August 21st, 2020

I'm Derrick Johnson, the Director of Event Strategy and Chief Diversity Officer for Talley Management Group, and these are my thoughts on Re-Eventing the Wheel


The 'Re-Eventing the Wheel' Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry.

Tell me about yourself & your background in the meetings & events industry.

Currently, I serve as the Director of Event Strategy and Chief Diversity Officer for Talley Management Group based in New Jersey. We service about 20-30 associations full time and conduct subsequent work in event design, planning, execution, marketing communications, strategic planning - pretty much any area that the association may need support in. My role primarily is to work with our event team to drive the overall event strategies for our partner organizations so that they’re presenting themselves in the best light to be sustainable within their individual ecosystems and creating experiences that are meaningful to the attendees for education and networking. I started in the industry back when I was 15 years old. My mom worked for an association in their membership department and my brother and I would go to the kid camp they offered. One year I just decided to work with their conference at the Department of Medical Associations. I was then invited to work in the office and I worked there every summer; I was planning some of the smaller meetings for the association when I was a senior in high school. I realized this was a profession I wanted to pursue and worked with National Association for Gifted Children.

For me, 2009 was when I really started to get into virtual events; I got introduced to the PCMA world working with that association. I’ve done webcasts for the US Department of Education. I’ve created events for Fortune 500 CEOs. I've developed VR and AR events. When I was with the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, I expanded my depth of personal development and did a lot of leadership development events. I got my masters and certificate in AI and I got my DES certification. I moved to Philly in 2019 to serve as the Executive Director for National Behavioral Intervention Team and Association, but things changed when COVID-19 hit back in March. I was offered this role with TMG and now oversee the digital strategy for our partners and also the strategic design and direction for our D&I program.

From your perspective, describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.

I would probably say that the industry is in a state of change. I think we, very similarly to every other industry in the world, are facing the position of change and reevaluating why we do things and how we do them. COVID-19 has really impacted our world in every way, shape, or form and I think it has presented us with a fast track to evolve, not just our professions, but as humans and the way we do things, whether that be personally or professionally. The meetings and events industry is no different.

I think we have the opportunity to really seize this moment to help our industries and communities grow and create life-changing and altering opportunities for their stakeholders and environments. I think there’s a lot of realization that we can’t operate the same way that we have in the past; there’s unfortunately a lot that's being forced due to organizations' financial stability and resource allocations changing. People are being let go and furloughed from positions; organizations are having to reevaluate their overall strategic plans and what that means for the meetings and events industry. Our primary focus for the past century of events has been stuck in this position of face-to-face occurrence and the virtual umbrella has been "the step-sibling" of the face-to-face experience. But now, the virtual is being elevated as an equal and I would argue it's even more important than the in-person experience.

COVID-19 is forcing the event industry as a whole to reevaluate how we’re operating and how we connect people. We’re all at different stages of development of this evolution cycle and those who are not willing to reevaluate their current presence and state of being are going to quickly get left behind. I truly believe that this unfortunate circumstance really provided us with this lens to see how inefficient and ineffective we have been as a community in delivering flexible, unique, and custom opportunities to individuals within the communities that we serve. We’re having to forcefully now look and reevaluate those things when we could have just been doing this all along because we wanted to instead of doing it because we’re forced to.

How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?

It’s forced the mindset of putting strategy first. As planners we go straight to the execution: I’m going to design this event for this reason with these pieces and it starts with budgeting, who’s attending, etc. We tend to miss the overarching important element of:

"How does this event tie into our other events? How does this event tie into the mission, vision and objectives of the organization?"

I try to use the word "experience" instead of "event" especially now that we’re talking about virtual events more often than not. How does this experience help propel the organization, stakeholders and members to a level of growth and enhancement? How are we facilitating that over the course of not just this moment (which events are used to being)? How are we creating experiences that are lasting throughout the whole year that aren’t time bound? How are we facilitating these communities to have these experiences that are continuously engaging?

How are we providing opportunities for participants to come in and out of our virtual experience because we live in a very distracted world at home and at work? Mobile devices are within arm's reach away. I can be distracted by a text message instead of focusing on the content I should be focused on. We have to fight through that reality as event professionals; we have to build event experiences that aren't just educational and provide the content that’s needed but we have to engage the participants in new ways and build that sense of community and connection that is very close to the in-person experience knowing it won’t ever be duplicated. Meeting face-to-face is what drives human existence, but we can create opportunities to build that connection in a virtual way. All of that has really helped shift my mindset as we live in a socially distant world because I truly believe we won’t see large scale events moving forward without some virtual component tied to it.

I compare this new era of events to "attending a live sporting event" - you can buy a ticket and walk into a stadium and experience it with all the people there or you can watch it at home on TV and have a completely different experience in the "remote" setting. These are the things we’re looking at in the industry: how we can create these experiences in new ways yet still deliver the same information, content, learning, and engagement that you would get in a face-to-face setting? The value of a virtual experience for a baseball game is I can host my own party at home, I can watch this while I get my chores done, or I can record it and watch it on my own time. I think the same about digital and virtual learning - we provide the opportunity for participants to learn at their own pace and leisure. We’re providing the opportunity for them to keep the game on in the background or sit down on the sofa and engage with it. It’s the same principle - just switching it towards education rather than entertainment.

What technologies do you see emerging from this?

I use the word virtual while others use the word digital. I see Virtual being the overarching umbrella where virtual is the "experience type" that describes the non-physical existence of a person, place or some entity while Digital is a tool used in the virtual experience that engages people within the computing world. So underneath Virtual, you have Digital but you also have VR and AR. Underneath Digital, you have things like webcasts, podcasts, virtual conferences or webinars. I see technology evolving in this space to the point of more virtual tools being identified and provided to enhance the opportunities for us to engage and communicate quicker, more effectively, and more efficiently.

So, I’m a big sci-fi fan; I love watching sci-fi movies and reading comics. Every time I watch a Star Wars movie or read a Marvel comic, I imagine what our world would be like if we had X. Those extensions of our world are just opportunities to explore the possibilities of "what ifs". Holograms, for example, are tools used in Star Wars and can now be created through AR - but what happens when you don’t need a camera or a lens to create the same experience? You’re able to bring a person in a space and interact with this tool in a way that helps us facilitate communication and engagement in exciting ways. That’s where we're heading with the future of technology and innovation in the event space because suddenly, there's a need for it; we’re fast-forwarding into the space of drastic change.

The other example that I’ll give is about playing in this world of virtual conferences. Currently I don’t think we’ll see any large scale event without a virtual component tied to it but the evolution of the virtual conference is one that adds physical locations and brings those physical locations into the virtual experiences so when people go to virtual conferences digitally, they're able to immerse themselves in the virtual environment that not only mimics the in-person space, but also allows them to leave the virtual venues and explore the communities outside the conference hall that mimic the actual communities themselves. For example, I will go to a virtual conference online within an environment that mimics the Hyatt Regency or Hilton hotel but I can leave that venue and go explore the city. I can highlight these local vendors, go inside their shops and buy merchandise from them online. I could even take virtual tours of the cities online so that these experiences we’re creating are not just experiences we’re creating for the speakers, but we're creating virtual worlds for people to fully immerse themselves in and to come, not just for content, networking or an idea exchange, but to really learn and engage in different ways.

For example, the 2-dimensional layouts that you see on Ikea furniture are so frustrating to work with because you’re taking this 2d paper to create a 3d piece of furniture and it looks nothing like the way it’s supposed to look in real life! Our brains confuse the two a lot but when you take a 3d object and you’re engaging with something else that looks like it and is als 3d, you can see the sides and the shapes and see exactly what you’re looking for. Shopping online becomes more 3d where you can see around the shape and engage with the merchandise versus passively clicking on a flat object. That immersion is key to the evolution of virtual and 100% where we see things heading in the meetings and event space. We won't just be immersing ourself in the building experience but also layering outside entities because it’s just as important for the attendees to navigate the environment they’re in and enjoy the new location.

If you had a technology wish list, what would it be?

First of all, it would need to be very flexible, adaptable, and creative. I would also need that immersion factor I was talking about in the last question. I would want people to feel like they’re going to a space or location and not just going to a computer. Customization is very important. And of course, it needs to be easy to use.

What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?


1. Sustainability aspect. The reduction of the carbon footprint for organizations is very clear. Eliminating travel and onsite waste instantly helps organizations with their corporate social responsibility practices. That’s at the top of the list for me. This ultimately helps us save the planet.

2. Diversification. We’re able to use messaging to reach more people in different ways and also show the organization's values. Virtual events allows us to truly look at the diversity, systemic racism, and inequality within our world and provide opportunities for people who may not have gotten them from other means.

3. Customization. As opposed to creating a virtual 10x10 booth, why don’t you create something meaningful to your organization? Bring the amazon warehouse to the trade floor. Bring that new airplane you’re about to release and have people walk through it. Bring that historian from the past that talks about the information in your publication. We’re able to customize the experiences to meet the goals and objectives of our organization.

4. Monetization. There are many more opportunities to monetize this space and provide more outcomes that are more meaningful and valuable to our stakeholders over the in-person experience.

The values of virtual outweigh values of in-person but we still need both and both are mutually exclusive yet the power of the virtual experience far outweighs the in-person experience greatly. This goes back to the reimagining of how and why we do things. There are times we need the in-person experience and there are times when we should and could do the virtual one to get ideas across and facilitate connection in greater ways. Virtual events are just things we haven’t necessarily done and everyone is so anxious to get to the way we have been when in all actuality we won’t go back because time doesn’t go in reverse. What has been will never be again. We have opportunities to evolve and change; that flexibility will be needed in the future and we need to be very thoughtful in these experiences we’re creating. Event strategy that directly correlates to everything that we want to execute with the scale of our organizations and making sure we’re building virtual communities and experiences is very important.

How do you see this affecting the attendee experience? The sponsor/advertiser experience?

We’re used to providing sponsors and advertisers the opportunity to reach participants in a time-bound, in-person meeting. Now, we're not location-bound or time-bound so this far surpasses anything an in-person experience could ever create. Theres greater opportunity for provide ROI in a virtual setting. Period. Anything you can do in person, you can do virtually and then some.

The virtual world provides flexibility for the attendee that you don’t have at in-person events - not just for your participants but also your speakers. Generally you’d pay a speaker to develop content, come to your event, rehearse with tech crew, stay overnight and leave the next morning - that takes 3 days (travel > present > travel). I can do the same thing in my pajamas at home - it takes me a few hours to prep the presentation and work with the AV team on the other side of the computer, I change into my presenter clothes and deliver the message. This allows us to obtain higher quality presenters. We’re not taking more of their time away from them and time is the most precious thing we have. We give that time back to people because we are delivering them a custom experience that they can opt into participating in when they can and when they want and that is within a smaller time frame than what the in-person experience would be. The dedication they need in terms of time to participate virtually is far less than what’s needed in person. There's no such thing as travel time. Travel time becomes putting a phone password in or walking from the couch to the computer; it’s just the click of a button.

If we're investing in giving time back to people then how else can we best manage that time? We go down a different path of being productive and being human; what does it mean to engage in a virtual conference experience? Are we inviting members’ families into this world of our organization? Connecting people not just in the professional setting, but in a personal way, becomes more of an opportunity now more than ever. We are digitally inviting people into our homes because that’s where we are socially distanced; I think encompassing these environments and embracing this fact we as planners should be designing these experiences taking that into consideration.

How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?

Let me walk you through the in-person day-of-event operation experience: You wake up early, check the meeting space, wait for your presenter to show up, load their presentation, check their mics, check the food & bev, and work with your partners at the venue to ensure that everything is ready for the day. The same thing happens in the virtual environment; your venue is the platform that you’re using. You log into the venue, ensure that your meeting rooms are set, check to make sure the areas of engagement are ready for people to sign in and participate, facilitate Q&A, and working with your presenters to ensure that their camera height, lighting, and backgrounds are all set before they present. The same processes apply virtually as they do in person. The fundamentals behind executing an event don’t change. The only difference is you’re doing one in your suit and tie and you’re doing the other one in a t-shirt.

When do you think in-person events will start up again?

I give it Fall 2021 at the earliest. People are very anxious to get face-to-face meetings back on the radar and back into action. I think the haste of opening spaces back up along with the effectiveness of disseminating the needed medical tools and resources amongst the population will be when we’ll see these large scale events come back into light. It also gives time for the industry to learn how best to execute these events knowing that health and safety is of upmost concern for participants.

How do you see travel impacting this?

Each person is uniquely different. There are people who are saying they're going to wait and see what happens. There are people who say "nope, not me". There are people who are going to be anxious to get out and travel again. There are going to be organizations that have financial restrictions. There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty when it comes to group travel and what that looks like. On an individual level, we’ll see that people need to get out and go someplace else. That need is very clear, even right now. We’ll see that heightened on an individual level. On a business side, that’s an interesting scenario. You’re dealing with the personal perceptions of travel along with the opportunities of traveling professionally based off of the business that you’re in and the financial opportunities that may or may not exist in that realm.

How do you see the events industry evolving from this?

I still believe we wont see a large-scale event without some sort of virtual component to it. That alone is evolving our industry but I think there’s more to evolving as an industry beyond that. Within the scale of sustainability, we have the opportunity as an industry to help change the world because within what we do, we can impact social and economic influence and change within communities because we touch everything. We literally touch every industry as an events community. I see our evolution more of taking that opportunity and positioning ourselves as influencers because we have been gifted the responsibility to be that force. That I’m hopeful for. If we do this right, I think that we’ll not only impact our industry but our world as a whole. That's ultimately why I became an events professional in the first place; I saw the opportunity to really impact broader communities and help individuals not just learn and grow, but make this world a better place.  I'm very hopeful that this opportunity we've been gifted to evolve really allows our peers and fellow leaders within this space to identify opportunities of impact to ultimately save our planet and world from so many different things - global warming, injustice for diverse groups - no other profession can say that we have the opportunity to solve these things at this scale. It goes far beyond the virtual events, customization, and monetization; it goes back to the purpose of why we do what we do. And that’s the evolution that lies within the scale of the meetings and events world - that culmination of that end result of our actions and our work as professionals.

What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?

It’s reimagining our purpose - not just to create events and experiences in the moment but what are these experiences and communities we’re creating ultimately for? How are we providing participants opportunities to be better people - to be better in their professions, personal lives, and as humans. That is the key to all of this: we have to see beyond the event and look towards global impact.

The "Re-Eventing the Wheel" Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry. Have someone you'd like to see featured or some ideas on questions we should ask? Please email Nicole.