Balancing Careful with Creative: A Case Study in Event Risk

By Andrea Driessen

This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book, “The Non-Obvious Guide to Event Planning: For Kick-Ass Gatherings that Inspire People,” available Jan. 2019.

The events industry tends to view risk as a danger to be avoided. We have (and need!) complex contractual clauses that address indemnity, force majeure and liability. We use carefully crafted checklists, so events run effectively. After all, who wants to risk it?

Then we invite imperfect, easily bored guests whose attention spans we cannot control. We host folks who crave novelty, surprise, creativity and cutting-edge ideas.

As we consider risk on a continuum, I believe there’s an inherent—and crucial—boldness in trying something new with our programming design and not knowing, for certain, whether it’ll work. For us to truly raise the bar on and positively change the overall event experience, we need to change. And change doesn’t happen in the middle. It happens on the edge, where it’s uncomfortable.

After all, it’s when participants are uncomfortable, faced with the unknown and full of curiosity, that change and transformation happen.

TED’s Chris Anderson at TED2018, put it this way: Discomfort is a proxy for progress.

So how do we navigate the gap between staging safe, legal, well-run events (Job #1)—and producing live experiences that leave audiences changed and inspired (Job #2)?

Let’s explore how to find a useful balance between being careful when careful is called for and creative in ways attendees crave.

For the record, I’m not suggesting we re-invent and change up everything about every event. That is unnecessary and impractical. Successful risk taking is incremental risk taking. If it seems more palatable, use the term “experiment” in place of “risk.”

We can begin by communicating to our stakeholders and audiences the why behind our risks.

Attendees want and deserve to know the reasons you’re trying something new, and will tolerate more risk if they understand your why. And if you don’t have specific reasons for sticking your neck out to launch something new, then do reconsider your choice.

Let’s look at one organization that took some risks—and as a result, transformed their event.

An industry leader in small business commercial finance, Orion First has been holding a regional Lending Forum since 2003. Its initial structure: gather bank partner clients, and in a roundtable format, give them updates on Orion, its accomplishments and its outlook on finance and small-business lending.

Then a few years ago, the team realized this self-serving agenda, essentially all about them, not about the needs of the audience, was—you guessed it!—more boring than ROAR-ing. (ROAR is my acronym for Return On Attendee Relevance.)

They decided to retool, and asked: “How can we add more value from the attendees’ point of view?” Since, the Forum has become a larger, national conference featuring headlining speakers and thought leaders who deliver relevant and actionable professional development content. There are interactive breakouts and attendee-led panels via which participants openly share ideas, best practices and the challenges of lending. It’s now a meatier look into what the future may hold, and collectively helps attendees sharpen their craft.

A much more diverse set of attendees, including those from publicly traded companies, come now not just from the Pacific Northwest, but from all over the country, as the Forum moved from Tacoma, WA, to Denver, CO. Between 2016 and 2017 (when they became a No More Boring Meetings client), attendance grew 20%.

Getting here took substantial risks: taking Orion employees “off the selling floor” for a few days. Asking most attendees, too, to fly in. Securing sponsors to underwrite increased expenses (because the event is offered to registrants at no cost). Not knowing how people would respond to a new format.

The biggest risks? According to CEO David Schaefer, they are: keeping the Lending Forum the same, not growing and becoming irrelevant.

David and his team asked, “What’s our bigger why?” And the answer? We do this work to help fuel the catalytic power of small business, which in turn brings more value back to the communities we and all small businesses serve. To that end, a relationship-building golf tournament as part of the Lending Forum experience directly supports YMCA programs.


[photo from Paxson Woelber on Flickr via Creative Commons License]