August 2008 — I was asked to keynote for a new association of event and entertainment planners in India, an organization called EEMA. It was new and bold, and members were interested in learning all that they could about events in the rest of the world. I was asked to speak on trends, procedures and processes, and to address how India could be brought up to speed globally.
EEMA is the acronym for the Event & Entertainment Management Association, a registered nonprofit body of companies, organizations and institutions operating in the event and entertainment management industry across India. It is the first-ever body of its kind in the country that seeks to bring together professional organizations in this space on one platform.
I interviewed international associates, read as much as I could, based some of my thoughts on previous experiences in India, and then prepared a speech and a PowerPoint presentation that addressed what I felt I needed to share. In my view, India was behind the times, disorganized, nonstrategic and not as techno-logically savvy as the rest of the event industry.
I was wrong. So very wrong.
I arrived in Delhi and was greeted by a personable, neatly attired, professional driver holding an easily identifiable sign. He drove me to a five-star (six-star in my mind) hotel, where the staff was outside waiting to greet me. I was escorted to a room on a women's floor complete with every conceivable amenity. My contact, Sanjeev Pasricha, managing director of CS Direkt, called to make sure all was well and arranged a pickup time for the next day to come to his offices and then fly with him to Goa, on India's west coast, where the conference was to take place.
I was picked up on time. The offices were impressive, and everyone most gracious. As I met staff and talked to them, I asked to see some of their procedures. I saw production schedules done as easy-to-follow graphs, viewed photos of impressive events and listened to lists of even more impressive clients. Everyone was using the latest laptops. I started revising my speech even then. I was obviously under some wrong impressions.
We were driven to the airport and again, everything was smooth and made easy for me. I met a few other people who would be attending the conference, and everyone was friendly and hospitable. The flight was uneventful (and anyone who knows me and my travel stories will know that this alone is a rare occurrence). We were met at the Goa airport and once again, efficiently chauffeured to a very nice seaside hotel.
The welcome reception was that night. There were about 90 people present, mostly men, and when I walked in, no one approached me. Being a bit of a wallflower (please don't laugh, folks, this is true), I was reluctant to plunge in, but since I thought it might be Indian manners not to make the first move toward a strange woman, I started approaching people and introducing myself. I must have been right because from then on, everyone was wonderfully friendly and hospitable. I took the opportunity to ask everyone about their businesses and their clientele and learned that much of what I prepared was probably condescending, untrue and totally inappropriate. And I was “on” the next morning.
I retired to my room, earlier than I would have liked to, to rethink my remarks. Little of my perceptions were reality.
The next morning I entered the hotel ballroom for my tech and sound check. I saw a beautifully designed and detailed stage with a beautiful and practical podium. A screen extended from one side of the set to the other (in other words, it was quite large), and it used the Dataton “Watchout” multi-display system, which not everyone even in the U.S. uses or understands. I watched other speakers rehearse and saw some brilliant graphics exhibited. Again, not at all what I had expected. When changes needed to be made, technicians were on hand to make everything happen quickly and efficiently. Sound was perfect. And the tech booth? An amazingly constructed and perfect hard set that eliminated those ugly cords, unattractive equipment and usually badly dressed personnel. Instead everyone was behind that hard set and, other than a window created for every technician to see through, it was attractive and unobtrusive — better than I've seen on shows just about anywhere.
My education continued as the event unfolded.
EEMA's president, Michael Menezes, managing director of New Delhi-based Showtime Events, made his opening remarks, accompanied by a dynamic flash presentation. Sanjeev spoke next, and again his presentation was fleshed out with great graphics, film and a lot of customized material, much of it quite humorous. I had been afraid to introduce humor into my presentation, but I already knew I had been wrong.
Then it was my turn. My topics were “The Future of the Events Industry in Developing Countries,” “The Means to the Right Strategic Path” and “Learnings from the International Scenario.”
There was significant press coverage at this first-time conference. Let me share with you what the press had to say about my presentation since this might give you the key points that were most pertinent. I was quoted as telling this group “appreciate being small as an organization because you will grow fast.”
I remarked that it took 20 years for the U.S. to get an organization on the lines of EEMA going. I said, “I respect you for you have already done in a short span of four months, and you will come farther than we are in the U.S. and could well overtake us very quickly.”
I stressed the higher expectations of global companies for levels of service and quality, and added, “Aiming for perfection is good [as this had been brought up by Michael] but it is almost impossible to achieve. Moreover, you cannot have excuses anymore of being a ‘developing’ country as if you do, foreign countries will take you over.”
I stressed the need to move on from trying to compete on price alone and I urged the audience to compete on quality. “Total transparency [which is new to India] is another factor that will help global companies gain more confidence in you, and by offering it you can also gain trust from clients.”
Urging local companies to align themselves with foreign companies wanting to do business in India, I stressed the advantages of strategic partnerships. I also stressed the importance of their presence at international meetings and industry shows. And then I discussed the role of woman in the event industry, as apparently this number is very low.
And lastly I urged two things: one, to start encouraging women to enter the industry and, two, to involve themselves in the global community in two ways. First, get out there and see what the rest of the world is doing, and, second by involving themselves in the international community through existing organizations and associations.
As a final remark I said that much of my talk (including all the input from my international associates) was based on perceptions, and if those perceptions were wrong, then that audience had to work to change those perceptions.
The rest of the conference was illuminating. I would give you all of my speech, but frankly, this wasn’t about what I taught. It was about what I learned.
One hundred members in EEMA, and all of them enthusiastic and not afraid to show it. In regard to their views on competition, Napoleon was quoted--which gave me great pause--"Generals have better things to do than to shoot each other.” EEMA’s platform: To work together on music licensing agreements, on taxation issues, on an employee code of conduct.
Then, and most amazingly, the group shared with me their handbook, a brilliantly conceived, detailed and extensive document that outlined ethical issues, financial issues, production issues and vendor agreements, which asked all vendors to literally and figuratively sign on and agree to standardization of the highest order.
Many of the challenges sounded familiar. For instance, advertising agencies are starting their own in-house event divisions, workers need insurance and protective gear, and plugs need to be uniform.
A point was made that the future belongs to those who can deliver on the international level. Being accountable is important. Greening is important. Other than films, the biggest spend in India is in brands in the corporate sector, though India has the lowest event spend compared to the Gross National Product. Media planners believe that the ROI on experiential marketing is low, and there is no proper tool available to calculate ROI in the industry. The need to make event agencies indispensable partners is vital. There is a need to develop world-class venues across India, as few exist. The challenge is in the current lack of infrastructure. There is a great need to be more than a vendor and instead be an "idea-tor." Much discussion was about paying for ideas, which of course we in the United States as well as abroad have been challenged with for years.
Lively round table discussions covered such issues as artist management, lack of quality performers, creating better RFPs, creating better training for employees, getting the industry more recognition, establishing better venues (and getting government support for this development), training clients to respect our industry more, creating industry standards, charging for idea development, standardizing agency commissions, managing vendors and creating standard rate cards with those vendors. Safety was also discussed, including what procedures needed to be put in place to validate safety at events.
Panels discussed such things as growth through marketing rather than sales, collaborating with ad agencies, developing long-term relationships, developing transparency, creating value that makes a difference to the client’s brand, dealing with the role of procurement, and seeing vendors as partners and associates. It was said, “When the client pays you, you are a vendor; when clients don’t pay you, you are a partner.” Vendors feel victimized by event managers. They feel that event managers sell dreams that they can’t deliver and then pass those challenges along to the vendors. Managers need to get technical training.
And … there is difficulty retaining good help.
All feel that there are new horizons for event management companies through formal education and certifications, including university recognition. It is also incumbent to equip ourselves to be decision-makers for our brands and clients.
To summarize key issues:
* In India there will be an 18- to 24-month recession, yet inflation is at 12 percent, and therefore there will be a cutback on events.
* There is a need to create an index of credibility and demonstrate ROI. Integration into the marketing mix is vital and how to do it must be explored.
* Awareness of new areas of opportunity such as retail and sports is important.
* Attracting talent--the right talent--skills development and training is a core issue.
* Professionalizing on every level is important.
The undercutting of rates by agencies, rampant poaching of talent and other unfair trade practices need to be addressed. There is a need to collaboratively work together with standard rates and practices. EEMA hopes to gain a sense of unity among agencies. This unity will allow EEMA to strengthen both in the domain of allocation of permissions and permits as well as in working through legal loopholes. The organization hopes to work toward creating a united platform to address grievances both by agencies as well as clients, which also will ensure that clients feel a sense of security dealing with EEMA-affiliated agencies.
In the words of journalist Karishma Hundalani, of the company EVENTFAQS, “We know the industry has come of age when it finds the need to stand united, to speak in one voice, and to plan its growth agenda. It takes wisdom and experience for businesses that are so used to competing with one another to put issues that matter to the industry as a whole above all else.”
After the conference, Michael Menezes wrote to me and said, “It was an honour and a privilege to have you with us. And a true learning experience as well. Even if we can implement 10 percent of what you have suggested, we would have achieved a lot.”
To Mr. Menezes and all of EEMA, I can only say that it was equally a learning experience for me, as well as an honor and a privilege. If we could implement any part of their initiatives, we would be doing much good for our industry worldwide.
With Miss Hundalani’s profound words in mind, I’d like to share my closing remarks with all of you readers. Because they were sincere. After experiencing the entire conference my comment was, “I realize now how much the rest of the world can learn from you!"
And for those who might be interested, after the first opening reception, I was always surrounded by warm, friendly and engaging EEMA members who made me feel like I was a part of their organization. And, my return trip from Goa to Delhi and then back to the United States was as flawless as my arrival.