm a better person and a more dedicated professional thanks to his guidance and now I've passed our shared wisdom on to you. Please do the same.
Create raving fans.