CMP Series

How Corporate Event Marketing Makes Meetings Better

In an exclusive  roundtable, four corporate event marketing professionals talk about what they do, how it's different from meeting planning — and what every meeting professional can learn from it.


Sara Leeder originally worked in third-party event management. Wendy Baker’s first job was with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Patricia Garner has been with her company for more than 17 years, but started out in sales. And Liz Lathan, CMP, leveraged a journalism degree into a position in marketing communications.

None of the members of the Corporate Event Marketing Association (CEMA) who participated in our roundtable conversation about their profession jumped right into the field. But at some point they were all driven by a desire to be a part of something bigger. Not just events, and not just marketing. Event marketing. A seat at the table. A hand on the wheel. Creating live programs that are an integral part of their company’s mission — its brand, its culture, its sales goals.

“We’re charged with demand-generation tactics and collaboration with the rest of the marketing teams and sales teams,” said Lathan, director of event marketing for Dell and president of the CEMA Board of Directors, “and then on the strategic front, consulting on the right presence that the company should have at a particular show, and sometimes even recommending shows for consideration if the business isn’t aware of them and we may have heard about them from an event side.”

Sound like a big job? It is. And Lathan and three of her colleagues had plenty to say about it — including a number of takeaways that can be applied to every meeting and event.

What exactly is corporate event marketing?

Wendy Baker
Wendy Baker

WENDY BAKER: I would define it as marketing through industry, proprietary, and thought-leadership events. Our goal is to provide opportunities for our sales teams and executives to connect with our customers and partners and then, in turn, provide the best possible event experience for our customer and partners.

LIZ LATHAN: Part of corporate event marketing is, of course, the tactics of meeting planning and logistics execution on the full portfolio of marketing tactics that happen to be face-to-face. It ranges from executive programs to trade-show booths to branded events like road shows and user conferences. But in addition to just the execution, we’re charged with demand-generation tactics and collaboration with the rest of the marketing teams and sales teams, and then on the strategic front, consulting on the right presence that the company should have at a particular show, and sometimes even recommending shows for consideration if the business isn’t aware of them and we may have heard about them from an event side.

What is the scope of your job?

SARA LEEDER: I oversee any of our large corporate sales events that take place. So that is, for instance, our annual sales meeting, partner meetings, anything on that end.

Liz Lathan
Liz Lathan

LL: I lead the third-party event team, so we manage all of Dell’s programs at our third-party trade-show events, the industry events, and the like. But then I also manage Dell World, which is our global user conference, about six-thousand attendees so far, and that has a number of ancillary activities, an executive piece, advisory councils, etc. I also have a finance team that works in coordination with all of the business units and our internal marketing teams in trying to help find savings and leverage cost efficiencies while executing all of these events. I have a colleague that manages our executive programs and our conference programs, and then another that manages our content — from our large events we create content kits that can be used globally for all of the smaller-event execution — and then I have colleagues in Europe and Asia. Amongst us all, we’re executing our 750 to 1,000 events.

PATRICIA GARNER: I’m part of the marketing organization. My team has responsibility for global events, which are the UC [Users Conference] we have in San Francisco in March or April. We have a media UC event in fall, and that moves around Europe. And then we have a global technical event that would stand alone at the end of November that’s now being merged in with the UC, and that’s going to change effective 2015. My team also has responsibility for the sales-kick-off meeting and a couple other internal events. And then the events people in our theaters — we have four theaters around the world that have dotted-line responsibility to me to maintain consistency in our other events around the world; so, trade shows, regional seminars that we conduct, any kind of presence we have out there in marketing.

WB: I work in event marketing communications, and our team came from the fact that there were so many events going on and the marcoms [marketing and communications professionals] that would support launches and campaigns and other things were then tasked with also working on all these events. My team kind of formed from there, just because of a need. I was in marcom.

The goal is to create the customer journey and then, in turn, create the marketing-communication plan for the event.

That’s how I fell in love with events. It’s really nice to have a beginning and an end, and I think it’s just fun and it’s exciting and there’s a lot of buildup. There’s a lot of constant learning. Event-marketing communications, we pair up with what would be Liz’s team, so there are program managers that manage the events and do a lot of the more planning side of the booth itself and the logistics around the event. My team, we create the event strategy to find the target audience. The goal is to create the customer journey and then, in turn, create the marketing-communication plan for the event. That’s both internal and external. We work very closely with the event-marketing program managers, we work with the business units, we work with the executive teams — kind of all hands on deck in providing communications externally to our customers and partners around the event that we’re doing there as well as providing communications to our field, so they’re very well aware of, we’re going to be at this event, this is what we’re doing here, here are all of the customer and partner opportunities for you.

How did you end up working in corporate event marketing?

PG: I did not take a traditional path at all. I started working for OSIsoft 17-and-a-half years ago in sales, in a territory in the western U.S. And then I went from sales to OEMs [original equipment manufacturer relationships] and strategic alliances. Then I was responsible for a team called channel sales, and in conjunction with that responsibility, I got involved with our events, because we had partners participating [in the events] and I didn’t think we handled them very well.

I was part of the team working on an event in 2007, and had gotten very much engaged and started to do more [in terms of] defining what the partner expo was going to be like and how long it was going to last and making some changes in how the booths were put together. The VP of marketing resigned during the event, and I ended up being the senior employee on the team. A lot of very creative, very good young people who were responsible for it needed somebody to answer questions, so I got much more involved in that event — kind of under fire.

Patricia Garner
Patricia Garner

Right after that event, we had one happening in Europe and I had a very good working relationship with the general manager for Europe. At that time our European office was not wholly owned by OSIsoft, so their participation in the users conference — they had a lot of discussion. We didn’t control it, so they had to want us to do it. [OSIsoft was] very concerned about doing a UC without a VP of marketing managing it, so they agreed that if I would take responsibility for it — since they already worked with me with OEMs, and I had a reputation with them — that they would go forward with the event. So I was very involved in [an event] we had in Amsterdam. While that one was going on, we got a new VP, and he said, “Look, I have a lot on my plate, how about if you continue doing this, and then once that’s over we’ll go back to a more normal relationship.”

[Later] I went to a meeting where our president and VP of marketing told me and others from my channel sales team that they weren’t going to have a partner expo the following year, so I said, “Well then, there’s no reason for us to be here,” and they said, “No, you’re wrong. You’re staying part of this team.” Not what I expected to do, but I personally feel that our Users Conference, like I said, is the biggest marketing event we do. Our customers are our best marketing, and at our conference they share with other customers all the different things they’re doing, and that definitely impacts our sales hugely. So I felt like that was a really important place to contribute and also a lot of fun. But I’m not a traditional event person by any means.

WB: I went to school at Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University] and have a degree in marketing, and just wasn’t ready to move back to the Bay Area, so I moved to San Diego with some friends and ended up working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which really heavily recruits college grads. There was an opportunity to work in the corporate events division at the corporate office in San Diego. I got that job and helped them manage all of their corporate accounts and also got my first flavor of mini trade shows and things like that.

I kind of hit a ceiling there and looked for another job. Knowing tech is a great place to be, I applied for a job to be a trade-show coordinator at a tech company — it was actually a service-provider company in San Diego called K-Soft — and started there. It was exciting, fun, because it was still more of a startup, and then four months later, Cisco bought us. So, right place, right time. I started doing marketing communications and low-end switching, because that was the business that Cisco bought from K-Soft. And then just immediately, I really latched onto, as much as I could, learning at Cisco, taking advantage of all of their opportunities for their training on site. I spent my first year living in a hotel two weeks a month. And eventually I moved into the career I’m in now in marketing communications for events, and I’ve been with Cisco about 12 years now.

Sara Leeder
Sara Leeder

SL: I was working for the third-party side, for an event-management company, working on their sales meeting and customer meetings. My goal was always to work towards the client side, and an opportunity opened up here at Autodesk to manage their sales events. I ran their annual sales-kickoff meeting for six years, and then two years ago I was promoted to manage all the sales events. The attraction [of a position in corporate event marketing] is you’re working closely with the executives and the management on their goals and objectives, and really trying to work closely on designing the programs.

LL: I was a journalism major at Texas A&M, and when I graduated I had the opportunity to move to either Hunts-ville, Ala., and work for a museum, or Austin, Texas, and work for a tech company. Although I was just in love with the museum — it was the Space & Rocket Center in Hunts-ville — high-tech is the place to be, so I picked the Austin route. I was at a tech company here in Austin for a couple of years, and that’s where I started in corporate events. I was actually doing international marcom and media relations for that company. The way they worked is, they brought in people from all over the marketing organization to help with their user conference, so I got charged with managing their registration process and their sales enable-ment to drive registrations. I was 23 years old and thrown into that one.

When I left that company I went to associations, and was in the association world for about five, almost six years, managing education programs, annual conference, more on the convention-management side. Then I had the opportunity to come to Dell and work in the Executive Briefing Center about eight years ago. I was with the Executive Briefing Center for a year, and managed day-to-day briefings with customers as well as operations and ops reviews and metrics, and when our operations person for the event team moved into a new role, they pointed to me and said, “Hey, she knows how to pull the reports.” So I ended up on the broader events team, managing operations for the team, and picked up some trade shows here and there, and eventually ended up managing a larger portion of the team. And I tell everyone it’s probably the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve never been happier.

What do you like best about your job?

WB: There’s never a dull moment. It’s always changing. Right now, I’m focused on data-center events — not just data-center third-party events but, for instance, for our proprietary show, Cisco Live, I’m focused on our data-center presence and what we’re doing there at Cisco Live. I really like the people I work with; it’s nice now working with the same group of people, so I’m able to learn more on the technology side and the business side versus knowing the communications side.

LL: I think Wendy’s right. It’s because most of our projects actually have a finite beginning and end. It begins when someone has the great idea, and it ends after you’ve done your post mortem and your wrap-ups, and you’re onto the next one. While there maybe multiple projects going on at the same time, it’s not like when you’re in the marcom world and you’ve got campaigns going for years and years and you just feel like it’ s never going to end.

PG: I like that I can create an environment where our customers have a great experience and learn about us and we increase our business every year based on what’s happening. I think I work for a great company, and I like that I’m responsible for helping people know that, because we’re like one of those best-kept-secret kind of companies out there. Our Users Conference gets a lot of positive exposure for us — customers really feel like “I underestimated you,” or “Your conference really opened my eyes. I now see what you can do.” That says a lot about us creating an environment where they can find that out.

SL: I really enjoy the sales events and supporting them. It’s always changing, so even if you’re doing the same event year after year, it’s not the same event. There’s new technology out there, new ways of doing things, and you’re always pushing to raise the bar from the previous year.

How is corporate event marketing different from other forms or meeting planning or event management?

PG: I have contractors who work for me who are event planners, and their focus is, how do I set the room up right, how do I feed you on time, how do I move people through the event so they’re not unhappy? But as a corporate event marketer, mine is, how am I helping you? How am I setting an environment so that you have an opportunity to understand what my company and my product can offer you, and how am I creating opportunities for me to understand, no matter what I think my product does, what’s it doing for you? How do you feel it’s working? And creating an environment for those interactions where I hear customers tell another customer how they’re using something or where they got values that they didn’t expect to. I think that’s how I differ from a regular event planner who is just looking to control their budget and work well in the facility and leverage what they have.

SL: Corporate event marketing, how I’ve seen it is, you’re looking at the big picture on all of the events. You’re not looking at each event as a stand-alone event. On the sales side for the events here, you’re looking at it as the event architecture, the brand audience measurement, event strategy — all as a whole, and making sure that for our sales force, for their goals and objectives for the year, that your goals and objectives for the sales events are aligning towards that.

Corporate event marketing, how I’ve seen it is, you’re looking at the big picture on all of the events.

LL: For us at Dell, it’s the scale, because I’ve been on the association side, the government side, and then high-tech, and we just do such a high volume of events, it’s being able to manage what our internal teams do versus what agencies need to do. That’s probably the biggest difference for me, managing through that, as well as the breadth of stakeholders. There are so many more people that are very type A and very much have an opinion.

And then the speed — there are definitely finite dates, and generally those dates aren’t going to move, but the speed at which your core messaging and your execution deadlines can accelerate. We may have an event on the horizon for December, we’re all planning for it, but then someone comes up with an idea to throw a new event in August. So while you had that December date, you’ve now got a new one in there to manage as well. And that kind of stuff didn’t happen on the much longer planning timeline that I was used to before.

WB: It’s really challenging when you’re having multiple things going on at the same time, but it’s also exciting. When you have an event you’re planning for, this is your plan, everyone’s agreed upon the plan, and you’re going towards it, you’re getting there, you’re gaining momentum — and then someone comes in sideways and says, “I need to spend this money. And this is what we need to do.” Or, “We have this great opportunity, this partner really wants to do this now, make it happen.” And all eyes are on you and you have to make it happen and it’s a very high-profile event, because you’re launching something really big there and nothing can go wrong.

We have so many stakeholders. We know what the right thing to do is, but you have people coming in sideways to you all the time and trying to kind of play their direction. There are all those layers.

Given the huge scope of events you work on, how do you make sure each one is meeting your company’s specific goals for it?

SL: It’s really sitting down with the client, the executive owner, and talking about what their primary goals of the event are, and making sure that you’re tailoring your sales event goals to that. For the sales events, our overarching goal is to motivate, engage, inform, and align the sales team and partners in order to prepare them to drive results in the fiscal year.

WB: You just bring everyone to the table and then you define your event objectives, your goals, what your customer journey wants to be like, and get everyone on board. We call that an experience design workshop, and we do that for every event. We get everybody on the same page, we bring them all in early. What you don’t ever want is someone a month later, where you’re starting into execution [to] say, “I never had a voice, and we need to do this.”

You just bring everyone to the table and then you define your event objectives, your goals, what your customer journey wants to be like, and get everyone on board.

Once we finish our events, we do the post mortem where we go through all of our results or our metrics. We go year-over-year. We try to do apples-to-apples every year. We also ask all the team members when we’re going through all the results what can we improve on and what works, so we take that into consideration for the following year. We do very detailed overviews on the demographics. We look at the audits that the show producers do themselves or if we do our own.

And we connect with our peers, too. Through CEMA, it’s been a great place to get information from your peers. As much as I think high-tech is a huge industry, it ends up being really small and you learn from your peers. And it’s a great place to share information.

LL: It comes down to the very basics of it. Anyone that’s gone through the CMP study course is familiar with it, where it’s truly defining objectives. You have to go in and understand, are you there for relationship building and you really don’t expect anything else out of it immediately, because it’s more of a six-mo nth or one-year sales cycle and you’re just taking some guys to play golf to build that? Or is it a demand-generation event, where you expect to come out with leads that are ready to be nurtured or ready to be followed up on that are going to directly drive pipeline and revenue?

Once we know going in that, oh, this is just a brand-awareness event and we’re going to collect leads, but we’re not expecting huge pipeline out of it — it helps us set the expectations on our executive team when they come back to us post-event and say, “Why didn’t you get any leads?” Once you can have that expectation-setting conversation, then it makes it a whole lot easier in the end-of-quarter ops review when people start looking at the list of events and saying, “Wait, those are completely ineffective.” I know, so let’s look at why we were there and we can tell you exactly what was effective.

How is technology changing how you approach your job?

LL: Well, clearly, we can do way cooler things for way cheaper now. If I wanted to have a hologram of myself across all four regions, I could. It makes it a lot more fun. And when we get to go see our other friends’ events and get to see what kind of cool things they’re implementing, we can take those ideas back, especially from events that are outside of our industry. Getting to experience things that are more on the consumer side or that might not necessarily fit into what we’re used to doing at a business-to-business event, and being able to carry that back and through technology being able to share it around the world without having to have people come face-to-face necessarily — that’s been a huge step.

PG: Technology has hugely changed events. We constantly have to be aware of what the market expects. Things like, we’re a paperless event now. You know, first people were fighting that, now they sort of demand it. We have print stations throughout, so if somebody is not happy with the fact that we’re a paperless environment, they have an easy way to print out what they want.

It’s a new thing all the time. People at events are pretty demanding. They’re hungry for data and information and what I want to see right now. It’s interesting, being able to deliver the content after the event. It used to be you’d get something in 30 or 60 days, now they want it in five or 10 minutes. There are lots of different things you try and balance — delivering what people want, but making sure you maintain the value of the content and you just don’t dump everything on everybody with no ability to leverage what you’ve created.

WB: Social media is so huge. It’s not going away, it’s just continuously evolving. It’s still slightly overwhelming because there are so many great tools, but I think we’re doing a good job. The opportunities are endless with social media, because you’re able to connect so quickly — almost you blink and you miss what was said. That’s been really exciting, and that’s something that keeps everybody on their toes.

But even just technology in general, there’s so much that we do with video now. We’ve really pushed being green, too, at our events. I try to tell everybody: no paper. You can’t have any paper at the event, sorry. Give them a link. Why don’t you take their email address down and email them what you need, instead of printing out 50 white papers that are all 20 pages long? And using digital signage instead of having printed things everywhere.

Does social media also present a challenge in terms of giving over some control of the event experience to your attendees?

WB: Yes, it’s very challenging. For me personally, the way to start for social media and the way I’ve been able to be involved is starting personally and then taking it to your professional life. We do have social-media teams that are focused on campaigns or different technologies, and we work very closely with them, but the way I think about it is, do less better rather than trying to do everything. It’s infinite what you can do with social media, but you want to do it well, so I try to just do little things and promotions with social media at our events.

LL: Dell has a pretty impressive social-media scope. We have what we call SMaC U — Social Media and Communities University — and it’s available for all Dell employees and teams that are embedded within Dell as well to understand what Dell’s policies are, what Dell’s voice is, and how to communicate with our customers directly. When it comes to events, understanding the basics of the social-media tool or tools that you’ve chosen for yourself, whether it’s Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or whatever — [it’s all about] being able to be consistent in your message. So whenever we’re working on an event, we’ll create the key editorial calendar for social-media releases that we’ll distribute to everyone that has a Dell-related social-media account or anyone who has been identified as a personal influencer through social media, so that they know what our schedule is. And if the message stays consistent through retweets, reposts, whatever, then you see that it picks up and spreads very, very rapidly through your constituents and anyone that’s listening or viewing the social media. It’s when you don’t say much that people take the voice into their own hands, and that’s when you can run into trouble.

What’s the single largest event you work on?

LL: Dell World is kind of a little baby; it’s still a toddler. We just finished our third year of Dell World [this past December], and I was fortunate enough to be on the team to launch it three years ago. We started as a small, executive-focused event for about 1,500 people here in Austin. And [founder and CEO] Michael [Dell] stood on stage that year and said, “Thanks for coming to Dell World. Next year, we’ll be three times as big!” Oh, really? Okay. [Laughs.] So we called the [Austin] Convention Center and said, “Hey, can we get the whole convention center next year?” And that’s kind of how it grew really hugely year over year. We really expanded the second year and got to about six-thousand attendees. We’ve been on a path to try to keep it at around that six-thousand-person mark until 2015, when we’ll get a lot more infrastructure at JW Marriot [Austin] and a number of thousand-room hotels coming into town. Right now, it’s kind of that manager/executive level, but we’re moving into adding user-conference type attendees as well as the folks that are using Dell software and Dell products that are more administrator level.

PG: [OSIsoft’s Users Conference has] been at the Hilton San Francisco since we were there in 2006 and then we returned in 2008, and we’ve been there since. This year we’re looking to have 2,500 people; we’re growing every year. The primary mission is to share with our customers what we’re doing with our products and where we’re going forward, and get from our customers how they’re using their products, what value they’re getting, what new they need, and give them a chance to have a much closer relationship with us. People walk up to our CEO and founder, they talk to our president, they meet every one of our VPs; and anyone attending that conference has that kind of access.

People walk up to our CEO and founder, they talk to our president, they meet every one of our VPs.

We’re kind of unique in that our product is not industry-specific; customers get value out of hearing what other people do in other industries, and that’s not typically true. A lot of our customers are in the process-control arena, and they go to mining events if they’re in mining, they go to power events if they’re in power, and they hear what their peers are doing, but they don’t necessarily understand how other businesses are getting value across their business. One of the things they like about our conference is they can meet with their peers in the same industry, but they also get ideas from people outside the industry and new ways of looking at doing things that they’re not exposed to in other events.

SL: It’s our annual sales kickoff, and it’s for 2,600 attendees. It includes our worldwide sales force as well as our partners, because a good part of our sales process is through our partners. It’s called One Team Conference. It’s in Vegas, and we have 50 percent coming from the Americas, 25 percent coming from EMEA, which is Europe, Middle East, and Africa, and 25 percent coming from APAC [Asia Pacific]. Our fiscal year just started on Feb. 1, so we try to have the sales conference as soon as possible after earnings have been released. Our goal is to motivate, engage, inform, and align the sales team and partners in order to prepare them to drive results in the new fiscal year. And in order to do that, we have our general sessions, we have our breakout sessions, and just making sure that the right messages are being told to the sales team. It’s a motivational conference.

WB: I’ve had the opportunity to work on a couple of mega events. One I had worked on a few years ago was called Shanghai Expo — what was the old world’s fair. It’s held in a different city every three years, and the lifespan of the event is six months long. So you’re planning several years in advance for it, and it was the first time that Cisco had participated in this type of event. We created a building, and it was for many uses. We had demonstrations in there, we had several meeting rooms, we had training, we had a reception area, we had really cool interactive videos. We did a lot of things on our telepresence, where you’re able to talk to people from different countries.

This lasted for six months long, every day, people coming in. We had meetings with government officials, with our customers, with partners. [Cisco Chairman and CEO] John Chambers came out for a few days. It was the biggest event that I’ve seen and participated in. Trying to do it on that large of a scale and to have that lifespan of six months, so that it’s living, open seven days a week, and the staff to support it, and with all the different languages spoken and the different laws in the country and business is conducted differently — it was very challenging, but it was probably the most exciting event I’ve ever worked on. Those are the type of events that I’m attracted to, something that puts me out of my comfort zone and something I can really learn only by having that experience.

What are some lessons or takeaways that any meeting or event professional could apply from corporate event marketing?

SL: The key lesson I would say is, you’re looking at that big picture. You’re not just looking at the logistics for the day or the food-and-beverage or AV for that day or for that meeting. You’re looking at the overall big-picture event architecture, on how this event as well as other events can deliver the results that your sales VP needs for the year.

PG: For any planning at all, the earlier you start, the better. [Laughs.] I think really defining a theme and a message that you’re trying to deliver, and letting that message permeate everything you’re doing — that makes a better event for people, and they feel like they’re part of something important happening. They want to understand what you want to communicate, and the easier you make that happen, the better.

And I think in events, people don’t want gimmicks and tokens and things; they want things that have meaning. So even giveaways should have meaning. They should be tied to what you’re doing, they should make sense. Everybody likes to get something when they sign up for a conference, but I think they’d rather have something that meant something to the conference or tied to it or was part of your theme rather than a bag full of things you’ll leave in the hotel room when you walk away.

LL: Being connected with your peers and having conversations outside of your own organization is vital. We have a tendency to be navel gazers. You have to get out of your own bubble and see what else is out there, learn, share, connect. That’s the only way you’re going to innovate and move forward. Obviously we do it in high-tech because we’re always doing it with our products, to get out in front of everything. I think the events have to take the exact same approach, not necessarily to be leading-edge, but you want to keep changing things so that the attendees are going to be interested in coming back not just for what your company is doing next but to experience something that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.

WB: Listen and connect with your partners and your customers. I think sometimes, to Liz’s point, it’s good to get outside of your company and network with your peers and outside of your industry, but I think we always have to remember to listen to our customers. What do our customers want to see? What are they interested in? What solutions? Instead of, this is what we think.

Stick to your goals. There’s a reason why you have them, there’s a reason why everybody agreed upon them, so stick to those.

I’d also say just little things. Stick to your goals. There’s a reason why you have them, there’s a reason why everybody agreed upon them, so stick to those. And also, be innovative. Don’t be afraid to take risks and try something new, because it’s the only way you’ll learn and get ahead.

LL: And internally you have to find the right audience to be able to handle those risks, because we as event planners are probably much more open to trying something big and crazy on a big stage, because we trust our suppliers and our vendors. But we know that our internal stakeholders don’t hold that level of trust necessarily. So to have that small test bed, that sandbox to play with something truly innovative, to then take it forward to large events — that’s super-vital. .

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Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.