For Arseneau, Events Take Listening, Planning and Telling a Great Story

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Listening to Diane Arseneau, CEO of SIPA member Zagora, tell me about the keys to putting on successful events last week, it reminded me of a talk Kevin Spacey gave to marketers two years ago.

"If you're like me, you think about it all the time—what can I do to engage my audience?" Spacey said. "To enlighten them, educate them, surprise them, keep them coming back for more... The story is everything. We need to figure out what goes into a good story."

I hadn't often heard those terms used to describe a successful conference, but as Arseneau spoke, it made sense.

"There has to be a structure to a conference program," she said. "It can't just be slapping on programs, panels, etc. We're like curators or aggregators of great content. There has to be some kind of customer experience or special scenario going on. Maybe you start broad, go niche, talk about the future and finish broad. You're telling a story and trying to establish a flow."

Arseneau will speak at our upcoming Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS), Nov. 13-15 in Fort Lauderdale presenting a session titled, Top Money-Making Event Strategies and Ideas. She has put on successful events for Thomson Reuters, TC Media, Informa, the Institute for International Research and the International Air Transport Association, among many, many others.

"As curators, we have a certain responsibility," Arseneau continued. "Of course, people want to meet people [at events]. But the format has to reflect the goal of the presentation. A panel is good for certain things but it takes one person or a case study to explain a topic or do a deep drill down. Rarely will we have speakers without knowing the need [we're trying] to fill. What's the best topic? Then who's the best person to speak on that topic?"

Interestingly, Spacey said that "we should always listen and respond to what our audience wants." Arseneau agrees—mostly—saying your event program and marketing "has to convey that you understand the pain points of your audience," and that comes from listening. "I have clients putting together conferences who haven't talked to anyone. They think they know what people want, but I wouldn't put together a program without hearing from your market. It can take time."

But, she emphasizes that the idea is to make money, so "if [attendees] want to see red penguins on the stage, then I'm going to put red penguins. Whatever they tell me they need. Each time I didn't listen to that I failed. I might love [a topic], and they might love it, but if they don't need it..."

She also believes that a successful event should, in some way, bring people "where they don't know they have to go." But that could be totally different from what drives them to attend.

Arseneau has been putting on events for more than 20 years. So we both laughed when I mentioned that I read recently about an event that succeeded "programmatically" but lost money. "I know how to make an event make money," she said. "In Montreal [where she lives], non-profit organizations lose money and wonder why. They may be very confident in their content, but not so much in what gets people to spend money."

She noted that at one point a few years ago, there was a lull in events. Then came a complete reversal. "People need to meet," she said. "If you want to do business, get to know other professionals, you need time to network. I actually met a lot of interesting people from Montreal at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin this year. I never would have met them in Montreal."

When the subject of starting a new conference came up on the SIPA Forum this week, Arseneau wrote that, "An event can make money in year one, but there are a few caveats to that."

  1. Cost contention has to be very tight and absolutely no frills.
  2. It also depends on the state of the database you started off with. If you start from scratch, just building it can be costly. Without it, you have little chances as marketing costs will be quite high without any real handle on the quality of it.
  3. Finally, if it is a one-off event, all your investments are unfortunately allocated to it, hence affecting bottom-line.

"This is why I usually build a multi-conferences group or start with strong sponsorships/investments before launching such an endeavor."

"Each time I don't go by my formula I bite my nails," she told me. And you never know what can make or break an event. But Arseneau is proud of her many successes. "We rented a plane once for a mining conference and traveled with group of entrepreneurs to northern Canada. We went as far north as it would take to go south to Florida."

Brrrr. Any penguins? "No, but polar bears and sleigh dogs," she said. Sure enough it was a huge money-maker. Her final advice? "Don't sweat the learning curve. Build conference machines. Make money. Deliver good content."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…