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Power of the Dream

Getting a clear vision of your objective

by Ravi Tangri

With today’s demand for ROI and impact of meetings and events, there’s a growing need for events to go beyond what they’ve been in the past. Good, even great events aren’t enough – you need memorable experiences that truly touch people. The events industry is evolving to meet this need. As Steven Covey said, “For truly impactful results, we need to start with the end in mind.” Event designers do just that as they focus on crafting the vision that provides the context that guides more logistical event planning.

Some event planners do both design and planning, while others specialize in one or the other. Event designers are not just designers or décor companies. “Event design comes from the philosophy that planning is logistics,” says Avril Madore-Mulholland, designer, owner of Update Events. “To be truly successful, you need the dream first. Then you execute every element to fit that. It just makes the decision process so much easier,” she says.

Once the vision is articulated, you can define what success looks like then apply tangible measures. All of those measurable outcomes then become the guideline for all the decisions that go into shaping that event. Those measures could address attendance, engagement, learning, commitment to the organization and so much more. It’s the vision that tells you what the most important metrics are, which you then use to show the success of the event and where you could improve in the future.

Event designing and event planning, in a broad sense, call on different skill sets. Building the dream is about big-picture thinking, while much of the logistics of event planning is about looking after the myriad details that are required to bring the vision to life. Only very few people can excel in both areas. Teams often have someone who focuses on the event design and the visioning and another person who is very detail oriented who drives the planning. When this happens, there must be a bridge between the two, ensuring that the details support and drive the realization of the dream.

While many event planners do invest the time to craft a vision for the event in their ongoing work, it can take time to build the trust to help the client go beyond the basic event and deliverables for which they asked. Roberta Dexter, president and event producer of Plan Ahead Events in Halifax says, “When I work with one-off clients, it’s really hard. I almost have to give them what they already want to do, give some advice and do some hand holding. They feel they need to control the inputs to get the outputs they want.”

Dexter finds that it can take two or three events delivered to the specifications of the client before they’re willing to step back and try something beyond the norm. One such example is the Red Cross Conference on Disaster Management, which she has now worked with for three years.

The first two years of the conference were very successful. Objectives, including attendance, national and international representation (which reflected the credibility and quality of the conference), financial viability and re-registrations for the next year, were all met. One piece of feedback that arose was while the participants appreciated the content and the speakers at the conference, they also wanted to tap the wealth of knowledge of their fellow attendees and move more of what they learned to action in their respective communities.

That’s when I was brought into the conversation. I had worked with both the Red Cross and Dexter on other events where we used processes such as world café and open space to engage participants and move them to action. We began the conversation with the Red Cross about using a concurrent slot for this work, then Dexter worked with them to clarify their vision of what they wanted, based on the feedback of the participants from past conferences.

As the committee clarified the vision of all the participants engaged in applying what they had learned from the speakers at the conference and tapping the wisdom in the group as a whole, it soon became clear that one concurrent session would not deliver those results. Instead, a full day was cleared following the opening keynote and a customized process created for the participants to take all that they had learned from the rest of the conference, tap into the experience in the room and move to action. In fact, the plan went beyond the conference itself to create video and written reports of the day and a workbook for applying what they put together.

The feedback from participants on their opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge in the room and to apply what they had learned was overwhelmingly positive. This was only possible because Dexter helped the committee clarify their vision and make the decisions that allowed them to generate those results.
Simply put, “Your purpose is ROI,” says Dexter. “They’re investing time, energy, resources, staff. What’s the return for them?” The shared vision expanded the measurable outcomes and helped attain them.

It did, however, take a couple of conferences for the committee to step back and trust Dexter. Interestingly, she found the same in her previous career as an event planner working inside an organization. Even though her boss was an “out-of-the-box” thinker, it took a few successful events and the trust built from that before she could go from running good, even great events to truly memorable ones with far greater impact.

The magic of a compelling vision is that it engages people emotionally. The fact is that in all our buying decisions (whether we are buying products, services or ideas), we buy in emotionally then rationalize our decision with facts and information. This is true of events, where you have to engage others, even whole communities, in making them work.

A powerful dream doesn’t just enhance meetings and conferences – the same holds true for events, particularly when you have to involve multiple stakeholders. In Halifax, an event recently evolved that transforms the city and engages all of downtown Halifax, filling the streets with thousands of attendees. A few years ago, a small group of people had a vision of celebrating art in a completely new way. Other cities, such as Toronto, have held events called Nuit Blanche – a celebration of art one night each year, all night long. These events are hugely successful and most have staffs and significant budgets. Laura Carmichael, Rose Zack and their small team of volunteers wanted to do something similar with no staff and no budget.

This team built their vision. They wanted to have a transformative effect on the city, allowing people to see the city and art differently. Halifax has one of the oldest art schools, and they wanted to highlight that as well as local artists and make all of that work more accessible to Haligonians.

Coincidentally, the Halifax Regional Municipality had recently built a cultural plan, and this event fit into that. The team contacted museums and galleries and convinced them to waive their admission fees. The one-on-one conversations they held and the meetings with community groups allowed them to connect with their vision, and with the metrics that came out of the vision, such as the accessibility of art and the economic impact of the event. And so, Nocturne was born.

“We really asked for a leap of faith at first,” says Rose Zack, current chair of Nocturne. “We asked people to use their windows for performance space. We asked coffee shops to open late. We wanted people to see that coming to the core was a safe thing to do,” says Zack.

For the first year, they thought 1,000 people would be a huge success. They were amazed at the transformation of downtown Halifax and that 4,000 people attended. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia recorded the highest one-day attendance in its entire history. From the first year, it grew to 9,000 in year two, then to 14,000, then 25,000 with 100 exhibits across the city in 2012. There are now five similar events in the region.

While they sold the vision of the event, they also conducted everything professionally as if they were staff and not just volunteering. There were sponsor and artist agreements that detailed accountability on all fronts, and all these measures were shaped in the context of the overall vision. After each event, there is a board review breaking down all the details of what worked and what didn’t.

With this success, things are both easier and more challenging. In the beginning, they had to write proposals for Metro Transit to deliver specific services. Now, Metro Transit simply gives Nocturne whatever’s required. It’s easier to bring merchants and venues on-board with a proven event.

This growth has also brought the need for a new vision. The event has grown beyond what just a team of volunteers can manage, and Zack is leading a strategic planning process to build a new vision and plan for the next evolution of Nocturne, bringing on staff and infrastructure to support its growth. That growth is not necessarily to make the event bigger, but better and more refined.

It is possible to create a great event by simply planning from a formula that has worked historically. However, as so many in history have shown, the power of a dream and a clear vision can help you transcend the formula. Avril Madore-Mulholland sums it up perfectly: “With great planning, you create an event. With great vision and design, you create an experience.”

Ravi Tangri, CSP, is an consultant, facilitator and author with expertise in co-creative leadership. He was the 2011 CAPS?National President. Ravi@NavigateChange.Net

Appeared in Speaking of IMPACT, Spring 2013 Edition

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