Why it’s time to rethink the way we plan events

CJ Holden shares why we need to shake up the stagnant format of events.

The events space in Australia is more crowded and competitive than ever before. If you want to stand out, you may just have to do something a little bit different.

Here, CJ Holden, experientialist and creator of s p a c e, shares his thoughts about the stagnant format of some events and how he and his team are doing things differently.

Offering something different

In the world of events, there are a few tried and tested formulas that we see over and over again. According to Holden, we’ve come to a point where these methods are being overdone and almost created without thought. In a world where we have technology and a world full of information at our fingertips, that’s not enough.

“I feel the whole speaker-audience model is slowly dying,” he says.

“Unless it’s a speaker who’s not spoken before, all of us can access ideas on our phones and see keynote speeches and get the essence of what people are talking about.”

However, if you’re going to try to step away from the common model and do something different, you have to be careful not to over-promise and under-deliver.

“I think the most common mistake is not living up to the brand promise or message,” he says.

“I’ve been to lots of different events that sell you it on one thing and when you attend it’s just like any other conference. That is so frustrating.”

The turning point for s p a c e

If you’re going to call people out for not delivering on promises, you need to make sure that you’re walking the walk yourself.

Holden, along with Adam Ferrier and Holly Ransom, is responsible for the s p a c e series of events. At s p a c e, there’s no schedule and no set speakers, instead the guests make up the program and share ideas among themselves. Gone is the speaker-audience relationship and instead a fully interactive model has been created.

The idea for s p a c e came from two realisations.

“The first was way back in 2015 and the event I was running had become a little bit of an echo chamber,” says Holden.

“I was sitting in the conference – on paper it was stunning, but the conversations that were being had, the content on the stage, I just felt was really boring.

“I wasn’t learning anything. The people in the room are at the forefront of their industry, surely they weren’t learning anything either? That was when I had a lightbulb moment where we needed to shift from talking trends to inspiring trends.

“The second part, who I am and what I’ve always done in my roles is to look at what other people are doing and do the opposite.

“So these two mindsets merging together – the power of sharing ideas and that I like to do things differently – I kind of stumbled onto the fact that in the world that we live in, we have so much access to ideas and speakers and thoughts.

“But what is it that the person sitting next to you at a conference might know that you don’t know?”

Making the changes yourself

Often event organisers are their own worst enemies when it comes to repeating the same formats. Some events or companies have an idea of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but that means they’re getting left behind by their more innovative competition.

“People trust a little bit too much in the status quo,” says Holden.

“Just because that’s the way you’ve always done it, doesn’t mean that’s the right way. I hate seeing the ‘that’s the way we do it here’ attitude.”

It’s not just the format that can be stifling, but also the goals. For many, the idea that bigger is better rings true, but that doesn’t isn’t always the case.

“It frustrates me that a lot of conference organisers just see that it needs to be bigger and bigger and they need to sell more tickets,” he says.

“There’s also a margin in creating something small and exclusive that’s very high quality. Not only can you charge more, but people are prepared to pay more as well.”

Getting approval to make wholescale changes

If you’re worried that trying to make major changes to a long-running event may be futile in your current work environment, Holden has two tips for you: find a company that will believe in you or to experiment with a smaller sample.

“If you’re in a position where they can go out and trial a small version to test it and see if it works, then go back and get buy-in,” he says.

“It’s a really tricky one and it depends on the organisation. My first question would be whether I’m in the right organisation.”

Find out more about what CJ Holden has to say about creativity in event organisation at the Business of Events conference on 19 March 2020 at Luna Park, Sydney. Tickets are available here.

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