How they pulled it off: a Q&A with 2019’s best EA event organisers

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We take a look at some of the best events organised by EAs this year and discover how to create an experience to be remembered.

For years EAs, PAs, and Chiefs of Staff have been planning, managing and executing spectacular events. Christmas parties, board meetings, executive retreats and company-wide conferences are just the tip of the iceberg in an EA’s event portfolio.

This edition’s focus on the event management aspect of the EA role raised a few questions for me. I wanted to understand how EAs manage to balance creating time-consuming, complex and often stressful events—which many consider a full-time job—as only part of their role (our 2018 EA of the Year, Anthony Carthew shares his wisdom on this in his career column).

I had some key questions: What kind of challenges does an EA face when organising an event? What makes a great event come together? Who can an EA rely on to help get the job done?

In order to get answers, I decided to go straight to the source. Or rather, straight to the events and their planners. With the 2019 Executive PA Awards now behind us, I decided to dive into some of the nominations from the Best Organised Event by an EA category, and study how some of the best in the business put together an award-winning event.

Stacking up the numbers

To set the scene for my ‘EA event experience’, I needed to gather some broad-stroke numbers to paint a picture of how often EAs manage events, what type of events are the most common, and why they need to happen.

Every year, Executive PA Media surveys EAs from across the country and compiles the results into the Corporate Event Organiser Survey. Dipping into the survey data, I managed to come up with a fair idea of just how often EAs find themselves creating and organising events.

More than 40 percent of the organisations that EAs work for hold 50 or more meetings and events every year. And how many of these were managed by EAs? A large amount of the respondents (nearly 40 percent) say they manage between six and 15 events a year. 10 percent of EAs organise a staggering 20 events a year.

Fewer than 20 percent of eas have formal event training

So, I’d established that—by and large—EAs are managing multiple events each year. But what type of events? Let’s go back to the data.

Naturally, the more events an EA organises, the wider their variety. Listing out all the specific event types is perhaps best left for the actual report, but we can glean some insight by taking a look at the most popular categories.

80 percent of the survey’s participants said they are responsible for ‘staff incentives’, such as Christmas parties, team-building and incentive travel and 70 percent coordinate ‘governance and administration events’—leadership business like executive retreats, board meetings and shareholder gatherings.

EAs have typically short lead times for their events, somewhere between three and six months, and fewer than 20 percent of the respondents had formal event management training. With EAs just as likely to create an event for 10 people as they are to host 500, I came to the understanding that EAs must be wearing their event organising hats fairly often, or perhaps they’re a permanent piece of attire.

At the end of the survey, the responding EAs were asked their opinion on what their organisations hoped to achieve through these events. Events are nothing without goals, and the answers created a clearer picture of what those might be.

The list was long and varied; team building, rewarding employees, inspiring creativity, training, bringing distant colleagues together. Boiling down the responses as scientific-ally as I could (not that I’m claiming to have a PhD in statistics), I came to a general conclusion. EAs—in their capacity as event managers—are responsible for creating experiences. Experiences that are designed to create an outcome. With this conclusion in mind, it was time to take a look at some of our EAs’ best events of 2019.


‘Good to Great’ conference

Organiser
Nina Hoven, C-suite Executive Assistant, GWA Group

Event type
Conference
Size
400 people
Lead time
Seven Months

How did you plan this event?

Each year we usually hold a 60-person summit for the leadership team, which I always organise myself. For the first time, the executive team decided to have an all-staff conference that focused on bringing people together and going from ‘Good to Great’ as a business.

The event was set to run for three days, which would cover a leadership team summit the first day, an all-staff major event with a dinner at our Sydney showroom on the second, and the third day covered a site tour of our new Sydney warehouse innovation centre, prior to departures to the airport.

We engaged a Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) to assist due to the size of the group and the logistics involved with flights, transfers, and accommodation. I was heavily involved as the key contact for the business and worked with the PCO to organise everything. The PCO focused on the logistics and registration whilst I managed all other areas of the event, such as dinners, tours, promo items and entertainment, as well as cross referencing everything that went past the PCO.

What were the key challenges you faced?

Planning the event involved a lot of work outside business hours because—as you know—an EA has a role at full capacity already and something of this significance requires a lot of concentration, thought and creativity. I found it best done at times when no interruptions were possible, at home in the evenings or even weekends as we got closer to the event.

Also, at the beginning of the event the first delegate list I was provided had incorrect email addresses for staff. So I had to check and update those prior to giving them to the PCO. However, upon receiving the list and inputting into their system, something happened to those email addresses and they were imported incorrectly. This went unnoticed by the PCO until after the first email was sent out to staff and we started to find out that some people didn’t receive it. This meant I had to figure out which staff didn’t get them and resend (a big process when you’re inviting 400 people).

How did you measure the event’s success?

We measured it on several factors. Firstly, did everyone get there on time? Did all the AV, sound and video presentations all work? Was the event as a whole a success? Did it bring people together in a positive way? Did we get positive feedback?

At our debrief after the event, it was clear that we had small issues to iron out for future events, but as this was our first with assistance from a PCO it was a huge success. No one lost luggage, got lost, missed transfers or were confused about where to go at any given time.

We had amazing feedback from delegates and executives, so we were very happy with the results.


2019 ANZ OnePB Kickoff ‘The Future is NOW’

Organiser
Sarah Breheny, Executive Project Manager & Assistant to Managing Director, Pitney Bowes

Event type
Conference
Size
200 people
Lead time 
Four months
Budget
$250,000

How did you plan this event?

The event takes approximately four to six months to plan. I started by meeting with our senior leaders to understand the expectations and objectives for the year and if there’s a theme to adhere to as decided by our global team. From there I sourced the venue and tried to align it with our theme and requirements. This year we wanted to celebrate our successes and align with our theme, ‘The Future is NOW’.

Once the venue was locked in, save-the-dates and event registrations were shared to the business. The data extracted from the online registration ensures all attendees’ accommodation, flights, name tags, seating and overall travel and logistic details were finalised well in advance.

I put together a project team from multiple areas of the business to assist on the day, from marketing and branding, to our MCs and senior leaders to assist with content and other key stakeholders and go-getters that were event savvy individuals.

What were the key challenges you faced?

For the first time we used a new technology to keep the audience engaged and encourage participation. We used Poll Everywhere and set up questions to break up each segment on the agenda so that the audience could text in their responses or questions.

We trialled this for many weeks during rehearsal and everything was perfect; however, on the day (during our Global Executive Panel) we had an influx of questions submitted from the audience and the software wouldn’t upload the questions to the main presentation screen.

We had to act quickly as we had a live panel onstage ready to answer questions, so instead I quickly set up another laptop for the MC to read the questions out live instead of waiting for them to display over the projector. The audience was none the wiser as their questions were still answered promptly even though they weren’t on the big screen.

How did you measure the event’s success?

The success of the event was measured with a company-wide survey. We collate the feedback provided either verbally, via email or from the survey and learn from the results year after year. I report back to the leadership team with the findings, which sets the standard for the following year.

The survey responses were extremely positive and showed that this event continues to impress our staff and exceed their expectations.


Mass Markets H2 Conference

Organiser
Natalie Kennefick Executive Assistant to Vice President, Retail & Mass Sales at Optus

Event type
Conference
Size
160 people
Lead time
Six weeks
Budget
$90,000

How did you plan this event?

I was tasked with bringing together our staff from around Australia, as well as our external partner Retail Safari, for two days of training. I was also responsible for organising the gala dinner celebration at the end of the event.

Coordinating conflicting flights and travel requirements, organising training and coordinating the whole gala dinner from venue sourcing, selection, theming and an awards ceremony all wound up on my to-do list.

I sourced multiple venues to make sure theme ideas matched to each venue. I then presented the options to the managers and once they voted, I proceeded with building a business case to present to our spending panel for approval of funds.

From there I booked the venue, and proceeded to arrange the time, date, theming, entertainment, catering options, transport, flights and accommodation. As well as all of this, I needed to arrange additional decorations, which I set up myself and also packed up the following day.

I made sure interstate travellers were up and on the bus to the training the next day and sent out a post event satisfaction survey to gather feedback.

What were the key challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge was managing the budget. We had an original cost estimation of $100,000 but our spending panel would only allow me $80,000.

I then had to cut costs, which meant I had to take on a lot of the tasks myself as we couldn’t afford for our registration company to do it for us.

I managed to get a $10,000 sponsorship from a business partner to make up the shortfall so we could get to the $90,000 total.

How did you measure the event’s success?

The feedback on the event was the biggest indicator of its success. We had great feedback both on the night, and in the follow up survey. People are still commenting on how good it was and are hoping this year’s event is just as good, if not better.