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The 'Unconference': GPJ's Richard Toscano Looks at the Radical Transformation in Events

The 'Unconference': GPJ's Richard Toscano Looks at the Radical Transformation in Events

Experiential expert Richard Toscano looks at trends driving event development in today's marketplace

The expectation of what special events should deliver is going through a period of “radical transformation,” says Richard Toscano, senior director of special events for experiential agency George P. Johnson. From his base in San Francisco, Toscano collaborates with global brands to create corporate special events that drive engagement and build brand affinity, from private concerts for more than 50,000 attendees to intimate VIP meetings for C-level executives.

Though he has been planning events since college, Toscano says things have changed markedly in the last 10 years.

“The effect of technology on everything we do now has really upped the level of sophistication of special events,” he says. “From event promotion to the experience itself, technology is making special events richer and more personal, while also bringing people together. I'm thinking about things like being able to solicit attendees' personal photos and comments in real-time at an event, to having an audience interact with an entertainer on stage — just amazing.”

But the tidal wave of technology has brought obstacles as well.

“The flip side of technology is that the ‘always on’ nature of this medium means contending with the threat of attendee distraction and a significantly increased pace of events,” Toscano says. “More content — especially audience-created content — requires more flexibility and adaptability in planning and execution.”

One thing that hasn't changed about events, he says, is the unrelenting demand from clients for the next new thing.

“My marketing clients expect unexpected designs, themes and experiences that will not only entertain but also create the opportunity to move the business forward,” Toscano says. “So a big focus for my team is to be constantly out there in culture, art, fashion, technology, entertainment and other areas, so that we are always in a position to bring fresh ideas to clients.”

To meet new demands, event professionals will need a new range of skills. And the most important attribute?

“Without a doubt, it's talent — creative talent, technical talent, people who are comfortable in multiple cultures and are more marketing-oriented,” Toscano says. “Event marketers used to be totally execution-focused, but today, that's no longer the rule.”

He adds, “I think the overall approach to success in the industry now has to be a balancing act between strategically understanding how brands operate and where events fall within an integrated marketing mix, and then the need to develop proficiencies on the execution side as well, on everything ranging from what we call ‘experience design’ to venue and vendor management, entertainment and other ‘traditional’ event activities.”

He urges event professionals to remember that small details make up the big picture. “The industry is being led by big thinkers and brand people who also understand execution is in the details,” he says, “and that it's the small things done well over and over again that set the stage for real brand relationships based on trust to develop.”

George P. Johnson Experience Marketing


    “If I had to say what I spend most of my time on, it's sitting down with clients and brainstorming ways to surprise and delight their customers, partners and other groups in their community.”


    “The big thing going on in event marketing is a move away from pure tactical execution or event management to a ‘storytelling’ and content-driven, marketing mind-set, and using experiences to influence purchase behavior and affinity.”


    “My parents instilled in me the value of hard work and sticking to your creative vision. But on top of that, it would have to be my exposure to the art and design community. Art, theater, design — these things challenge our assumptions, help us ask better questions, and broaden our understanding of the human experience. This is critical to my ability to evoke an emotional experience through the environments my team and I create.”

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