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Turning Point

Turning Point - An Interview Series

14 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new opportunities, new challenges and a new degree of uncertainty for leaders in the events industry. To facilitate the exchange of ideas and provide oft-needed inspiration, SISO and mdg have partnered to bring you a series of interviews with some of the smartest minds in our space. In this first installment, you’ll learn what Greg Topalian, CEO of Clarion Events North America, is doing to keep his company moving forward and stay positive (spoiler: it involves puppies).


How are you approaching scenario planning?

From the beginning, we thought it would be foolish to underestimate the impact of the pandemic and assumed not much would happen before fall. That said, the biggest challenge for us has been navigating the uncertainty. It’s hard to predict when things are going to return and what they will look like once they do. We are playing out scenarios on a global basis that are both realistic and “worst-case”—not because we’re negative, but because we want to be prepared. These exercises have given us room to shift our focus to more innovative projects during this period.


What learnings from past challenges can you apply to the current situation?

While past situations like 9/11 and the economic recession are different, what they all have in common is the potential to create panic and cause us to become unfocused. We got through past crises by remaining calm, communicating, and focusing on what our customers need. Reflecting on those experiences gives me faith that our current situation will get better. We can’t predict when this pandemic will end, but I do have faith that we will get back to normal.


Really? You think we’ll get back to normal?

Events will go back to some form of normal. I fundamentally believe the human desire to connect face-to-face will never go away—in fact, it may even be enhanced after social distancing is over. That said, hybrid represents a significant positive for us in the future. If we embrace the model and unlock its potential, there should be meaningful opportunities for organizers and exhibitors to better engage live and virtual audiences.


What have you learned about taking a physical event online?

The biggest eye-opener for me has been to no longer think about virtual events in a linear way. You’re not trying to recreate a three-day experience at the Javits Center; instead, the goal is to convince someone to give you a short period of their time to be educated, informed, and entertained. We’re approaching virtual events as if we’re producing a television show, focusing more on production value and making the attendee feel immersed. Considering that experience on the other side of the screen has informed a lot of our thinking about these virtual events.


What is something your organization has done over the past 2 months that you’re proud of?

I’m very proud of the level of innovation around event models and virtual activities. Rather than dwelling on the hope that everything is going to be the same, my team is viewing this moment as an opportunity to experiment, focus on customers, and solve problems. To guide these efforts, I’ve emphasized that all ideas must be driven by our customers’ current needs and the ways that we can best support them right now. I’ve also encouraged them to focus on future value, rather than solving for current financial shortfalls.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new opportunities, new challenges and a new degree of uncertainty for leaders in the events industry. To facilitate the exchange of ideas and provide oft-needed inspiration, SISO and mdg have partnered to bring you a series of interviews with some of the smartest minds in our space. In this first installment, you’ll learn what Greg Topalian, CEO of Clarion Events North America, is doing to keep his company moving forward and stay positive (spoiler: it involves puppies).


How are you approaching scenario planning?

From the beginning, we thought it would be foolish to underestimate the impact of the pandemic and assumed not much would happen before fall. That said, the biggest challenge for us has been navigating the uncertainty. It’s hard to predict when things are going to return and what they will look like once they do. We are playing out scenarios on a global basis that are both realistic and “worst-case”—not because we’re negative, but because we want to be prepared. These exercises have given us room to shift our focus to more innovative projects during this period.


What learnings from past challenges can you apply to the current situation?

While past situations like 9/11 and the economic recession are different, what they all have in common is the potential to create panic and cause us to become unfocused. We got through past crises by remaining calm, communicating, and focusing on what our customers need. Reflecting on those experiences gives me faith that our current situation will get better. We can’t predict when this pandemic will end, but I do have faith that we will get back to normal.


Really? You think we’ll get back to normal?

Events will go back to some form of normal. I fundamentally believe the human desire to connect face-to-face will never go away—in fact, it may even be enhanced after social distancing is over. That said, hybrid represents a significant positive for us in the future. If we embrace the model and unlock its potential, there should be meaningful opportunities for organizers and exhibitors to better engage live and virtual audiences.


What have you learned about taking a physical event online?

The biggest eye-opener for me has been to no longer think about virtual events in a linear way. You’re not trying to recreate a three-day experience at the Javits Center; instead, the goal is to convince someone to give you a short period of their time to be educated, informed, and entertained. We’re approaching virtual events as if we’re producing a television show, focusing more on production value and making the attendee feel immersed. Considering that experience on the other side of the screen has informed a lot of our thinking about these virtual events.


What is something your organization has done over the past 2 months that you’re proud of?

I’m very proud of the level of innovation around event models and virtual activities. Rather than dwelling on the hope that everything is going to be the same, my team is viewing this moment as an opportunity to experiment, focus on customers, and solve problems. To guide these efforts, I’ve emphasized that all ideas must be driven by our customers’ current needs and the ways that we can best support them right now. I’ve also encouraged them to focus on future value, rather than solving for current financial shortfalls.


Are there any organizational changes that came about because of the pandemic that you’ll keep in place?

An internal challenge we uncovered in our last employee opinion survey was that there were different levels of flexibility around working from home throughout the organization. I feel the entire team has proven that they can be wildly effective while working remotely, and while we will eventually return to offices, I’d like to think that our flexibility with working from home will be that much higher. It will make us a better employer and adds value to people’s lives.


What advice do you have for other leaders in the industry?

First, hope isn’t a strategy. Second, you have an opportunity to get closer to your customers than you’ve ever been and you should use it to learn more about what they need. From there, you can get to innovation, but you have to start with listening.


How are you keeping yourself motivated and positive?

I’m enjoying the break from travel. I make sure to exercise every day and I’m fostering puppies. Having them around and knowing that I’m helping them get homes has been a rewarding experience. On the business side, I’ve always been motivated by innovation and I don’t look at this as a time to be scared so much as a time to identify new ways to enhance the business. I’m excited by the ideas my team is working on, the problems we’re solving and the products that will add value for our customers and augment our business in the future.


Are there any organizational changes that came about because of the pandemic that you’ll keep in place?

An internal challenge we uncovered in our last employee opinion survey was that there were different levels of flexibility around working from home throughout the organization. I feel the entire team has proven that they can be wildly effective while working remotely, and while we will eventually return to offices, I’d like to think that our flexibility with working from home will be that much higher. It will make us a better employer and adds value to people’s lives.


What advice do you have for other leaders in the industry?

First, hope isn’t a strategy. Second, you have an opportunity to get closer to your customers than you’ve ever been and you should use it to learn more about what they need. From there, you can get to innovation, but you have to start with listening.


How are you keeping yourself motivated and positive?

I’m enjoying the break from travel. I make sure to exercise every day and I’m fostering puppies. Having them around and knowing that I’m helping them get homes has been a rewarding experience. On the business side, I’ve always been motivated by innovation and I don’t look at this as a time to be scared so much as a time to identify new ways to enhance the business. I’m excited by the ideas my team is working on, the problems we’re solving and the products that will add value for our customers and augment our business in the future.

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