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21 | Nicola Kastner, SAP: IKEA, Disney World, and Revamping SAPPHIRE NOW

  • October 30, 2019
  • 44:07

Nicola Kastner (Global Head of Event Marketing Strategy at SAP) discusses the radical transformation of SAPPHIRE NOW—SAP’s annual flagship conference. She also discusses ABM strategy, creating data-driven content journeys, and what IKEA, Disney World and grocery shopping have to do with B2B events.

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Top Takeaways

1

TRANSFORMING SAPPHIRE NOW: As technology and customer expectations have changed, Nicola and the SAPPHIRE NOW team worked to pivot the design and experience of the event. The end result is a highly personalized and customer-centric event. “What are our customers trying to solve for? We need to ensure that the event is integrated into the customer journey and is part of integrated campaigns and tactics.”

2

CREATING DATA-DRIVEN CONTENT JOURNEYS: With a customer-first and outcomes-oriented event strategy, Nicola prioritized content and data for SAP events. The team grouped content into different neighborhoods where customers could interact, network, and educate themselves on different solutions and products. Data provided important persona information to enrich event content—allowing the team to curate, “a connected content journey that lived before, during, and after the event and used SAPPHIRE NOW as that jumping-off point.”

3

ALIGNING WITH AN ABM EVENTS STRATEGY: An effective account-based marketing (ABM) event strategy at SAP starts with alignment. Armed with a list of key customers, the SAP sales and ABM marketing teams worked together to build unique customer activities and programming specifically around SAPPHIRE NOW. “Our job in global events is to make sure that we balance what our company wants to achieve and what our customers are looking to achieve at the event and find that right value proposition between the two.”

ABOUT Nicola Kastner

Working alongside the Head of Global events, Nicola oversees SAP’s event strategy. Before Nicola formally joined the company in 2016, she assisted SAP in a consultative capacity for several years. All said and done, Nicola has accumulated over 20 years of events experience on both the agency and in-house side.

Episode Transcript

BRANDON:

I understand that you're very passionate about pivot tables in itself.

NICOLA:

That's embarrassing. That is actually really embarrassing to hear you say that, but yes, yes, I am.

BRANDON:

Hello and welcome to IN-PERSON brought to you by Bizzabo. In each episode of IN-PERSON, we explore the world's most daring events and the people who make them happen. In case you and I haven't already met, I'm Brandon Rafalson.

Here's a quick question for you. Have you ever, say, radically overhauled a 24,000 person event? If the answer is yes, did you also have to then radically overhaul it again just 60 days out? Nicola Kastner, Global Head of Event Marketing Strategy at SAP has. SAP is one of the biggest software companies on the planet. They have over 425,000 customers in 180 countries. It is estimated that roughly 77% of all global transactions come in contact with SAP software. To support their multinational business strategy, SAP executes thousands of events across the globe. Working alongside the head of global events at SAP, Nicola is in charge of overseeing event strategy for the company.

Before Nicola formerly joined the team in 2016, she was assisting SAP in a consultative capacity for several years. All said and done, Nicola has accumulated over 20 years of events experience working on both the agency and the in-house side. In this interview, Nicola shares how she partnered with the head of content marketing at SAP to radically transformed SAPPHIRE NOW, SAP's annual flagship conference. Along the way, we discussed how SAPPHIRE NOW fits into a larger ABM strategy, how Nicola and her team create data-driven content journeys, what IKEA, Disney World and grocery shopping have to do with professional events, and why it pays to be an Excel nerd. Okay, let's get to it.

NICOLA:

It's kind of crazy but Excel is my happy place, it's my natural place, it's where I feel comfortable. So if I have a stressful day, I'll actually go and start playing around in data and Excel to try and get some insights out of that rather than dealing with some of the challenging things that I'd rather not deal with. But early on in my career I realized that I could use Excel to analyze data to give me the insights and that I didn't have to wait for anybody else to give them to me, and I actually think it's become a differentiator in my career and helped me become who I am today. But I believe really strongly about them. When I mentor people, I tell them that they need to learn how to use pivot tables, and I actually even had a client once say to me that my passion for pivot tables was embarrassing.

BRANDON:

Embarrassing?

NICOLA:

Mm-hmm.

BRANDON:

And a client said that?

NICOLA:

Yes. Apparently, he didn't feel like you needed to learn pivot tables like I suggested.

BRANDON:

Well, it sounds like he was missing out on that differentiator.

NICOLA:

Exactly. Yeah. I really believe in it.

BRANDON:

Okay. So I'm really excited to see how this passion for Excel, pivot tables and crunching data is going to intersect with the rest of our conversation today.

NICOLA:

Probably a lot.

BRANDON:

Fantastic. So to set the stage for what we're going to talk about, could you tell us, just briefly, a little bit more about SAP, I'm sure many of our listeners are familiar, but for those who are not, and your responsibilities there as the global head of event marketing strategy?

NICOLA:

Sure. So SAP is the market leader in enterprise application software and helps companies of all sizes, large, small, run at their best. In fact, 77% of the world's business transactions run on our software but most people aren't aware of that because we're behind the scenes enabling our clients and customers most of the time. My role at SAP as head of event strategy is to really look at our portfolio of events and make sure that what we do is driving maximum value both for us as a company, but also for our attendees and customers that attend.

BRANDON:

And a big part of that is a lot of the events that you're doing.

NICOLA:

Yes, absolutely.

BRANDON:

Including your time at SAP Ariba, you've been with SAP for over three years, and before then you spent over two decades working on the agency side. Could you tell us a little bit more about your career and how it has led you to where you are today?

NICOLA:

Sure, absolutely. So when I was in high school, I knew I wanted to get paid to travel. That was about all I knew I wanted to do when I grew up. And so I figured the way that I could achieve that goal was not to become an engineer like my father who always got to travel but only got to see office space, I really could think about taking an industry or pursuing an industry in hospitality and tourism. So I studied hospitality and tourism at school, and during my program there, I took a course on incentive travel. And that was sort of that first ... we talked about me being a data geek and my passion for Excel and numbers, but during this incentive travel course I learned about the business side of events and how travel as a motivator could drive business results. So that was the first bit that really got me hooked and where I really actually understood that I liked data and that business side.

So after leaving school, I worked on the DMC side and the hotel side and then moved to the agency side for about 15 years in total over a number of different agencies. Also, took three years off to be a mom. I actually think being a mom makes me a better leader and I learned a lot about myself in that time when I was off. After 15 years on the agency side, I then actually started my own business, a consulting company, and SAP was one of my first customers. So as a non-Spanish or Portuguese speaking Canadian living in Toronto, it didn't make much sense on paper, but I spent three years supporting SAP strategy in Latin America and it was fantastic experience, and then went on and worked with SAP to run a number of different initiatives within the global events organization.

I went away from SAP, I consulted with another company for about a year exclusively and then was approached to join SAP Ariba working for the CMO as a member of her leadership team, driving event strategy within the portfolio. And that CMO was Alicia Tillman, who is the CMO of SAP today. And probably a few months after Alicia moved roles, she reached out to me about a new role that she wanted to create within the global events organization, really focused on the portfolio and our approach and how did we drive those maximum values for our attendees and the company. So for about four months, I was hybrid in role, and then March of, I guess, 2018, yes, it feels like it was a lot longer ago but it wasn't, I moved over to the global events organization exclusively.

Then the journey gets even more convoluted because several months after joining the team, so end of August in 2018, I was asked to take on interim leadership of the global events organization. Turned out to be seven months, so maybe not quite as interim as I had anticipated at the time, but fabulous learning opportunity for me and really allowed me to start this transformation in high gear on SAPPHIRE NOW, which we're going to talk about in a little bit.

And then you asked why events and why am I so passionate about events?

BRANDON:

Right.

NICOLA:

I think I got into the business because I wanted to travel, but understanding that there's a business side to events, which are sometimes seen as more ... we're not party planners for sure what we do, and so the business side of it, I'm very passionate about. And back in early 2000, I was at the MPI WEC conference or world education conference that was taking place in Toronto and I took a session about event strategy, and ultimately, I believe that changed the course of my career. I can remember where I was sitting, I can remember what I was wearing, I can remember who the speaker was and-

BRANDON:

Who was the speaker?

NICOLA:

David Rich from George P. Johnson, actually, and I've reached out several times to tell him that he changed the course of my career and I actually hope that I can do that for others someday as well. But I left there so inspired and it was really about connecting to the business side and using events to drive business performance, and from that moment on, I haven't looked back.

BRANDON:

You have a lot of experience with events, you've been working with SAP for some time, and I know that SAP produces many, many events, in fact, thousands across the world. However, the largest flagship event is SAPPHIRE NOW. For some of our listeners who may not be familiar, could you share with us what SAPPHIRE NOW is and the type of audience that attend?

NICOLA:

Sure, absolutely. So SAPPHIRE is held every year in May or June in Orlando. Orlando has been our home since 2006. It's a three day event that's made up of multiple events within one event, but this year, in 2019, we had 24,000 attendees who are customers, prospects and partners attend. What's interesting about SAPPHIRE is that all of the SAP content is delivered on the show floor. And when I say content, I mean keynotes. I mean, our content sessions, which are a thousand plus when you include the partner sessions as well. Our meeting center, which is 252 rooms alone and hosts over 5,000 meetings or customer showcases or demo stations, our partner expo, which hosts over 222 exhibitors this year to be exact, food and beverage, everything is in this one space. So we use a million square feet of continuous space. And so for our American listeners, that's 17 football fields of space that we built the SAPPHIRE show on. It's big. You certainly get your steps in that week.

And the only activity in the event that doesn't really take place on the show floor or the associated areas around the show floor is our closing concert, which has become a staple of the program over the last probably 15 years. And that takes place on Thursday night. It's our closing event, and this year we had Lady Gaga perform, which was really quite magical.

And in terms of who comes, like I said, it's our customers, our prospects and our partners that attend. And for us as a company, it's really important to us because it is that lighthouse moment in the year for our brand. It's also when we publicly debut our new strategy and messaging for the most part, and as well and incredibly important for us as an organization, it is our largest pipeline generator of the year as well.

BRANDON:

Wow. Okay. So that sort of speaks to some of the business goals behind the event itself. Huge sales acceleration event, a lot of customers attending as well and a lot of partners.

NICOLA:

Yes, exactly.

BRANDON:

You mentioned earlier that you were brought into this interim role to oversee the global event strategy and that this became a permanent position, and part of that involved you being tasked with completely transforming SAPPHIRE as we know it, which had been around for 30 years or so as of, I think, like May, 2019. So what was the impetus for this change? What was the catalyst to really change the way things were going?

NICOLA:

Yeah. So just as a point of clarification, I was actually brought into the strategy role to refine the portfolio and really think differently about the way we do things and then took on the interim leadership position. But the interim leadership position actually worked as a catalyst for me to drive the change that I had been tasked to do because now I was responsible for the team that actually ran it versus trying to influence the team. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and likely this was one of the reasons. But the thought behind why transform is our business has changed, our customers have changed, and our company's changed in the 30 years since SAPPHIRE NOW was created, and the software industry has changed. When SAPPHIRE NOW, and that's the official name, and the brand police will probably be upset with me, but often I forget to say NOW, so I'm just going to caveat that, and if you hear me just call it SAPPHIRE, it's just because it's laziness.

But when SAPPHIRE NOW was invented, we sold on-premise ERP systems to an IT department. Cloud hadn't been invented yet, and cloud has fundamentally changed the way our customers consume and use our products. And today as a company, we offer software solutions for the entire enterprise to allow companies to be intelligent and to run at their best. And so we sell to all different areas; marketing, sales, procurement, HR, just to name a few, and not just IT. So an event that was designed for one products at one audience is no longer relevant. And this transformation that we're going to talk about this year is part of a multi-year evolution that we planned out as the organization in order to really just accelerate the pace of change as well as value to our customers through our event portfolio.

And so in order to move the model, we knew we had to turn SAPPHIRE outside in, and in order to do that, we needed to think customer first, we needed to think outcome oriented. What were our customers trying to solve for? We needed to ensure that the event was integrated into the customer journey and was part of integrated campaigns and tactics. The one, three-day event is just a moment of time and the event needs to live much longer than those three days. And we also wanted to make sure that it's attractive to new audiences. And as we reflected on the changes that we needed to make and because our product set is so large, we realized that SAPPHIRE had become like a grocery store, that we expected our customers or our attendees to wander the aisles, and using the food analogy, have a recipe, understand what ingredients they needed to make dinner and then to wander those aisles to go find them, versus capitalizing on the curation economy that's in place today and curating the solutions to our customers to help them solve their business challenges.

And so that curation mentality and culture is what inspired us to what we could create in the transformation.

BRANDON:

So, there are a few things there I'd love to touch on. One of them is this idea of looking at this event as one important aspect of a multi-touch journey. And I know earlier we were talking about the importance of looking at different marketing initiatives from this perspective. Does the term ABM get bandied about at SAP at all or are you looking at things from multi-touch but not necessarily like that?

NICOLA:

Of course. ABM is a big part of our marketing strategy and a huge part of the approach that we take within the event, because we have key customers that we want there, we have plans that are developed against those customers. So specific customer activities and programming are created by our sales team and our ABM marketing managers specifically around SAPPHIRE and utilizing that as a tool as part of the entire ABM strategy.

BRANDON:

Sounds like there's a ton of alignment with the whole entire go to market team here.

NICOLA:

There has to be there. There has to be. Fundamentally, that's the core and the foundation because if we're creating an event and an event strategy in isolation without alignment across that customer journey, across the rest of the company and across what sales is trying to achieve, we're not going to be successful. What our job in global events is to do is to make sure that we balance what our company wants to achieve and what our customers are looking to achieve at the event and to find that right value proposition between the two.

BRANDON:

And the other thing you mentioned was going from this grocery store approach to ... I'm going to play around with that metaphor a little bit ... a HelloFresh approach, a Blue Apron approach.

NICOLA:

Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly what the ... In fact, when we started to "sell" the new strategy internally, we actually had a picture of Blue Apron. We had grocery store aisles and then we had Blue Apron to just show the difference between the approaches.

BRANDON:

It sounds like knowing your attendee, knowing your customers and your accounts that you're speaking to is a huge part of this. What data would you say, to look at a few pieces, are key?

NICOLA:

That's a loaded question-

BRANDON:

It's a vague question.

NICOLA:

... and as the data geek that I am, I could spend hours rambling on about this. But one of the things that we've really focused on is what is the right information that we need to know about the people that attend our events in order to create the experience that they need? So, we've actually narrowed down our focus to probably I'd say eight to 10 insights that we really look at and capitalize on when we're designing the experience. We are absolutely focused on persona. We start with persona. When you've got 24,000 people, you cannot just look at an individual level while there are 24,000 individuals and we need to create 24,000 personalized experiences, we have to aggregate that data and that view. So we start with core personas, we look at department. Are they IT and technical or are they more business focused? We do look at products. What do they own of our portfolio? What type of business? Obviously, industry and vertical is very important as well. And so we take all of these different insights into account as we're designing out the strategy.

BRANDON:

Sounds like there's a lot of data in play and a lot of alignment across the entire organization with this. Now, I know part of this transformation involved you tapping Johann Wrede who was, at the time, the head of content marketing to assist in revamping the event. Why Johann and how did you position this opportunity?

NICOLA:

Traditionally as event marketers, we've built events and filled them with content, and like I said earlier, the course of my career was changed by content at an event. And I always say that if we don't focus enough on the content and what's inside, it's like an empty picture frame, right? The experience can be great, but nobody cares what the picture frame looks like if there isn't a picture in it. And so if we wanted to achieve these outcomes of customer first and outcome orientated, we had to lead with content. And so Johann was leading content marketing and smart, savvy businessman, he understood that events matter at SAP. Especially SAPPHIRE, it is that lighthouse moment in the year. Our executives talk about SAPPHIRE all the time. And so he saw this as the opportunity to create a connected content journey that lived before, during and after the event and to use SAPPHIRE NOW as that jumping off point.

BRANDON:

Makes a lot of sense. And I know working with Johann and your team that you eventually were able to distill the essence of SAPPHIRE into five themes. Could you tell us a little bit more about these themes and how they guided the transformation of the event?

NICOLA:

Yeah, for sure. So if you think about SAP and 77% of the world's business transactions operating on our platforms, that's a lot of industries, a lot of customers. And so we needed to think about what was common, what was a common foundation that was the starting point for all of these different customers, and industries, and segments and so forth. And we realized that accelerating changes in the economy, and society, and the environment were effecting every single company, no matter their size, geography or industry. And because of those changes, all of our customers were dealing with macro issues. The same issues. Maybe not all of the same issues to the same degree, but dealing with these five macro issues. So one, was business model disruption, another was data proliferation that we identified. Three, was empowered customers. Four, was a diverse workforce and five was resource scarcity. We all need to do more with less, whether it's natural resources, human resources, whatever it might be.

Every company, no matter their industry, size or geography, like I said, is dealing with those things. And they're impacting all areas of the business as well, not just IT, not just marketing, everywhere. So if you think about empowered customers, all of us are empowered customers, all of us are consumers in our daily lives and are used to digital technologies allowing us to demand the service, the product, whatever it might be that we want. And so think about custom designed baseball caps that a number of years ago probably didn't exist in the mass market. It was very, very difficult to design your own baseball cap.

And using this baseball cap analogy, that impacts all areas of the organization, it impacts how you market, how you sell, how you service, it impacts how you procure products, it certainly impacts how you manufacture products, and it changes your model from finance and accounting perspective. IT obviously is a big part of that, your data flow; how all the data comes together and supports all of this, your eCommerce models as well as HR; the type of people that you have to hire in order to be flexible. And so we used that premise as the basis of the design around SAPPHIRE NOW and wanting to design something to help our customers capitalize on these trends to address their business challenges and then map those outcomes to our portfolio of solutions that could help them solve for those business challenges.

BRANDON:

Okay. So that's really diving into this empowered customer theme.

NICOLA:

Yeah, and customer centricity.

BRANDON:

Right, customer centricity.

NICOLA:

Yeah. And that's just one example of empowered customers. The mega trend of empowered customers comes to life in many different ways, and so I just use that as an example of how it impacts so much within an organization and so many different departments within an organization, and that was our way to create this common thread from a strategy, a content strategy perspective for all of our diverse audiences across our product sets.

BRANDON:

Great. So you came up with these themes and then these themes guided the content throughout.

NICOLA:

Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

BRANDON:

And was this also how, say for instance, the agenda was organized by these or was it more behind the scenes?

NICOLA:

No, it was a bit of both. So yes, the business-outcomes, the five mega trends that we were focused on where people could segment the agenda based on those, but it was really about, it led us to the design of the show floor really, right? So this shift from being product-led, think about our grocery store analogy, right, and all the products along the aisles, to being business-outcome focused was a big shift for us as an organization. And so as we took this large, broad strategy of these five mega trends, the next point for us was to figure out how do we bring that to life in a physical environment.

And so where we focused on was building five neighborhoods, so a neighborhood that was focused to each of these business outcomes that our customers were trying to drive. And we placed, within these neighborhoods, content, demo sessions, food and beverage, networking spaces. And when I say networking, it's facilitated through content as well because often as an industry we say networking is sitting, and that's so not the case. And the way content was delivered within the neighborhood was designed also to assist with networking, but basically with the premise that if in a neighborhood, people live, work and play, and that's exactly what we wanted to do and capture within the SAPPHIRE NOW show floor design.

So if somebody was really focused on this, just this one particular business outcome that they were trying to solve, theoretically, they could spend three days within that neighborhood. And because in a real city, topics blend, right? Like neighborhoods blend. You know when you've moved from Little Italy to Little Portugal, if I use my Toronto analogy, but they blend, right? And so there were soft borders as these neighborhoods started to blend together.

We also had three product pavilions because as part of the shift, we've gone from being product-led approach to business outcome led approach, but we need to bring our audience with us as well, right? So we did have three products specific pavilions. So using our grocery store analogy again, if someone wanted to go and buy milk, they could go and do that, right? They could go straight to product and have a product conversation without having to wade through the content within each of the neighborhoods to find specifically their answer.

So to answer your question, yes, it did impact the way that we set up the agenda builder as well, but at the same time, people were able to filter based on many other parameters that we looked at. So was it their persona, their role, or was it product? It's a very complex agenda builder session catalog that we built.

BRANDON:

Great. So that's one way that the attendee can sort of create their own custom journey throughout the event.

NICOLA:

Absolutely.

BRANDON:

You talked about business outcomes. What other things did you change?

NICOLA:

A lot. Actually, there was a lot that we changed, and while some of it was incredibly obvious, some was more behind the scenes. But key areas that I wanted to focus on is we introduced color. And while that doesn't sound revolutionary, it was probably the thing that was noticed the most certainly by SAP attendees, to both add warmth but also to help with navigation. We redesigned the entire show floor. I mentioned this million square feet of space.

In the past, the main entrance, the keynote was off to the left. Well, we wanted the design of the event to be that our content and these neighborhoods were spread out in front of the attendees as they came in so they were able to navigate and to understand the journey instantly on walking into the space. So we actually moved the keynote to the complete opposite end and side of the show floor. It turned out to be a fantastic decision for multiple reasons, least of which it meant that every single one of our attendees that was going to the keynote hall had to walk through our sponsors' exhibitions. So that was a way that we were able to make sure that we were driving traffic.

The walls don't expand the space, and each year our company grows, we acquire new companies, and I'll talk about that in a minute, a specific example of what we designed, we were able to pivot on a little bit, but we built a tent. We had to take all of the seated food and beverage off the show floor and we built a very, very large tent outside, which also was near the keynote area. So once again, anytime people were going for food and beverage, they were walking through the partner show floor.

BRANDON:

So you expanded outdoors?

NICOLA:

Yes, yeah, yes, exactly.

BRANDON:

I'm sort of imagining this experience, it's kind of it's part IKEA, part Disney world. I'm picturing like that map there.

NICOLA:

I am glad that you use those examples because those are exactly what we talked about in the design. And I love that about IKEA, right? Those journeys through that you might just be going to buy candles, but you've gone through seven rooms and want to buy several things by the time you leave that you didn't know that you needed. We had talked about that and how do we create the IKEA concept as we move people through, but also the Disney experience is just so critical, right? And so both the brands I admire greatly for that and we did think about as we were designing it.

We also introduced new content formats, workshops. I talked about networking not being soft seating. And while we know people go to events to meet other like-minded people, it's certainly not natural to just walk up and start a conversation for anybody, even me, I'm the most outgoing person, but it's awkward to just start a conversation. So we knew we needed to give ways and to help facilitate ways to create dialogue between attendees as well. So we introduced new content formats such as workshops and so forth, and moved the content from being dialogue and interactive from what traditionally had been somewhat lecture-based, and then to your point about the IKEA and the journeys, we tried to bring all of the elements together across the event to create a customer journey in their language versus SAP speak, which we traditionally have a tendency to do.

BRANDON:

Got it.

NICOLA:

And we built it for flexibility, which I touched on this a minute ago. It was just key for us and I'm glad we did for a couple of reasons. One of those was that in late November, we acquired Qualtrics and really have subsequently gone to market in defining a brand new category called experience management. And so when we built this strategy, experience management wasn't part of really what we were talking about from a corporate messaging and strategy perspective. By the time SAPPHIRE came about, it was one of our core messages. So the beauty that we felt of designing around these business outcomes was no matter what products or what companies we bought, they still fit within these outcomes that our customers were solving for.

BRANDON:

When we talk about this transformation, I'd love to hear from you some of the lessons that you learned throughout the transformation. First off, I'm just going to say, it sounds like something worked. I know that SAP was recently recognized by BizBash for the best corporate event concept because of this event.

NICOLA:

Yes. Yesterday, in fact.

BRANDON:

Yesterday. And you were running up against very consumer focused brands like HBO and Virgin Airlines, and yet this-

NICOLA:

47 year old software company. Exactly. I'm thrilled, thrilled. And yes, it was successful, but I think the key thing is that it wasn't all smooth sailing, right? So we'd done all of this work up front and we're really focused on business outcomes that were powered by technology really. But 60 days prior to SAPPHIRE NOW, the day that our session catalog went live, and I talked about the complexity of that, our executive board asked us to implement major changes to the SAP portion of the show floor, and they felt that the jump to business outcomes was too big of a departure from where we had been before and asked us to align to the lines of business we solve with our solution portfolio.

So we took a deep breath, realized that Johann and I should never be on an airplane at the same time because we were both flying home from Utah that day. And what that meant was that we had to go back to the drawing board 60 days prior to the event, the day of the session catalog was live. And when I talked about the scale and scope of the event, what I didn't mention is that it takes us 23 days to set up and 80,000 man hours to set up that show floor. So this 60 day pivot was not very far before the trucks were leaving to drive to Orlando to begin set up. So what did that mean? That meant we had to re-brief the 120 person content team, it meant we had to reassign the five neighborhoods and the three pavilions, and it meant we had to remap 900 content sessions and 150 assets and showcases. It was stressful. It was a crazy scramble.

The good news was that we had built the model to be agile and flexible thinking it would be about new acquisitions that we might make coming into the portfolio. The content was relatively easy to shift because what we did, instead of being focused on the business outcomes powered by tech, like I talked about, we changed the focus slightly to being tech delivering the business outcomes. The bad news; the entire show floor design needed to change, the leaders of the neighborhoods and the pavilions needed to change because they were representing, in the past, cross areas of a business versus now they were more focused on specific product areas or solution areas in our business, so the neighborhood leads had to change, the budget, certainly there was an implication to that, but we won't go there. And amazingly, and I think back to it now, and a just huge kudos to our entire team, 12 days after receiving the direction for change, we rolled out the new session catalog in the new direction.

BRANDON:

Wow. That's quick.

NICOLA:

That is amazing. Like I said, we've got a phenomenal team working on this and hats off to them for living through what was quite chaotic for a short time.

BRANDON:

Yeah. I imagine that required quite a bit of midnight oil being burnt.

NICOLA:

Yeah. Few days without showers, no doubt.

BRANDON:

That too?

NICOLA:

Yes.

BRANDON:

I mean, all of this, it's amazing to hear that, especially in light of what I have seen to be the success of the event, and of course these awards are also great opportunities for recognition, but-

NICOLA:

It's the story behind the story.

BRANDON:

... but there's a story behind the story, but that wasn't even part of the criteria for the award.

NICOLA:

Exactly. Exactly. If there was a chaos award, we'd win that too.

BRANDON:

There should be a chaos award moving forward.

NICOLA:

A new category.

BRANDON:

A lot was going on. You had to manage a lot of change very quickly, not only pivoting the direction of the event, but then also having to re-pivot it again at very short notice. Now that it's all done, what are some key lessons that you learned through this experience?

NICOLA:

Yeah, a lot. I think one that's really stuck with me is that backing up isn't the same as going backwards. And when we received that direction, I was incredibly disappointed, but it was okay in the end and it worked out fine. And that concept of backing up not being the same as going backwards is a mountain climbing analogy. If you're climbing Everest, you go from base camp to the first camp and then back down because you have to acclimatize. So, we as a team have really embraced that concept. This was big change. This was monumental change, and I mentioned earlier, this is one part of a long journey. So it was okay. So that acceptance, that backing up wasn't going backwards.

The other thing was our president of corporate marketing uses this expression and I think it's fantastic in terms of a lesson that we learned was, don't boil the frog. We turned the heat up really quickly, and while we were being asked to be innovative and to push the envelope, change that is that monumental takes time, right? We're a large company, we're a large organization, it's a large event, it takes time to change the direction of the ship.

And so this don't boil the frog analogy is you put the frog in the water and you turn the heat up a little, a little bit, a little bit by little bit, and incremental change while maybe not as fast as we would have hoped for, is okay as well, and we're going to continue to change. We demonstrated that the change was incredibly successful this year and so that gives us the opportunity to continue that change within our journey. So I mean there's so many lessons. I think this isn't new to anybody, but people support change as long as it doesn't happen to them. And so not lesson learned, but a reality that we lived through.

And then I think probably one of the bigger lessons was at our CMO has stake holders as well and we need to really make sure that we're equipping her to make sure that her stakeholders are successful and understand the change and the direction. And then lastly, this is for anyone, don't try and do it alone. It takes a village. When I was tasked to change this, if I hadn't tapped on the expertise of Johann and many, many others in the organization, we wouldn't have been successful in getting to where we were today. So find the right people, find the right resources to support.

BRANDON:

Speaking of that, I know that you are still currently working with Johann in the event strategy. Could you tell us a little bit about how that relationship has evolved?

NICOLA:

Yeah. He's my boss now. So I mentioned that I was the leader of the team for seven months and he took over the role and I just think it's a huge testament to the fact that the company saw the value and alignment between content and events. And so essentially they collapsed our two teams into one under Johann's leadership.

BRANDON:

Wow. So still working. That bond between the events and the content is even stronger.

NICOLA:

Absolutely. It's the foundation of our strategy, and that has now permeated into every event that we do, certainly through our team and we're starting to roll that out through the organization, lead with content, lead with customer.

BRANDON:

Fantastic. Well, and a process that's going to be a lot faster than pivoting SAPPHIRE NOW, I'd love to pivot this conversation to about you a little bit more and to just speak about your background.

NICOLA:

Sure.

BRANDON:

One of the things is that I know that you have spoken on some women in events panels before produced by Event Marketer, did this back at EMS and you were named to be one of the top 15 woman in events and that you also are attending another event this week. With that in mind, I'm curious from your experience, what do you find to be really valuable about the conversation that happens in this event and what have been some of your takeaways?

NICOLA:

It was really interesting. Last year when I went to this, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and like you mentioned, I was named as a top 15 women in events and we did a round table interview together and then spoke on a panel together later that afternoon and also spoke on a panel at the experiential marketing summit in may in Las Vegas on the same topic. And it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences for me personally in my professional career, just being able to share stories, vulnerabilities with others in the industry and success stories. We all think everybody else has got it all figured out. We talk about work-life balance and how do you do it all, and there is no easy answer. None of us have the answers, but we can learn from each other from what works for each of us. And so it's just that raw honesty and vulnerability that all of us were able to express as panelists as well as the audience, and the dialogue that it created was so rewarding.

BRANDON:

Fantastic. And I know that earlier you mentioned that taking some time away on maternity leave made you a better leader. Could you speak on that?

NICOLA:

Sure. So I actually took three years out of my career to be a mom and stay at home with my kids. It wasn't all rosy, so I don't want to paint a picture that it was the most idyllic moment of my life, I mean, I have two small children, but I am so glad that I did that, that I took the time, it was what was right for me, it was what was right for my family. It wasn't necessarily a conscious decision that I would take that time off. We have a year maternity leave in Canada and I had my kids back to back, so it just worked out that way. But it has made me a better leader, I think more patient, also more accepting of the need to create balance, right? I mentioned that before that there is no such thing as work-life balance, I don't believe. I think the term today is work-life integration and I believe in that. Sometimes my family takes more focus, sometimes my professional life takes more focus, and we have to be able to ride those tides and be flexible.

So as a leader, that's my philosophy and something that I like think that I bring to work every day and role model as an example to those within our organization.

BRANDON:

Wonderful. With all of this knowledge, this experience you've had throughout your career, if you could go back earlier on and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

NICOLA:

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, in fact, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and that's okay. When I started out in the working world, people said you had to have a career path, you had to know what you wanted to be and where you wanted to go and have your five year plan mapped out, I never did, and I always worried about that, but I don't think I needed to. I trusted my instinct, I trusted my gut, I trusted what was right and followed those instincts, and if it didn't work out, it was a lesson learned. And so I think looking back, advice I would give to anybody is, find your passion and the path will follow you versus you having to follow something that's created and set out.

BRANDON:

A huge thanks to Nicola for joining us and thank you for listening. One thing that really struck me about Nicola's story was how just 60 days before the doors opened for SAPPHIRE NOW, she and Johann were tasked with dramatically pivoting the content and experience of the event. By this point, they had already put a lot of thought into how the event was going to be transformed and they had guided their team into implementing this massive transformation. Then in the final hour, they were required to turn it on a dime. Not only was the SAPPHIRE NOW team successful in making these last minute changes in 12 days, no less, they also managed to get it done so seamlessly that the event went on to net praise and even an award. To me, this is a lesson in the beautiful balance between ambition and compromise, vision and adaptability. It's a humbling reminder of how volatile the events industry can be and the grit that so many event marketers have to push on through it.

If you have any feedback for the show, please drop us a line at in-person@bizzabo.com. We always, always, always look forward to hearing what you have to say. You can also find full transcripts of the show along with key takeaways at inpersonpodcast.com. Until next time, I'm Brandon Rafalson. This has been IN-PERSON, and shout out to all the Excel nerds out there. You make the world go round.